Paul Newman: A Life

Paul Newman: A Life

by Shawn Levy


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307353764
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/04/2010
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 189,215
Product dimensions: 5.38(w) x 8.02(h) x 1.03(d)

About the Author

SHAWN LEVY is the author of six previous books, including the New York Timesbestsellers Rat Pack Confidential and Paul Newman: A Life.  He served as film critic of The Oregonian from 1997 to 2012 and is a former senior editor ofAmerican Film and a former associate editor of Box Office. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco ChronicleThe GuardianThe Independent, Film Comment, Movieline, and Sight and Sound, among many other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

Part One

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.

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Paul Newman 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Dianne19 More than 1 year ago
I was very disappointed with this book. Not enough of Newman. The book could have been 250 pages shorter if the author would have stuck with Newman and his life rather than giving trivial details about persons associated with screen production of whom we do not care. The cadence was choppy and the story line jumped from year to year in no apparent fashion. You had difficulty knowing exactly where he was going. Not good for a bio. If you can put up with he first 400 pages, the last two Chapters were worth reading, if you can forgive the author for citing the date of death but not mentioning the year.
Booknut62 More than 1 year ago
I actually began reading Shawn Levy's book several weeks ago. For a time, I was not quite sure I could get through all the screen credit information. What I really wanted was to know who Paul Newman the person was like. Throughout this book, Levy provides glimpses of the kind of human being one of America's greatest actors was. It is clear from the book that Newman always put his all in acting. It came across to me that he was a perfectionist about his work. Levy's story of Newman takes you from his beginnings in Cleveland to his passing in Westport. What seemed to be consistent through it all was that Paul Newman was always Paul Newman. His love for his wife Joanne Woodward makes all of us long for the kind of relationship they celebrated. His acts of charity in donating the profits from his company Newman's Own to his Hole in the Wall Camps and other charities makes us all want to do our part as well. Levy's highly sympathetic read is at once enjoyable and inspiring.
LyndaLovesBooks More than 1 year ago
I want to admit, right from the start, I lack objectivity where Paul Newman is concerned. I not only always enjoyed his movies, I admired his sense of humanity, his desire to 'share the wealth' with others, especially thru his work with terminally ill children and various charities. He left behind such a legacy of class and giving. This book does cover his life from cradle to grave and touches on some of the most prickly areas, like his affair with Joanne Woodward, who would become his second and final wife. The man wasn't perfect, especially during that period of infidelity...but, he sure as hell made up for any wrongs committed in the second part of his life. This book chronicles it all...extensive research, well-written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just wish the title had been "Paul Newman & A Life Well-Lived"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He could have taken the money and ran.but he chose to make a difference in this world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not as in depth as you want, but not far off. It gives a thorough description of his work, and how it affected his life. His struggle to deal with the burden of being Paul Newman is a subject of great interest, and is discussed with great detail. A wonderful portrait. I couldn't imagine a more in depth biography of this man.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very well done biography of a fascinating man who just happened to be a great American movie star. His ancestry and history growing up in Ohio reveals alot about his character. He clearly had his faults and appeared to a bit of a loner, but he sure had a wonderful life from start to finish. It was fun to read the back stories on his movies...but by the time you get to the end you appreciate all of the other things he did with his rather charmed life. I did not want to put the book down and would highly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed his movies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was a very balanced look at the life of Paul Newman. He was in many ways one of a kind, but the book pointed out not only the wonderful side of Paul, but the complex side as well. The only criticism I have of the book is toward the end it seemed to drag. But other than that I really enjoyed reading about the life of someone I very much respect.
babybird More than 1 year ago
I love this book. Of course, I would love anything about one of the greatest, and best looking actors ever. This is really well written and very easy to read. Loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book for my mom as she has become an avid reader late in life. I knew she was a fan of Paul Newman and would enjoy reading the details of his life since he recently passed away. She called to say she had finished the book in record time and enjoyed it so much (although she wished I hadn't spent my hard earned money on an expensive hardcover book). I think she's worth it and I couldn't see waiting until it became a paperback. It wasn't expensive at all, in fact, because I used a coupon when purchasing it.
