THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: Paul Newman Warms Them With a Smile – But No Autographs

Paul Newman in "The Sting"

Paul Newman in "The Sting"

March 17, 1973

Paul Newman Warms Them With a Smile – But No Autographs


Hollywood – A seagull sweeps down from the grey, leaden skies to feast upon hamburger remains Paul Newman has left abandoned beside him on a cardboard plate.

 And a giggling teenage girl standing nearby, ogling the last of the still-powerful Super Stars, rhapsodizes to her companion, “Ohhh, wouldn’t you just love to be that bird, to say you actually touched the food that Paul Newman touched?”

 She approaches, giggles suppressed, and breathes reverently, “Mr. Newman, please, your autograph…”

 “Sorry, I don’t do it.  I never do it.”   His words are a muted mumble.

 She persists to ask him to mark at least an X on her paper if he won’t sign his name, and he answers softly, “Honey, I’m not illiterate.  I just never give autographs.”

 She’s been refused but not rebuffed.  For, as he speaks, he smiles at her – just for her – with those piercingly blue, hypnotic eyes.  He stares at her – only at her — as if trying to imprint her features on his memory for all time.  She departs with the look of love upon her face.

Behind us, Universal Studio grips hurriedly prepare for the next “The Sting” shot before threatening clouds spill rain once more upon the Santa Monica pier being used as location site for the Newman-Robert Redford confidence man story of the 30’s.

“Civilians” mingle about – housewives pushing infants in strollers; salesladi3es playing hooky from behind-the-counter posts to come gaze at the stars who have launched a million sex fantasies.

And, as Newman and I sit at a weather-worn picnic table, awaiting his call to camera, he’s approached again and again.

He poses good-naturedly with a middle-aged, over-weight matron while her friend records the scene with a Brownie camera.

His smile remains in place even when a mother, dragging two toddlers behind her, interrupts our conversation and urges the children to “Share your cotton candy with Mr. Newman.  I’m sure he’d just love a bite!”

Only his eyes betray a hint of annoyance as he responds, “Ma’am, I won’t start eating that stuff until they make it out of beer.”

He apologizes for refusing to sign the slip of paper she’s thrust before him, gives her that you’re-the-only-one-for-me look.  And she leaves, one more woman who feels suddenly special because Newman has caressed her with his gaze.

I ask him how long he’s refused to sign autographs and he shrugs, takes a swig of his Coors and allows, “I don’t know.  It just seems to me that sometime they must have voted it’s okay to come up to a person anywhere, anytime, and ask him to write his name on a piece of paper.  Well, they never took my vote.  And let’s just say that a long time ago – just as I told you before – I figured I could stop paying my dues.”

 He is referring to a conversation we held a half hour earlier in his trailer dressing room when he had made the point that one stops feeling the need to conform.

 We had been speaking of his recent screen portrayal in “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and his directorial brilliance in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” which stars his wife, Joanne Woodward.

 I had asked if he had hoped for Oscar recognition for either of those projects and he had shrugged.  “I guess I have mixed emotions.  I recognize how important awards can be to a film.  You don’t invest nine months of your life in a movie to see it open and die.  The whole point is to make people see it – and Academy Award prestige will insure that.  But on the other hand, I resent making acting and directing a competitive contest.  It’s wrong.”

 The sound of an angry surf invaded the trailer as he arose and pushed a window ajar.  He observed thoughtfully, “It’s funny, but medals and praise are important while you are trying to climb out of the barrel of molasses.  After you’ve pulled yourself out, you don’t need them.”

He was obviously making reference to those years “Inside the barrel” when his self-confidence and career status could have been helped by Oscar recognition: thinking of the Motion Picture Academy’s rejection of his work time and again so that – though he is undoubtedly the most popular star of his generation, though he has earned two Academy nominations – he has never been accorded the ultimate industry tribute of an Oscar.

