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