America doesn’t have a national epic, but Our Town might do in a pinch. The cracker-barrel homilies; the good-natured ironies; the snapshots of bygone ways; the razor-sharp observations couched in polite language; the hints of pain; the hesitance toward joy; the sneaky surges of emotion; the climax that brings a welling to your eyes despite yourself. It contains us, Thornton Wilder’s chestnut.
That’s why it can sometimes feel that if you’ve seen one production of it, you’ve seen ’em all.
Or maybe not.
Take this one—in particular, take the male leads.
The Stage Manager is a hawkish fellow: slender, purposeful, knowing, vigilant. He dresses for comfort and doesn’t care if his collar is straight or if his tie is askew. Disheveled, with his spectacles perched on the tip of his nose and a vaguely distracted air, he’s still rakishly handsome; clearly he was a corker in his time. He appears to have lived every vicissitude of life, and while experience hasn’t entirely softened him, it has provided him a store of indulgence to mete out, judiciously but amiably, as he sees fit. There’s no doubt that he can size a body up in a few piercing measures, and there’s no doubt, either, that his arithmetic is sure. But such is his air of decency and authority that you find yourself hoping he deems you worthy.
George Gibbs, the youthful hero, is another matter: an all-American boy with muscles in his shoulders and, you can’t help but suspect, in his head. His heart is in the right place, heaven knows, even if he must occasionally be reminded of just where that place is. He’s a handsome thing, and enthusiasms burble out of him infectiously. His gaze is open, and his springy mien belies a real zest for life. But when he takes the time to notice smaller things or surprises himself by stumbling upon a sincere emotion, he turns puppyish. He even, caught up in the swell of love, croons; you wouldn’t tune a piano to it, but it’s sincere.
Their interactions are brief but memorable. At one moment the Stage Manager assumes the aspect of a biddy and lashes out at poor, dim George for tossing a ball to himself in the middle of the road. “You got no business playing baseball on Main Street,” he cackles in an old lady’s voice, cowing the boy, and you reckon he’s getting a kick out of his charade as the lad dutifully scampers off.
Later, when George escorts his sweetheart, Emily, to the drugstore for an ice cream soda, the Stage Manager takes the persona of Mr. Morgan, proprietor and counterman. Precisely and warmly, he crafts the fountain treats for the youngsters, and when it turns out that George has forgotten his pocket money at home, he refuses to accept the boy’s gold watch as collateral for the debt: “I’ll trust you ten years, George—not a day over.”
You sense affection in the older man and, equally, respect in the younger; the mutuality is warming. And as is so often the case, the warmth arises not only from the material but from the actors themselves —a real coup of casting, in fact.
The old man has acted for Leo McCarey, who directed the Marx Brothers, and Michael Curtiz, who made Casablanca, and he appeared many times on live television during that medium’s golden age. The kid has worked with the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese and Sam Mendes and lent his voice to a big-budget Pixar movie and the video game version of it.
The old man is world famous: you can’t go to the supermarket, the video store, or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway without encountering his image or his legacy. You think of Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, and James Stewart as his equals. The kid is making a big name for himself, but he keeps getting compared to other actors, often as a way of dismissing him or counting him short: Marlon Brando, most often, and James Dean.
One has just turned thirty, has been married for six years, and has three children, the oldest not quite five. The other is seventy-eight, with his forty-fifth anniversary coming up and five grown daughters and a pair of grandkids with whom to celebrate it.
Physically, they share some traits: wavy hair, icy blue eyes, a classical handsomeness that looks patrician on the old fellow and preppy on the kid, and a springy grace that makes the young man seem coltish and the old man seem spry.
But their personalities are pretty distinct. The old guy is serious, a World War II vet who attended Kenyon College and the Yale School of Drama on the GI Bill and dreamed of becoming a teacher and takes an active part in politics; he’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars for charity and served as president of the Actors Studio. The young guy is famous for his beer drinking and his practical jokes and his goofball sense of humor and his love of fast cars and motorcycles and his roles as antiauthoritarian rebels; he’s already created a couple of parts on Broadway that have maintained a place in the national repertoire and made a few indelible TV dramas.
