When Paul Newman died of cancer, at the age of 83, in late September, he received the obligatory tributes the networks broadcast when stars die, the long obituaries, the professions of loss from friends and co-workers, and the critical expatiations on his legacy. But Newman received something else too: personal reveries and a sense of national mourning reserved for those rare individuals who have touched the American soul. Paul Newman wasn't just any 83-year-old, any more than he was just any movie star. He had long since passed into a pantheon where stardom had transmuted into heroism, onscreen likability into something more than movie star love. In one of Newman's most memorable films, Hud, Melvyn Douglas as Newman's father observes, "Little by little, the look of the country changes because of the men we admire." That was certainly true of Paul Newman. We admired him, and because we admired him he helped redefine modern America in general and modern American manhood specifically.

Of course it is easy to attribute his appeal to his wry smile, his ease, his insouciance, his cool, his preternaturally cerulean eyes, and to the vicarious jolt he provided to men everywhere. Newman himself chalked it up to the fact that "I have a face that does not belong to a thief," which is not entirely glib: Newman did project integrity even when the characters he played had none. As the critic Pauline Kael put it, he was one of those actors who displays "such a traditional heroic frankness and sweetness that the audience dotes on them..."

But the truest metaphor for Newman's appeal may have been the old Volkswagen he drove from his Connecticut home to the Broadway theater in which he appeared onstage in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth in the early 1960s. Newman wanted more giddyap to his ride, so he had his mechanic install a supercharged Porsche engine in the Beetle. That was Newman: half-Porsche, half-Volkswagen; half-oversize Superman, half-unaffected Everyman. Other stars may have drawn on either their glamour or on their similarity to us. Paul Newman was the only star who could draw on both.

Bursting onto the movie scene in the mid-1950s, after first making a splash on Broadway, Newman was one of a generation of young actors who represented a new kind of American man. Before him, the traditional male film stars – Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne – weren't cool; they were actually kind of square. But what they lacked in diffidence, they made up in command. As Joan Didion once wrote of Wayne, but was equally true of them all: "In John Wayne's world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders." These men asserted themselves – in romance, in war, in work, in society – because that's what men did then: be tough and uncomplicated. Wayne and company weren't racked by self-doubt or tormented by their shortcomings. Alpha males all, they exuded certainty and power. In a sense they were pre-Freudian, even pre-psychological: streamlined manifestations of American confidence. They couldn't be stopped.

Newman's generation was different. Where John Wayne was big, hard, stubborn, self-assured, and self-righteous, boldly lumbering into action, Newman and his confederates were small, soft, malleable, self-doubting, and ironic (about the last word one would use to describe Wayne), sliding their way edgewise into a scene. This attitude was identified as cool, and it was. Where the previous generation of actors always seemed to be on a mission, these young actors were disdainful toward everything – everything, that is, except themselves. They certainly didn't believe in missions, and their contempt was a large part of their appeal to other alienated young men in the 1950s and early 1960s. What they had was a sense of superiority, as if they had understood something that the John Waynes hadn't; namely, that nothing was worth the kind of energy Wayne and the others expended, nothing was worth the sacrifice or the risk or the faith. Not anymore.

In their cynicism, these were new men for a new age – a less arrogant, more anxious nuclear postwar world in which Freud was very much in evidence and you faced down danger not by vanquishing it, as John Wayne did, but by denying or ignoring it. In any case, they felt that the greatest dangers weren't outside them; they were within them in their own roiled psyches. That's why Newman and his contemporaries even felt compelled to adopt a different style of acting. The old stars worked from the outside in – makeup, accents, body language – which was perfectly appropriate when the threats were external and you were going mano a mano with the world. The new stars were proponents of the Stanislavsky Method, which taught one to work from the inside out, and which was more appropriate when the threats were internal and you were wrestling with yourself.

