The career! Those eyes! That salad dressing! Paul Newman and his movies are as iconic as they come. Though he only won one of the eight Oscars for which he was nominated, the handsome star more than proved he was one of the big screen’s brightest talents, enjoying a career that spanned five decades. And despite all the accolades and respect he earned through the years, the actor, who grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, always stayed humble about his career and his talents.
“Acting doesn’t come natural to me. I’m very cerebral about it,” Newman once said in an Inside the Actors Studio interview. “Acting, to me, is like dredging a river. It’s a painful experience. I simply do not have the intuitive talent.” So what was the secret to his success? “I don’t know the things I have a gift for other than tenaciousness,” he offered. “I never felt I had any gift at all to perform, but it was something that I wanted badly enough so I kept at it.”
Persistence more than paid off for the son of an emotionally distant, hard-drinking sporting-goods store owner. “I desperately wanted to show him that somehow, somewhere along the line, I could cut the mustard,” Newman told Time in 1982 of the drive that came from wanting to please his dad.
So Newman, after serving three years in the Navy — and a brief stint in jail after a bar fight in college — studied drama at Yale for a short period and became a Method actor, one who went on to be considered a top talent in the field, along the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando. Sadly, however, his father died in 1950, four years before he’d appear in his first film role.
“The history of movies without Paul Newman? It’s unthinkable,” Martin Scorsese, who directed Newman in his 1986 Oscar-winning role as “Fast” Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, said in a statement after the star’s 2008 death at the age of 83. “His powerful eloquence, his consummate sense of craft, so consummate that you didn’t see any sense of effort up there on the screen, set a new standard.”
Our favorite Paul Newman movies
Here we take a look at the Paul Newman movies that won over the hearts of millions of viewers and still continue to establish him as one of the best actors of all time.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Though Newman’s big-screen debut in 1954’s The Silver Chalice was, even according to the 28-year-old star, nothing to write home about, it wouldn’t be too long before he starred in a string of memorable, well-received films. He earned his first Oscar nomination for 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which was well deserved. “I was cast as Brick, Elizabeth Taylor’s hard-drinking husband, and it was my job to make my character’s refusal to have sex with Elizabeth seem believable,” he once wrote, as documented in The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, a posthumous memoir released in 2022.
The Hustler (1961)
Newman then scored big with 1961’s The Hustler, in which he originated the Felson role that he’d return to in The Color of Money. “Among the male faces in the movie, most of them old, weathered, cold or cruel, Paul Newman’s open and handsome looks are a contrast. But the casting is correct,” Roger Ebert noted about The Hustler, adding, “He doesn’t look like a hustler, but then the best ones never do.”
Newman then played the tortured titled role of alcoholic Hud Bannon, who accidentally kills his brother in a car wreck, in 1963’s Hud.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
As Lucas “Luke” Jackson in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, he played a bullied prisoner who defiantly tries to stand up to the system (and some insanely cruel guards). Of its infamous egg-eating scene (50 of them!), he quipped to Gene Shalit in 1982, “I don’t think I ever swallowed one of them. That’s the joy of editing.”
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
In one of the most iconic Paul Newman movies, He’d close out the decade and form a lifelong bond with co-star (and ping-pong partner) Robert Redford in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, one of his most iconic roles and films. In his memoir, Newman actually confesses to having wanted to play Sundance rather than Cassidy. “I feel a little more comfortable with that cooled-out kind of quality,” he noted.
The Sting (1973)
For the 1973 caper The Sting, he re-teamed with Robert Redford and played Henry Gondorff, one half of a lovable couple of grifters.
Slap Shot (1977)
Newman scored again in 1977’s cult hockey classic Slap Shot playing Reggie Dunlop, a minor league team’s exasperated and aging player-coach.
Absence of Malice (1981)
Sally Field starred as the newspaper reporter tricked into running a piece on suspected racketeer Michael Newman, played by Newman in 1981’s Absence of Malice. “No acting involved there,” the Oscar-winner told Jane Pauley in 2017 about her first scene with the leading man, in which her character nervously spills coffee all over her desk.
The Verdict (1982)
Newman’s star turn in the film earned him another Oscar nod, as did 1982’s The Verdict, another legal-themed film in which he plays Frank Galvin, an alcoholic lawyer trying to salvage his career by facing off against a powerful attorney in a big medical malpractice case.
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
At nearly 70, Paul Newman was still making movies and enjoying success in films like 1994’s Nobody’s Fool, in which he plays aloof Donald “Sully” Sullivan, who surprises himself by stepping up to the plate to help his son and grandson just when they need him most. The New York Times called Newman’s performance “the single best of [that] year and among the finest he has ever given.”
