Remembering Paul Newman

05/25/2011 12:45 pm ET
  • Nicolaus Mills Professor of American Studies, Sarah Lawrence College

Like Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, who died last Friday at age eighty-three, was one of the many Hollywood actors who made a point of joining the 1963 March on Washington. But in contrast to Heston and Brando, who are easy to find in the celebrity photographs taken that day, Newman is nowhere to be seen. It is not hard to figure out why. The idea of taking attention away from Martin Luther King and the other civil rights leaders who spoke at the Lincoln Memorial would have been anathema to Newman. He knew that his extraordinary good looks had helped make his movie career, but in real life he continually battled against them.

It is no accident that on the label of his Newman's Own products, which donates 100 percent of its after-tax profits to charity, Newman constantly appears as a comic figure -- wearing a sombrero on his salsa label, adding steer horns to his head on his steak sauce bottle, putting his image on a Roman bust for his Caesar salad dressing. Newman could bear being looked at and laughed at if it meant that he raised more money for the charities his Newman's Own products paid for. Being admired was what he found hard to take.

As someone who grew up in Cleveland a generation after Newman, I have always thought that his near-obsessive modesty was Midwestern to the core. But truly Midwestern. There was no phony "Aw shucks" quality to Newman's modesty. He never hid how much acting and politics meant to him, and in a career that in its length and consistency far outdid that of his two Hollywood peers, James Dean and Marlon Brando, Newman consistently drove himself to take on new and difficult roles. His modesty wasn't a way of hiding his ambition, but a way of putting it in perspective. Newman wanted what he did on screen to be his measure of his movie career. Everything else he looked on as grandstanding.

Years after I left Cleveland, I listened to Newman give the 1990 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, where I teach.

Newman's daughter Clea and his wife, the actress Joanne Woodward, had earned their degrees that year, and Newman's commencement address was a way of celebrating the occasion. But if you had not known that his daughter and wife were graduating from Sarah Lawrence, you would not have been able to tell it from the address.

Newman talked about community and what growing up in Cleveland had meant to him. In his mention of Cleveland's streets and Lake Erie fish, Newman was often so specific that it was hard at times for me to believe that anyone who wasn't from Cleveland could fully appreciate what he was saying. But, of course, the parents and students who were Newman's real audience grasped everything that he had to say. His real subject was not Cleveland, but what we owe others as the price for sharing our planet.

It is this sense of obligation that I think also accounts for Newman's longevity as an actor. Save for Albert Finney, no another contemporary actor has thrived as much as Newman did in the roles he took on after reaching the age of fifty. Whether it was playing Frank Galvin, the alcoholic lawyer in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict of 1982, or the rigid Mr. Bridge in the Merchant Ivory Mr. And Mrs. Bridge of 1990, Newman was as good, if not better, than he had been in 1960s pictures like Hud and The Hustler, where he made his reputation as an important actor.

That artistic and box-office success continued to come Newman's way was in retrospect not at all surprising. In his great, mature roles Newman was easy with his onscreen persona. His only concern was his acting. Vanity was not an issue for him, because he was never competing, as so many stars do, with younger versions of himself. As at the March on Washington and in his numerous charities, Newman had given himself over to projects so large that he never worried that he might be overshadowed by them.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.