How often do Tom Hanks, George Clooney, David Letterman, Meryl Streep, Renee Fleming, Aloe Blacc and Carole King show up for an event at which no one is getting an award? Perhaps it might occur for a current head of state, or maybe a performer who is getting a Lifetime Achievement honor.
But for someone who has been dead for seven years?
Last week at Lincoln Center, I attended one of the most perfect fundraising evenings imaginable. Called SeriousFun, the money went to the camps for children with life-threatening illnesses that were founded by Paul Newman. The actor would have been 90 this year, so remembering him was the theme of the night, which also featured many of the kids who have been helped -- even saved -- by his vision and generosity.
Newman's idea was simple: all kids should be allowed to have fun, and fun should be taken seriously. He was known as a lifelong practical joker with a boyish sense of humor. With money raised via his salad dressings and sauces, (Newman's Own) the first Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was opened in Connecticut in1988. Now there are 30, and they are located around the world, each free to families, supported by private donations.
This was one of those nights when you were laughing at Letterman, ogling Clooney, (who knows of being a dazzling leading man and yet giving back) standing spontaneously for the children --many who discovered hidden talents at the camps -- singing with Carole King, and weeping at the projections of Newman and those happy campers. My daughter was so moved that she texted me later, "I am planning to send all the money I don't have."
Above all, it made one respect the time and money this man gave, when he certainly didn't have to. Full disclosure: My father and Newman were political pals. They raised money for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, co-founded The Center for Defense Information in Washington, (which was an important anti-Pentagon voice) served as special United Nations delegates together in the name of disarmament, and brought Nation Magazine back to life when it was in a serious crisis. When my father was honored in Los Angeles, while running the state's Nuclear Freeze Campaign, Newman was the emcee. Later, he complimented me on my own introductory speech. He took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, "You were funny, you were tender...." He had me at "you."
Speaking of those eyes, he once drove my father -- 90 miles an hour, in his VW with a Porsche engine -- to Santa Barbara. They stopped on the way for breakfast. Newman was wearing large sunglasses, which he took off the very moment the oblivious waitress was about to pour piping hot coffee. She took one look at those baby blues and the coffee went right down my father's pants, giving him some minor and memorable burns.
And I'll never forget one day when we were all eating lunch at a tennis club. Just as I was about to pour on the club's salad dressing, Newman put out his arm and said, "Don't touch that." Then he asked for a little oil, vinegar and a few other goodies and made me his own. Best asparagus appetizer ever.
Paul Newman gave so much money away and did not want people to even know. It was never about getting a wing or an award or a title. He had a career every actor would dream about: from the stage, to the films, to directing. He had a long marriage in a business where that is far from the norm. He got better as an actor as he aged: he said he was embarrassed to watch his early films because he could see the work. It's true that every time his first one, The Silver Chalice, is aired, he takes out ads urging people not to watch. "I told myself I'd never do another movie in a cocktail dress," he told me once. Later, in films like Absence of Malice, Road to Perdition, The Verdict and Nobody's Fool, his acting was natural and unaffected.
We all miss Paul Newman for so many reasons: those gorgeous looks, that talent, that whimsical sense of fun that he believed was so important, especially for children who got a raw deal. As for him, he was the real deal.