The older man you know: Paul Newman, playing the Stage Manager in the Westport County Playhouse production of Our Town as filmed at the Booth Theater on Broadway in early 2003.
And the younger man, well, you know him too: Paul Newman, playing George Gibbs in the same play, adapted as a musical for NBC television’s Producers’ Showcase in September 1955.
Between those two performances sits an entire career and, indeed, an entire life—not only of one man but of the culture in which he thrived.
The blind, impetuous vigor of youth; the wry, still acceptance of maturity; the progress of an artist in his craft; the maturation of a soul, a mind, a body; the life of a man and the half-century of history he lived and echoed and symbolized and even shaped: Paul Newman’s story is all of it.
From a burgeoning Jazz Age suburb to a torpedo bomber in the Pacific, from the womb of academia to the free-for-all of Broadway and live TV, from the gilded cage of a Hollywood studio contract to the wild freedom of directing films for his own production company, from the filth and noise and danger of professional auto racing to the staid and venerable confines of the Philanthropy Hall of Fame, Paul Newman’s life is a blazon of the American century, incorporating the very best national traits in a compact and comely package.
For fifty years, on-screen and off, Newman vividly embodied certain tendencies in the American male character: active and roguish and earnest and sly and determined and vulnerable and brave and humble and reliable and compassionate and fair. He was a man of his time, and that time ranged from World War II to the contemporary era of digitally animated feature films. He was equally at home on Hollywood soundstages, in theatrical workshops, in the pits of racetracks, and especially on the blessedly raucous fields and in the log cabins and swimming holes of the camps he built and maintained for seriously ill children. The world was his for the claiming—and he claimed only the bit that he felt was reasonably due him, and he gave back more, by far, than he ever took.
He was ridiculously handsome and trim, with a face that belonged on an ancient coin, eyes that stunned and dazed even cynics, and an athlete’s compact, lithe, and peppy body. Having fallen into acting as a profession, he would have been guaranteed at least minimal success by sheer virtue of his physical charms. If he’d had no talent or tenacity or intellect or drive, he might still have enjoyed fame and riches. Put him in a dinner jacket, and he could sit confidently at table with presidents or poets or kings. He looked the part—in fact, he looked any part, virtually, that he was asked to play.
But he was smart and cagey and suspicious of fortune too easily won, and he was scrupulous in distinguishing the things that came to him through luck from those he felt he’d earned. He opted to live as far as reasonable from Hollywood, preferred barn coats and blue jeans to tuxedos, and chose the company of troupers and mechanics and beer- swillers over that of celebrities and swells and hobnobbers every time. There was crust and vinegar to him, and he relished the opportunity that his position in life afforded him to startle big shots with his sometimes downmarket tastes and preferences. And vice versa: he loved to sprinkle unexpected stardust in the humblest of contexts, just when he was taken for an ordinary joe.
He was, as he always insisted, a private man whose profession gave him a public face. And he grappled with the incongruity of that for a long time. If he was a cautious and shy fellow raised to a painfully puritanical ethos, he would learn to espouse his inner wildness by adapting personae—in life and in art—that camoflagued his insecurity and reticence in the cloth of exuberance and levity. If he was treated as a freak because of the inescapable fact that he was born beautiful, he would learn to turn that beauty into a tool of subterfuge, creating characters whose allure hid complex and painful depths. If his looks would make him a star, he would redirect that stardom into a benefit for others, slapping his face on labels for food products and creating staggering wealth—then giving all the money away. If he was, regardless of his age, a sex symbol, he would work hard at being a good husband and father. If his personal wealth meant that he could take up motor sports at a high level, he would work as tenaciously at racing as he did at acting and earn acceptance in that world through sheer application and diligently acquired skill. If things came easily to him, he determined to share the benefit he accrued.