The man who was “Hud,” who was the cool “Cool Hand Luke,” had attempted to play the Hollywood game for awhile.  He signed Warner Bros. contract in 1955, only to be terribly miscast in his debuting “The Silver Chalice,” and to be dismissed by critics as a carbon copy of Marlon Brando.

He continued to try to put up with the Hollywood System, but grew increasingly disenchanted with many of the film parts he was assigned, and openly resentful that Warner Bros. would hire him out to other studios for a profit.

He and Joanne Woodward had grown close about the time he first arrived in Hollywood for Warners and she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox.  He was married then, the father of three children, and it wasn’t until 1958 that he was finally free and able to take Joanne for a wife.

They soon became outspoken Hollywood rebels, critical of the big studio system and the artificial values of the community.

He eventually broke his contract with Warner Bros, at a cost of a half million dollars and the Newmans moved back to the East Coast.  Even now, after so many years have passed, he gives the impression that a return to Filmland for a movie assignment is tantamount to a Siberian sentence..

“It’s like being hungry.  The hunger stops after awhile,” he says as we walk along the sands from the trailer to the set.

You know he’s referring to an appetite for recognition when he adds, “For years you keep asking yourself, ‘Aren’t they ever going to feed me?’  And when they finally do, you find you’ve no stomach for what they’re dishing out.”

He smiles and the skies light up.  He says he doesn’t want to make a big deal of the subject we’ve been discussing because, “I’ve learned to save my energies for things that mater.”

He’s committed himself solidly for many years to the things that have mattered, campaigning for Negro rights and against the Vietnam war long before it was fashionable to do so: active in the Democrat party in Connecticut; devoting time and energies to helping promising young film apprentices; donating his name and money to such organizations as Dick Hughes’ orphanages for the homeless waifs of the Vietnam war.

What matters to him also is his work.  It always has.

He claims he is as proud of his acting successes as his directorial achievements, b ut one gets the feeling he might be betraying a lie in that statement when he admits that, though he never reads reviews on the films in which he stars, he pores over critical notices of the movies he has directed.

Those Newman-directed movies, most notably, have been “Rachel, Rachel,” and Marigolds,” both starring his wife.

What is there about his direction that has enabled him to draw out of her two of the most outstanding portrayals of her career?

He shakes his head.  He says he doesn’t know.  He credits her magnificence in “Rachel” and as the bitter, neurotic tortured woman in “marigolds” to outstanding properties.

“They were both my type of films,” he observes.  “I believe in hitting the audience between the eyes – with a club if necessary – to get a message over.  Let’s face it, there’s so little real emotion left in life today.”

The product of a Jewish father, a Catholic mother who converted to Christian Science, he was raised in Cleveland, Ohio.  Today – and for many years – he and Joanne and their three children call the rural, wooded area of Westport, Connecticut home.  It is there, among the stoic New Englanders, that he is accepted as a man who happens to make his living as a star, but doesn’t act like a star.

You ask him about his unique-by-Filmland-standards marriage which has seen Joanne willingly subjugate her career to his, accepting assignments when they fit into his schedule; arranging her schedule so that she’ fee to be with Paul whenever, wherever movie locations take him.

“It’s been deliberate,” he says.  “And I’m not sure it wasn’t a mistake.  I guess we were bound by the traditional hang-ups of marriage, a wife’s guilts that she should be with a husband at all times.  We were probably old-fashioned, not very hip.  But we’ve done it the way Joanne has wanted to do it.  It’s been her choice.”

Would it ever be their choice to transplant themselves back to Hollywood?

He gives me that look, the piercing Paul Newman stare that leaves one bare.

“You must be kidding,” he says and laughs.  He glances out at the blue Pacific, at the brilliant sun that has burst thought the clouds.  He gazes somewhere beyond the horizon and he murmurs, “Remember, I tried it her once before- — when I needed it.  I didn’t like it then.   I don’t need it now.”