Competing against them for roles, Newman would inevitably and repeatedly be compared to two other stars of this generation, James Dean and Marlon Brando, whom he physically resembled. Newman once told a reporter that he had signed 500 autographs "Marlon Brando" and quipped, "Two years ago they thought I was Jimmy Dean." Like them he was regarded as another young, moody, misunderstood, tormented rebel who challenged the stultifying social order of 1950s America, and he seemed to underscore the affinities when he was arrested for drunken driving and resisting arrest in 1956, just as his film career was taking off.

But even then Newman sought to dissociate himself from his two rivals, and the differences he cited would speak to his popularity and durability as an icon. Brando, he said, had a "rebellious attitude, which I don't believe I had." Brando and Dean were bent and angry. They conveyed the sense that they had been wronged, victimized by hypocrisy. Newman's characters, on the other hand, were not so much wronged as they were wrong – internally warped and defective. In some of his greatest roles, as the conniving Ben Quick in The Long, Hot Summer, as pool shark Eddie Felson in The Hustler, and as the amoral cad Hud Bannon in Hud, Newman is less disaffected than he is corrupted, a word he often used to describe his characters. These men are antisocial, like Brando's and Dean's alter egos, but they are also self-absorbed and narcissistic – seemingly irredeemable. As Newman said of Hud, "He didn't give a goddamn what happened to anyone else."

This would have made Newman less than likable, a rat, were it not for something else in his characters that became as much a part of his persona as his indifference: In the course of his films the Newman narcissist turns out not to be irredeemable after all, invariably arriving, after some shock, at a realization of the limitations of his selfishness. His characters aren't searching for anything except self-satisfaction, but they come to discover the awful price of their own self-interest, and they come to understand the need to consider others or remain imprisoned by their venality. From his star-making role as the middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, in 1956, this transformation became Newman's brand, and it lifted him above the bohemian maunderings of other 1950s icons. Virtually alone among stars, he showed the way toward normality – one of the few stars, Pauline Kael observed, who operated "in a normal emotional range." He taught America how to be both iconoclastic and socially engaged.

Of course it didn't hurt Newman's image that while he was a misfit redeemed onscreen, offscreen he strove to be an ordinary guy. Brando and Dean were noted for their various romantic entanglements. Newman, in the 1950s, was a married man with three children and declared, "I have two interests: my family and my acting career." Went one magazine account: "He drinks beer by choice. He plays bridge well. He plays chess badly. He loves to play cheap poker. He smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and on rare instances can be seen smoking a cigar." His hobby was go-kart racing, his clothes were unfashionably casual, and he chose to live in New York, where he often zipped down the streets on a motor scooter when he wasn't making a film in Hollywood.

The offscreen Newman was also, for a movie star, startlingly self-deprecating. He constantly disparaged his talent, a modesty that made him seem even more accessible and made his audiences more protective of him. "I don't think I ever had an immediate gift to do anything right," he told one interviewer, and he called himself "an emotional Republican" because, unlike most actors who are exhibitionists, he was always afraid of revealing too much of himself. He was a ruthless self-critic, telling interviewers how far short his performances in various films fell by his own standards. "I'm just now beginning to learn a little something about acting," he told a reporter in 1981, after he'd been acting for three decades.

Newman would even disparage his famous chiseled looks, complaining about the corruption – that word again – inherent in being an actor because of the premium that acting placed on appearance. "If blue eyes are what it's about, and not the accumulation of my work as a professional actor, I may as well turn in my union card right now and go into gardening," he said on one occasion; and on another, "To work as hard as I've worked to accomplish anything and then have some yo-yo come up and say, 'Take off those dark glasses and let's have a look at those blue eyes,' is really discouraging." He claimed to be baffled that women found him sexy and pleaded ignorance about why anyone would make a fuss over him.

Though he had trained in the Method at the famed New York Actors Studio, plumbing his own emotional experiences for correlatives to the emotions in his roles, he always stressed the discontinuity between himself and the man on the screen, often saying that he had very little in common with the men he played and that he didn't see himself as particularly conflicted or complicated. He was just a regular kid from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who was drawn to "pretty nasty" guys because they allowed him to investigate one of his favorite subjects: corruption.

