Saturday, September 27, 2008

This One's Tough to Take

I woke up early this morning, quickly showered, and was out the door by about 8:00 to run some errands and then go work on the set for the play at school. As I was standing on the stage getting painting stations set up for the kids to work on a variety of projects, my cell phone rang. It was my friend George.

"Paul Newman died," was the first thing he said to me. I immediately collapsed onto a bench nearby, speechless and trying not to cry.

Paul Newman was perhaps my first favorite actor that wasn't animated or the star of a kids' movie from the early 70s. (Dick Van Dyke, I'm looking at you.) Paul Newman's movies were probably the first grown-up movies I can remember watching that weren't musicals. I can remember BEGGING my parents to let me stay up to watch the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, even though my father warned me I wouldn't like the end. (He was right. My seven-year-old self didn't see the perfection that is the ending of that movie. I just didn't get it or understand what was happening) I can remember watching The Sting for the first time and literally gasping aloud at the end, my dad, who had seen the movie many times already, laughing heartily at my surprise. I think that movie is what inspired my love for a good caper film -- the more twists and turns, the better.

Paul Newman was sort of a God in my house. He was the sort of rugged but real movie hero that my dad liked, and he was my mom's George Clooney -- that sort of "perfect" specimen of manliness and sex appeal. As I got older and became more and more interested in theatre, I began to see Newman as one of those "perfect" actors -- rarely a false note, always steeped in reality and humanity. He seemed to get even better as he aged. Look at those films from the latter half of his career -- Absence of Malice, The Verdict, The Color of Money, Road to Perdition. Newman is captivating to watch because of how genuine he always seems.

Paul Newman wasn't just a model to which actors should aspire; he was a model to which all people should aspire. His contributions to charity are legendary -- from his creation of The Hole in the Wall Gang camps which serves children with serious illnesses to the founding of his Newman's Own food products where profits go to charity. He and his wife Joanne Woodward eschewed life in the Hollywood fast lane in favor of the small Connecticut town of Westport, a quiet place to raise their children and a town which benefited from their presence. The Newmans helped build a new library, opened their home for charitable events, and helped save and restore the Westport Country Playhouse, a legendary theatre that had fallen into disrepair by the start of the 21st Century, despite having once been the host of the world premieres of plays such as Come Back Little Sheba and The Trip to Bountiful. A year or so ago, I saw an episode of Iconoclasts with Newman and Robert Redford where Newman took Redford through the theatre and spoke of its history and future with such love and passion. It was inspiring to see this man's love for theatre still burning so brightly after so many years in the profession.

It's always hard to lose a legend like Newman, but it's doubly hard when it's someone so decent and full of passion and integrity. We've lost a great one, and Hollywood will never be the same.


Danielle Mari said...

Well said, Mel. I couldn't believe it when I woke up to the news on NPR this morning. I felt certain I'd heard it wrong.

Jen said...

I have to confess I'm more familiar with Paul Newman the philanthropist than Paul Newman the actor (symptom of nose constantly stuck in books), but I feel the loss of someone who did so much for others and made giving back so very cool. I hope the good work he has done lives on.