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