Few have lived fuller or richer lives than Paul Newman, and at the time of his death, the world seemed to take stock for the first time of all the Paul Newmans it had known: the actor, the driver, the public citizen, the entrepreneur, the philanthropist, the family man. But as Newman always knew, it all began with luck—the genetics, upbringing, education, and career fortunes that uniquely enabled him to become a movie star. And it was as a movie star that he made his most obvious mark on the world.
In ways, he did it through the back door. Rarely appearing in obvious blockbusters, striving to reinvent himself by shedding his skin every few years, he compiled a cinematic résumé over five decades that was studded regularly with milestone films and performances: Somebody Up There Likes Me; The Long, Hot Summer; The Left Handed Gun; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Exodus; The Hustler; Paris Blues; Hud; Harper; Hombre; Cool Hand Luke; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; The Sting; The Towering Inferno; Buffalo Bill and the Indians; Slap Shot; Fort Apache the Bronx; Absence of Malice; The Verdict; The Color of Money; Blaze; Mr. & Mrs. Bridge; The Hudsucker Proxy; Nobody’s Fool; Road to Perdition; Empire Falls; Cars. This is more than just a litany of estimable (and in some cases commercially gigantic) film titles. It’s the trajectory of an actor determined to squirm away from preconceptions and to sharpen his artistic abilities at the same time. It stands against the very few similar lists of films ever compiled, and it spans eras, styles, generations. He wasn’t the greatest American actor, and he was not even the greatest actor of his own vintage. But he was arguably the most American actor, the fellow whose roles and accumulated persona best captured the tenor of his times and his people.
Newman arrived in movies with the Method actor invaders of the 1950s and rode out their splashy heyday, becoming a commercial superstar while insistently pushing forward the boundaries of his craft. If you approached him initially only at the superficial level—the level of beauty, as it were—you might have mistaken him for Rock Hudson or Tony Curtis or Robert Wagner, handsome and capable, sure, but movie stars principally rather than craftsmen. Newman, though, had an internal discipline that demanded he make more of himself, and he earned, through sheer perseverance, a place alongside—and in ways, above—the Method gods Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. He was ultimately the one true superstar to emerge from the original Actors Studio generation, the most popular and enduring Stanislavskyan actor in American screen history, the only one who could sit comfortably alongside big-time Golden Era movie stars and newfangled subversive interlopers.
And he was able to bridge the space between those two brands of actors for decades. In a half-century of movies, the characteristic Newman role morphed from almost-too-pretty to dangerously sleek to deliberately wily to weathered and weary-wise. At his best he played against his looks—which may be why he is widely regarded as improving as an actor as he aged. And his instinct to cut against himself meant that he couldn’t personify scions of wealth and privilege as well as he could ordinary men struggling with quotidian issues—particularly the struggles of fathers and sons who couldn’t communicate adequately or, indeed, love each other enough. Even though he was a partner in a famed half-century marriage, he rarely played a romantic lead and, truly, never all that well. Rather, he played broken athletes, half- crazed outlaws, cocky scam artists, insouciant iconoclasts, and a long skein of rascally and unreliable private eyes, liquor salesmen, cops, spies, lawyers, loggers, and construction workers. Very occasionally— and perhaps only to satisfy a seemingly visceral need to avoid repeating himself—he played men of ramrod morality and authority whose positions as social leaders belied their failures as human beings; predictably, as with so many other types he essayed, he nailed them.
Taken as a whole, Newman’s body of work nicely encapsulated the history of an in-between generation of American men who helped their fathers and uncles conquer the world in war and commerce but who could only watch on—likely with some jealousy—as their younger siblings and their own children acted out on the native rebellious impulse to overturn everything. He fit in precisely with neither the Greatest Generation nor the Baby Boomers but represented instead a vital link in the American century—a band of men who were meant to inherit a system that was no longer reliably in place by the time their fathers willed it to them. Torn by the conflicting impulses to rule and rebel, his was arguably the pivotal generation of the twentieth century, and Newman, almost unconsciously, was its actor laureate.