Newman saw corruption everywhere in America, and he believed his roles were cautionary tales, which made it all the more distressing that audiences often mistook the self-involvement of his early screen characters for a kind of individualistic nobility while he viewed it as an American flaw. "It is precisely because they're attractive, because they are charming, because they have all the externals – they drink like great men, you know, the virility complex; they are great with the broads, with women," he once lamented, "and that's precisely what makes them dangerous." Superficially they are appealing, everything a man might aspire to be. Underneath they are rotten – until they get their comeuppance.

His screen image, as he reluctantly conceded, made him scampishly appealing. But there were plenty of other renegade stars in the Hollywood constellation: the young Brando, Dean, McQueen, and Beatty; later, Redford, Pacino, and Nicholson. They were all avatars of cool. Newman's difference – the quality that made him an object of admiration as well as fandom adoration – was that he seemed to know it was just an act, Hollywood's joke on normal American males who worshipped cool. Newman lived convictions, not affectations. He was no more comfortable with his status as a hip movie star than he was with his screen image of implacable self-possession, and as years passed and his fame soared he not only continued to insist on his ordinariness, he became downright self-effacing. As his friend and Butch Cassidy screenwriter William Goldman put it, "I don't think Paul Newman really thinks he is Paul Newman in his head."

Newman emphasized decency over cool. There was nothing "Hollywood" about the superstar Newman – no serial romances or gossip or scandals, no drunken brawls save that early one in 1956, no skirmishes with paparazzi, no grandstanding or self-promotion. He and his first wife amicably divorced in 1957; a year later, he married actress Joanne Woodward, whom he had met when she appeared on Broadway in Picnic with him years earlier. Their marriage was always regarded as one of the most solid in the film industry and another sign of Newman's groundedness, especially after Woodward gave birth to three daughters. "If impermanence works for some people, fine," he told a reporter. "But speaking for myself, I can't imagine my life without Joanne and the kids."

Of his fidelity to his wife, he famously told Playboy, "I have steak at home. Why go out for hamburger?" Together they eschewed Beverly Hills and instead bought a 1736 farmhouse on three acres in Westport, Connecticut, because, he said, "It is only when you're away from California that you cannot take yourself seriously." To dissuade intruders he had a sign placed on his front gate: "Please – They have moved. The Piersons."

And then there were Newman's political convictions. The man who didn't give a damn onscreen gave a very big damn in his real life. He would claim that he was stationed on a carrier in the Pacific when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and that the episode shook him out of his youthful self-absorption to the point where he would lecture on nuclear weapons before high school and college audiences. He attended a rally with Martin Luther King Jr. in Gadsen, Alabama, to promote comity between blacks and whites there and found his films pulled from many southern theaters as a result. He marched with Dr. King in Washington. He campaigned for an open housing statute in California and incurred the wrath of Californians, who voted it down. He was a prominent speaker and fundraiser for 1968 antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. And he boasted that he was number 19 on President Nixon's enemies list, claiming it was the only honor he'd won that impressed his children. "A person without character has no enemies," he said. "So I prefer to make enemies."

By that time everyone knew that Newman had character, and he made plenty of enemies in politics and even in Hollywood, where he sat at the opposite end of the iconographic spectrum from the right-wing, macho blusterer John Wayne. But he seemed to care so little about the consequences that his fearlessness also came to inform his image. Newman didn't obsess over his career, and he fought, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to make a film in which he played a homosexual even though he knew it could damage him with some audiences. He thumbed his nose at Hollywood pretense and thought he may have been punished for his disdain when he failed to win an Oscar after six nominations. "He said they'd always treated him as second, and now they were acting as if he were old and through," griped his lawyer, Irving Axelrad, when the Academy decided to give Newman an honorary Oscar instead. (The next year he would win outright for The Color of Money, but he didn't show up to receive it.) Newman's own take on his obligations to the industry was that there were two of him: the man and the actor. "The first one is not for sale. The second one, I do the best job I can, but they have no right to tell me how to live, how to dress, or how to think."

