Paul Newman’s best-known roles were like photographic negatives to his true, almost-supernatural talent, offering insightful — if not fleeting — glimpses to the man within. As if usurping and upending Plato’s allegory of the Cave, he cast celluloid shadows of himself that were poignant representations of the intensely private person that lay within the physical manifestation of the second coming of the Greek god Adonis. Because in rare — you can count them on one hand — instances in cinematic history have physical beauty, preternatural talent, intellect and moral conscience combined so transcendently. He did his finest work in four films: as ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson in the pool-hall retelling of the Hubris myth, The Hustler; as the deliciously self-obsessed and unrepentantly callous Hud Bannon in the eponymous Western Hud; and as America’s greatest extrapolation on the postwar Ionesco-type existential antihero in Stuart Rosenberg’s incredible Cool Hand Luke. And yes, he was one part of the greatest buddy movie/love triangle of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Whereas each of the men he is best known for playing is, to varying degrees, morally ambiguous; in his real life, Newman excelled — in all areas of morality. As a husband (he was married for over half a century to Joanne Woodward), he was unerringly faithful and loving. As a moralist and political activist, he was at one time placed 19th on Richard Nixon’s list of enemies for his outspoken opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
"Whereas each of the men he is best known for playing is, to varying degrees, morally ambiguous; in his real life, Newman excelled — in all areas of morality."
But it was Newman’s philanthropic ventures that inspired us the most. The man who donated USD10 million in 2007 to his alma mater (Kenyon College, Ohio) and co-founded the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy led the way by turning his own saint-like benevolence up to 11 when Newman’s Own, the food brand he co-founded in 1982, unexpectedly became a success. To date, over USD300 million of its profits have gone to various charities.
Not only did Newman make altruism cool by building a retreat for terminally and seriously ill children, but he also had the humor to name it the ‘Hole in the Wall Gang Camp’, after the hideout in the masterpiece Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The memoir he co-wrote on the camps and the Newman’s Own venture also had a title that crackled with warm, dry and beautifully evocative wit: Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good. It was his canon and he was its Saint.
Throughout his career as one of America’s greatest screen idols — he was a pioneer graduate of Lee Strasberg’s school of method acting, but he neither flamed out, lived hard, died young and left a good-looking corpse — like James Dean — nor gave himself over to saturnine, primordial appetites like Marlon Brando. Neither did he steal another man’s wife like Steve McQueen. He was, to a fault, understated and humble, almost as if he had wrenched apart, from his Freudian ‘id’, one side of himself to revel unchained upon the screen while his earthbound form was presided over by his hyper-moral ‘super-ego’. Indeed, beyond acting, the only sign of Newman’s aggressive nature was expressed in his one other passion... auto racing.