The Guy In My Refrigerator: Paul Newman

10/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Paul Newman, seen here in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, passed away last night.

The man whose picture has been in my refrigerator for 25 years has passed away. That would be Paul Newman, who said of his Newman's Own salad dressing: "The sad thing is that the salad dressing out-grosses my films." He was being amusing, as usual. The proceeds, incidentally, went to charity.

Paul Newman died of cancer last night at his home in Westport, Connecticut. His illness, which came on this year, had been kept private. He was 83.

Newman was one of the biggest stars in the history of movies, equally adept at playing the hero and the anti-hero. Like his mostly friendly rival, Steve McQueen, Newman set the standard in the '60s for the action-oriented matinee idol. Like McQueen, he was also a top race car driver, finishing second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and running a US racing outfit for decades. Yet off-screen, he was a staunch political activist. He said he was prouder of making the Nixon enemies list than he was of his 10 Academy Award nominations.

Paul Newman in his Oscar-winning role in The Color of Money.

Among his classic roles: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke ("What we got here is failure to communicate"), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (perhaps my boyhood favorite), The Sting, Absence of Malice (not an inducement to journalism), The Verdict (not an inducement to lawyering), The Color of Money (in which Newman won the Oscar he was nominated for in The Hustler by playing the older-but-wiser Fast Eddie Felson, who can teach that whipper-snapper Tom Cruise a thing or three), and Road To Perdition (his last Oscar-nominated role, in which he plays the current 007's dad).

Newman was a great gentleman, a Hollywood oddity in that he was married to the same woman, Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward, for 50 years. "When you have steak at home," Newman quipped, "why go out for hamburger?"

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put it this way:

"Paul Newman was the ultimate cool guy, who men wanted to be like and women adored. He was an American icon, a brilliant actor, a Renaissance man and a generous but modest philanthropist. He entertained millions in some of Hollywood's most memorable roles ever, and he brightened the lives of many more, especially seriously ill children, through his charitable works. Paul was one of a kind."

"Why, you crazy ... the fall will probably kill ya!"

The predictable encomiums for Paul Newman are pouring in. My recollection of the man is that he would welcome them, but with a big shaker of salt. The current hagiographies would have caused him to gag.

Warren Beatty, who knew Newman well and considered playing the Sundance Kid (ultimately played in his breakout performance by a fellow named Robert Redford) -- which would have meant he'd have to wear a cowboy hat, one of his least favorite things to do -- told me that Newman was "a sweet, unpretentious guy." And the gold standard for younger actors like Beatty coming up in the seminal 1960s.

We never got the chance to appreciate Newman's great contemporary and (mostly) friendly rival, Steve McQueen, in the fullness of his life. McQueen, who lived for a time down the hall from Beatty on the penthouse floor of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel -- what an interesting elevator that was -- died a most untimely death at the age of 50, back in 1980. Also from cancer.

Newman earned five Academy Award nominations after that, including his Oscar win as best actor in The Color of Money. I was pleased to have met both Newman and McQueen back when they were vying for the crown of top box office star in the world. They both starred, and nobody is mentioning this movie, merely one of the biggest hits of the era, in a movie set in my home town called The Towering Inferno. Newman played the architect of the world's tallest building (in San Francisco!) and McQueen played the fire chief out to save it. When it, you know, became an inferno of the towering variety.

A thoroughly silly film, which also starred the great Faye Dunaway, a Beatty discovery. Which megastar had the top billing, Newman or McQueen? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Literally. One had his name on the left, mindful that in English, you read left to right. One had his name slightly above the other's. Which was which? Bygones.

Let's hear it for Paul Newman, one of the most enduring stars in history, well into this era of disposable celebrity. A gentleman with a deep sense of humor, who turned in some of the most indelible performances in some of the most classic films of the post-war era.