In fact, as his career progressed that second Newman gradually withdrew. While working on the racing film Winning with his wife, he learned how to drive a race car from two-time Indy winner Roger Ward and driving instructor Bob Bondurant. He found himself hooked on the competitiveness, something he said he couldn't find in acting.At 47, after three more years of training, he became a professional driver on the Sports Car Club of America and then the Trans Am circuits, and he actually began scheduling his films around his races, preferring the track to the soundstage. What's more, he was good at driving. His team finished second at LeMans in 1979 in the 24-hour endurance race, and in 1995, at age 70, he finished third overall in the Rolex 24-hour race at Daytona. He was still racing as late as 2006, at the age of 81.

Which is not to say that Newman didn't make some concessions to age. For one thing, his screen persona changed, ripened. Already by Cool Hand Luke in 1967 he had evolved from his spiteful ne'er-do-wells to ironic mock heroes, and his characters in The Verdict, The Color of Money, and Nobody's Fool, to name three films that fetched him Oscar nominations, were no longer corrupt or selfish or antisocial; rather, they possessed a sort of incorruptible integrity. The man who had once been compared to Greek statuary opted to deglamorize himself onscreen, too, and when he made his directing debut, with Rachel, Rachel in 1968, he chose a modest story about a 35-year-old spinster, played by his wife, because he wanted to show the heroism of "basic, simple people." Newman also caroused less, swearing off hard liquor because he felt he too frequently lost control of himself. And for all his professions of luck, he suffered the ultimate misfortune when his only son Scott died in 1978 of a lethal combination of drugs – a tragedy from which Newman said he never recovered.

That may have inspired his final accomplishment. All actors deploy their sympathetic imagination in their work; Newman came to deploy his own in life as well. Just before Christmas 1980, Newman and his friend, writer A.E. Hotchner, decided to make a batch of Newman's special oil-and-vinegar salad dressing in a bathtub, pour it into old wine bottles, and hand them out to their Connecticut neighbors as gifts. Within months the dressing was being stocked in local specialty stores, leading eventually to the Newman's Own brand of foods, whose profits were directed to charities handpicked by Newman. Newman's Own has raised nearly $250 million for charities and helped underwrite the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, named after the gang in Butch Cassidy, to provide summer recreation for children with life-threatening diseases. Indeed, there is a generation now who probably knew Newman better as a food fancier and philanthropist than as a movie star, which only added to his luster.

Like the racing, the charities distracted Newman from his acting, as did the fact that the roles he was offered usually asked for Newman to play Newman when he was still looking to stretch his talent. He last appeared onscreen in 2005, as a misbegotten patriarch in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls, which he helped steer to the small screen. Though he had aged well, he announced last year that he was retiring from acting entirely. "You start to lose your memory, you start to lose your confidence, you start to lose your invention," he told Cynthia McFadden. Newman never felt he was a great actor, although most fans and critics disagreed. But he never wanted to be less than his best when he did act. That was a sign of his integrity too.

Even with his acting career at an end, Paul Newman was, well into his 80s, still an American ideogram: the man who won his popularity through his movies and maintained it, even increased it, by proving to be so much more than his movies. He was a megastar, but he was humble. He was a public figure, but an intensely private man. He was in the most ego-driven of professions, but he was a philanthropist. He was astonishingly handsome, adored and pursued, but he was dedicated to his wife of 50 years. He was the epitome of a man's man, but he derided "masculinity" as superficial. Above all, he mediated between excitement, which he generated onscreen, and goodness, which he exhibited in his life. And it was by demonstrating that goodness is more important than excitement, and that sensitivity is more important than charisma – what Homer Bannon said admired men did – that he may have changed his country's values.

Forty years ago Newman told Playboy, "I'd like to be remembered as a guy who tried – tried to be part of his times, tried to help people communicate with one another, tried to find some decency in his own life, tried to extend himself as a human being." Paul Newman did all of that and somehow managed to be a movie star too – which was why America loved him.