His death at age 83 following a long battle with cancer was described as just as private and discreet like the way he had lived — surrounded by family and friends at his farmhouse home near Westport, Conn. I had the opportunity to interview him for the cover of the old Los Angeles Times magazine during that most elegant of moments when every Oscar contender is bound equally by hope. Back then seven times a contender, never a champion, Paul Newman was still waiting for his Best Actor Oscar. That year, he was being judged not only for his nominated role as “Gramps” Fast Eddie Felson in 1986’s The Color of Money but also for four decades of playing anti-heroes. He thought his moment had come and gone when he was earlier awarded an honorary Oscar recognizing his personal integrity and dedication to his craft. He told me it was “for people who are already up to their knees in weeds. But at least I was working at the time on The Color of Money, so I knew something that they didn’t know: that the pasture was quite a bit in front of me.”
Newman lamented the passing of “the golden age” of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s as if this son of a Jewish sporting-goods store owner from Shaker Heights, Ohio; this Navy Pilot Training Program reject and World War II torpedo-bomber radioman; this stage and screen and television actor who married the understudy (Joanne Woodward); this father, movie director, racecar driver, cook, entrepreneur, humanitarian, philanthropist and political activist wanted to tell the world that no one knew how well they had it back then. “Boy, there was work,” he said wistfully. “You got a week off and you could be right back in a film or on television or in a play. But I’m not driven to the extent that I will take up a bad script,” he told me. “Although I don’t know. I may have to do that if something doesn’t show up. After a while, you simply have to keep an instrument oiled. You can’t just throw it in the garage and pick it up every four or five years and expect it to work.” Yet he still turned down the part of playing Superman’s father for the Salkinds even though he would have earned millions for just a few days work.
He was always an anomaly in Hollywood, choosing to live on the East Coast, and refusing to read the trades, and staying married for 50 years. In an industry noted for cost overruns, he prided himself on bringing his pictures in under budget, and once he became famous acting in or helming only important or original films. And how rare for actors and how fortunate for Newman that his advancing age brought him some of his most memorable characters and Best Actor nominations — Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice, Frank Galvin in The Verdict, Fast Eddie in The Color of Money, Sully Sullivan in Nobody’s Fool. (Newman’s other nods were for roles in Cool Hand Luke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hud and The Hustler. He was not nominated for two of his most famous pics: The Sting and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.) So what if Newman wound up his career playing near-geezers whose spindly legs and watering eyes and sunken cheeks were part of his new screen image. He claimed that he never cared about being a sex symbol anyway. After all, he told me, “if you can get by on your baby blues, then what does it mean to be anything in the profession?”
That year, Newman was right to suspect he was giving an Oscar-quality performance under Marty Scorsese’s direction. But anyone who expected Newman to come right out and say, “Yes, I want the Oscar,” was going to have to wait until those blue eyes turn brown. Newman darted around the issue with me but also conveyed the absurdity of his winless condition. “Oral Roberts has said that if he doesn’t raise [enough] money by the end of March, God is going to call him home. Then whatever will He do to me? So if those guys out there don’t tap me for this, I think I’m going to go to that great rehearsal hall in the sky.” Now Hollywood can console itself knowing that Paul Newman was much, much more than a Best Actor Oscar winner: he was an interesting and thoughtful and special man.