Road to Perdition (2002)
At 77, he’d prove he still had the magic as he earned yet another Oscar nomination for 2002’s Road to Perdition, playing the Depression-era Irish mob boss John Rooney, opposite Tom Hanks.
Empire Falls (2005)
Newman even won an Emmy for his supporting part in HBO’s 2005 miniseries Empire Falls, which was his last on screen role.
He thankfully could still be heard in theaters, however, voicing the animated Doc Hudson for 2006’s Pixar hit, Cars. “The [Doc] character…came very quickly. He was Southern, he was old, he was tired, and he was smart,” Newman noted in a TV interview at the time.
Love & Marriage
Off-screen, Newman’s life had its own share of plot twists and turns. He had three kids from his first marriage to actor Jacqueline Witte, during which Newman met and had an affair with screen vixen Joanne Woodward.
The couple wed in 1958, the year after Witte secured a divorce. Newman and Woodward, who went on to have three kids, also made 11 films together, including 1958’s The Long, Hot Summer, 1960’s From the Terrace, 1961’s Paris Blues, and 1990’s Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. His heart would remain true to Woodward for decades, with Newman famously noting, “I have steak at home. Why should I go out for hamburger?”
In his memoir, Newman credits Woodward with giving birth “to a sexual creature” inside of him. “We left a trail of lust all over the place,” he shared. Their true bond, however, ran much deeper than that. “He’s very good-looking and very sexy and all those things,” Woodward told NBC News, “but all that goes out the window…and what finally is left is, is if you can make someone laugh, that’s very important. And he sure does keep me laughing.”
The actor’s sense of humor, after all, was well-known. Of his legendary and knee-weakening peepers — often described as “Windex blue” — he once quipped, “If my eyes should ever turn brown, my career is shot to hell!”
Life in the Fast Lane
Even if those baby blues magically disappeared, he certainly had other passions to pursue. Inspired by his role in 1969’s Winning, a film in which he plays a race car driver with sights on winning the Indianapolis 500, the actor discovered another true love.
Though he was in his late 40s at the time, he sped off on a romance with motorsports and raced into his 80s. He once walked away from a fiery crash in 2005, refusing to let it shake him up.
He formed the Newman-Haas Racing team, which finished second at the prestigious Le Mans endurance contest in 1979. Legendary driver Mario Andretti even joined Newman’s team in 1983 and was a part of for 12 years, and he’s spoken about how far the actor could’ve gone in the sport if he’d just started at a younger age. Still, Newman was so enamored with the sport once he found it that “film would come second to racing,” as Redford noted in the 2015 documentary Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman.
Paul Newman giving back
When Paul Newman wasn’t making movies or driving cars, he also put the pedal to the metal in terms of giving back to charitable causes. In 1980, the actor, who loved food and was quite skilled in the kitchen, whipped up a batch of salad dressing in a bathtub with pal A.E. Hotchner, and they gave the zesty concoction to their friends as gifts.
It was such a hit that they launched Newman’s Own Salad Dressing, which earned more than $300,000 in sales in its first year alone. Their growing success led to the line now offering a slew of products from popcorn and salsas to lemonade and pasta sauces. “My spaghetti sauce grosses more than my films,” Newman once quipped.
Instead of keeping his earnings to himself, Newman had a better idea: “Let’s give it all away to those who need it!” By the time he passed away, his Newman’s Line had donated more than $250 million in after-tax profits to charities, which included his own Hole in the Wall Gang camps, which honored Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and boasted an Old West setting.
The camps benefitted kids who were battling cancer and other diseases, as well as their families. The actor also raised lots of money for addiction-related centers and charities, as his son, Scott, from his first marriage, died in 1978 due to drug and alcohol dependencies.
“If I leave a legacy,” Newman said in 2006, just two years before his death, “it will be the [Hole in the Wall Gang] camps.” Still, he remained extremely humble for all the good he did for others.
He often turned down flashy public awards and recognition, which he cleverly labeled “honorrhea,” and that even included taking a pass at a presidential award that was to be presented by then-commander in chief Bill Clinton. In fact, when he finally won his Oscar in 1987, he’d skipped the ceremonies. “It’s like chasing a beautiful woman for 80 years. Finally, she relents and you say, ‘I’m terribly sorry. I’m tired,’” Newman would joke about it.
That’s just who he was: a true original movie star turned philanthropist who lived life by his own set of rules. We’ll have all his films—and popcorn, dressings and other goodies — to remember him by, but the sadness upon his passing in 2008 hit hard for everyone who loved him.
“There is a point where feelings go beyond words,” Newman’s pal Redford said in a statement at that time. “I have lost a real friend. My life — and this country — is better for his being in it.”
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