He made his movie debut wearing a miniskirt-style toga in a religious epic. This was back in 1954, when pictures like The Silver Chalice were typical Friday-evening fare and young actors were signed to long-term studio contracts, their careers at the mercy of whatever film needed someone who looked like them at that particular moment. He left the screen 52 years later with a farewell voice-over performance in the blockbuster Pixar cartoon Cars. So it’s impossible to say that the passing of Paul Newman — who died of cancer at age 83 on Sept. 26 at his home in Westport, Conn. — marks the end of an era, since the era in which Paul Newman was a first-tier movie star spanned nearly half the history of movies.
Nor can one claim that Newman was the last of his kind, since the actor was always, literally, in a class by himself. Newman became a star at a moment when two opposing images of American masculinity were dominating the screen — the rough, tough, unforgiving force of actors like John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, and the newer, more sensitive, almost wounded approach exemplified by Montgomery Clift. He belonged to neither category; rather, he drew from both — starting with his breakout performance as boxer Rocky Graziano in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, he found a way to be both brutal and tender, callous at one moment and vulnerable the next.
Newman emerged as a star in the aftermath of Marlon Brando’s seismic performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, which may be why he always seemed to be underrated — at least as underrated as a 10-time Oscar nominee could be (he received nine nods for acting and one for producing). Newman won just once, for The Color of Money, and took home two honorary Academy Awards, one for his contribution to film and one for the hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable contributions generated by sales of the popcorn and salad dressing to which he lent his name, his face, and his witty understanding that he could do an immense amount of good by turning himself into a commodity for his own purposes, not just Hollywood’s.
NEXT PAGE: ”So intense was Newman’s charisma on screen, and so timeless his appeal, that it didn’t seem to matter to don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 moviegoers that at the time, their new poster boy was already 42 years old.”