Paul Newman: The Man Who Defined Being a Man
Credit: Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

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.