bookchickdi on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Paul Newman is one of our true movie stars, back when that phrase really meant something. His death last year reminded us what a unique individual he was- an actor, movie star, race car driver, husband, father, grandfather, businessman, humanitarian. Shawn Levy has written a new biography, titled PAUL NEWMAN- A LIFE. And it was quite a life he lived. I vividly remember my mother taking me to see "The Sting", starring Newman and Robert Redford. It was one of the first grown-up movies I saw, and I felt very sophisticated. Redford was gorgeous, but it was Newman who charmed me. There seemed something mischievous behind those blue eyes and that knowing smile.Levy does a great job chronicling Newman's early years, and he footnotes and endnotes extensively, not something you normally see in a biography of a movie star. He quotes from reviews of Newman's plays and movies, and that helps put Newman's work in context of the times.The author delves into Newman's youth and his college days at Kenyon College, where Newman realized he had the desire to act. Newman was a bit of a rascal who loved to party and was not opposed to imbibing in beer, something that he continued to do throughout his life. Levy states that as an adult Newman would often drink a case of beer a day. (Budweiser sent Newman ten cases of beer a week as payment for advertising for them, and they didn't go to waste.)Levy spoke with several people who went to school with Newman, and their memories of a young Newman are insightful. Newman loved to rehearse, to dig deeply into his character and their motivations, and as this practice grew with his career, it was not always appreciated by his costars or directors.He married young and had two children with his first wife, but their marriage didn't last. Levy points out the irony of a man who was well known for having one of the most successful, long-lived marriages in Hollywood, actually falling in love with his second wife, actress Joanne Woodward, while he was still married to wife number one.I did not know that Newman also had an affair (while married to Joanne) with a reporter he met while filming "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid". It lasted for over a year, and nearly ruined his second marriage, but after the affair ended, he and Joanne worked it out. Again, they were an example for people that no marriage is perfect, but it takes work, love, patience and forgiveness to make it last.Newman had such a long career, Levy does his best to get it all in this book without making it 1000 pages, which it easily could have been. The one thing that gets short shrift is Newman's role as a father. It is touched on, but it would have been interesting to know more about how he parented from his children. They seem like people who like their privacy, and after the death of Newman's son Scott from a drug overdose, and the publicity surrounding it, I imagine they were leery of the press. Newman is quoted as saying that "What I would really like to put on my tombstone is that I was part of my time". Levy makes the correct statement that he was, and that is one thing that shines through in this fascinating biography. Newman really was a man made in his time, an embodiment of a true American individual.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Informative yet entertaining. Author did not try to do a hatchet job on Newman yet he shows us the real man. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading! If you have read everything, select "like" so I can put a thank you on your profile! Cancer is very invasive and destructive to your body. After you have finished your treatment, then, your body wants to go to war with yourself trying to reconstruct all the damage caused by radiation. It's a very long process. Please, in honor of someone who died, or is fighting cancer, or even had cancer, copy and paste. They all say: "if you need anything, do not hesitate, I'm gonna be there for you"... so I'm going to make a bet that less than 1/2 of my friends put this on your wall. You just have to copy (not share)!!! I want to know who I can count on.... Write "done" in the comment when you do. To all those who are fighting... I am with you. Praying for the courage and strength of those fighting the fight.
kittyAZ More than 1 year ago
I have 250 books in my library and haven't read this one yet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book.
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Cali48BC More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book about a man who truly embodies what a modern Renaissance man is. If you a fan of movies and/or Paul Newman the actor, then you will really enjoy this book. The author did a really good job researching the parts that Newman worked in and what the "story" was behind some of his role selections and rejections. I would have given it a higher rating if Levy provided more of the business/philanthropic side of Newman (there is some material on these subjects but not enough in my opinion). Overall, he provides a very balanced view of his life and it is clear that Levy was a big Newman fan. Levy is able to penetrate his very protective guard a little to provide the reader some insights into his very interesting and fulfilling life.
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Nanaof2 More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book, as it gave me more personal information on the actor. I developed my liking of Paul Newman strickly through his movies. This book enlightened me on Paul Newman the person. I knew he was divorced but I was disappointed to learn (he admits)of his infidelity to both his wives. I still like him and will now purchase the other book "Paul Newman the man behind the blue eyes". His commitment to helping the less fortunate will be his legacy. His family will continue these efforts. I recommend this book to both men and women.