10/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Paul Newman

I first met Paul Newman when he was a student at the Yale School of Drama in the late forties. Having recently abandoned that training program in order to help start two acting companies, I nevertheless still had friends at Yale. One of these was the director, Elliott Silverstein, who he told me I'd better hightail it back to New Haven to see as a gifted young first-year student playing the title role in a new play called Beethoven's Nephew.

Paul then was clearly an actor to watch, but he was hardly the actor Americans later came to know and love. A native of middle-class Shaker Heights, Cleveland, with one Jewish and one Slovack parent, and later a Navy tail gunner in World War II, Paul Newman had grown accustomed to playing "nice" boys on the stage; and his first Broadway role was the rather glandular local character who loses the girl to the more dynamic Hal Carter as played by Ralph Meeker.

I suspect Paul thought that Meeker's role properly belonged to him, and after joining the Actors Studio, Paul did begin getting the more muscular, dangerous Broadway roles he coveted--such as Brick in Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Chance Wayne in his Sweet Bird of Youth. After Hollywood exploited the value of his steely blue eyes in a ludicrous costume epic called The Silver Chalice, Paul continued honing his edge with a whole array of brilliantly-acted tough guys, including Hud, Harper, Butch Cassidy, and as he got older, Fast Eddie Felon in The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, and (perhaps his finest role) Frank Galvin in The Verdict.

Paul's fifty-year marriage to another wonderful artist, Joanne Woodward, not only gave him the domestic stability he needed, but a solid refuge from Hollywood. With that private Connecticut sanctuary as a base, he continued to enhance his Hollywood career, but he also entered upon a magnificent philanthropic enterprise known as "Newman's Own," its logo a touched-up portrait of Paul and Joanne, wielding pitchforks in the manner of a famous rural Grant Wood portrait.

Most of the proceeds of this growing enterprise, which, having begun with the production of salad oil, now features hundreds of healthy organic products, went directly to charities of Paul's and Joanne's choosing, but mostly to "The Hole in the Wall" camps, founded for children with life-threatening illnesses.

Paul's philanthropy was legendary, especially for a Hollywood star. I personally was the recipient of Newman largesse when I was starting the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1966. After a few desultory questions about the venture, Paul sent me a check for $50,000, an enormous amount at the time and our first considerable grant. When I moved to Cambridge to start the American Repertory Theatre, Paul would pay us occasional visits, generally to see a show by Robert Wilson, whose work intrigued him deeply, primarily because, being trained in a more causal, linear approach to theatre, he had a hard time understanding it. Although he worked with Joanne some summers at the Westport Playhouse, it was not easy to entice Paul back to the stage. A trifling two-hander with Joanne called Baby Want a Kiss for the Actors Studio Theatre represented one of his rare returns to Broadway. "Too many lines to remember, too much rehearsal," he muttered, while downing his third Michelob. Beer, so far as I could tell, was his only vice, except for fast vintage cars. What really galvanized Paul's energies was tooling along places like the Indianapolis Speedway. Paul and Joanne had had their family tragedies. It was a wonder he didn't become one himself.

When we lost him the other day at the age of 83, he seemed to have lost his appetite for acting-- a shame, because he was one of our best. Tough-minded and warmhearted, generous to a fault, hardly an intellectual but possessed of those special actor's insights that sometimes go deeper than the deepest academic investigation, Paul Newman was a vanishing American-- a man who knew what he owed to his profession, and even more, what he owed to the world. It will be a long time before we can fully absorb what a loss his death has been.