Paul Newman died the other day. He was 83. To be honest it’s awful hard for me to imagine Paul Newman actually being 83 years old. Of course I can’t seem figure out how I got to be my age. It’s one of those things that surprise you about the passage of life’s time. I guess the loss of someone who has always been around pulls focus on your own mortality.
Paul Newman was a true movie star, a real cinema icon. He was to his generation what Clark Gable was to his and what Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt hope to be to theirs, only his fame covered nearly six decades. He was a true man’s man, just one of the guys, who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed or wanted. On screen he was the symbol of untamable and dangerously magnetic sexuality; the kind women find irresistible.
It hit me kind of hard when I heard the news of his passing and in a way that surprised me. Maybe it’s because for most of my life there has been a Paul Newman. I didn’t know Paul Newman, but I knew several people who did. I had some odd brushes with him or those around him, silly things like the time I was sent by an agent to a barber over near the Plaza Hotel, to get my hair cut just prior to having new pictures taken. The barber was Newman’s barber. Geraldine Page had worked with him on Sweet Bird of Youth both on Broadway and in the film and knew him from the Actor’s Studio. She spoke of him often. John Strasberg, with whom I also studied for many years, also knew him and at various times discussed projects they considered collaborating on.
Paul Newman was an Actor’s Studio actor during the time when the studio was the place to be. In the late 40’s and 50’s the Studio produced or was associated with some of the finest actors of all time. Their acting “Method” inspired and set the standard for the generations that followed. Clift, Brando, Dean, Gerry Page, Lee Grant, John Cassavetes, Steve McQueen, Karl Malden, Shelley Winters, Madeline Thornton Sherwood, Marilyn Monroe, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb, Kim Stanley, Sidney Poitier, Joanne Woodward, and of course Paul Newman, just a few names on a very lengthy list of extraordinary actors who stirred something within me, into following that same path. It was the passionate search for truth I saw in their work that motivated me most.
Newman did a lot of live TV during the early and mid 50’s. His performance in Bang the Drum Slowly was memorable. Kinescopes I suspect are still around. He was in Picnic on Broadway, but not in the sexually charged role of Hal, no, he was the straight laced bow tie wearing Alan. There is a kinescope from that time of an audition for the film East of Eden. (Click here to View the video on YouTube.) Dean wears an unbuttoned work shirt and flips a knife in his hand throughout the audition, clean cut Newman wears a white shirt and a bow tie, but the Newman personality we will come to know is present.
It’s quite common for working but not yet famous actors to audition together, but there is an irony here. Of course Dean got the job as Cal in East of Eden and became an instant star. But a couple years later, just days after his shooting schedule on Giant was complete, Dean was killed in a car crash on September 30, 1955. Dean was signed for two Warner Brothers films at the time of his death; The Left Handed Gun, a Billy the Kid saga, for Arthur Penn, and Somebody Up There Like Me, the Robert Wise story of middleweight prize fighter Rocky Graziano. (Watch "Somebody Up There Likes Me" Clip) Newman got both roles and shot to stardom. Pier Angeli played Newman’s wife in Somebody Up There Like Me. Dean had been in love with Pier Angeli, but her mother wouldn’t consent to their marriage because Dean wasn’t Catholic or Italian so instead she married singer Vic Damone, who was both, another irony.
Newman is credited with seventy-one films and it’s one hell of a list. Of the earlier ones Hud and The Hustler remain my favorites. I remember an interview with Newman from the 80’s where the journalist ran down a list of his films, asking Newman to give his response to his work in each of them. More often than not Newman’s reply, especially on the early films was, “Working too hard.”
Like I said, I didn’t know Paul Newman, but I met him a couple times. I worked on Nobody’s Fool, played pool much of the night with him and a few other guys, and I had dinner once with him and his wife Joanne Woodward. That evening remains a very special recollection.
It goes back to those brushes I had with people who knew him. Many years ago I had a good friend who was Joanne Woodward’s roommate up through the time she married Paul. She and Joanne remained friends over all the years. Her name was Rawn Harding. Rawn was part of that Actors Studio magic time in the fifties. She was once married to actor/director Mark Rydell.
She told me once she was sitting at the counter of Childs Pancake House one day talking with James Dean. He looked up and noticed a girl walk in he’d dated once but had never called back. He grabbed Rawn and said, “Quick Rawn, kiss me,” and he did, a very long romantic kiss. Eventually he glanced over her shoulder and noticing the girl turn on her heel and stride out of Child’s. He quickly broke the embrace. “Thanks Rawn, she’s gone,” he said.
“He was nice and a good actor, but he used people,” she told me, a disapproving look passing over her face. Knowing my admiration for Dean’s work, she looked me in the eye, “Don’t you be like that, you’re better that that.” I promised her I wouldn’t. Rawn was more than twenty years my senior, although I never actually asked her age, wasn’t important really. She was a very beautiful, classy woman with great reserve and directness. She was fragile, strong, generous, very kind and a dear friend. She was also a bit of a mentor to me. She taught me or gave me a great many seemingly small or simple things, that in the scheme of things and with the passage of time, I have discovered were things of great value.
I’ll give you an example. One time we climbed into a cab following dinner. As the driver proceeded on his way I leaned forward and began telling him why a different route would have been better. Rawn asked me to lean back and said, “Daniel, you have hired this man to drive us, why don’t you sit back, let him do his work and enjoy the ride.” It was a simple and brilliant way of looking at life that illustrated the futility and uselessness of attempted control. It took me years to learn that, but it was Rawn who planted the seed.
She helped me in a whole lot of other ways, too, practical ways. She introduced me to Doris Mantz at ICM, International Creative Management, a delightful woman who was my agent for many years. She found Allen Shubert for me, a great hair cutter, who cut my hair for more than a dozen years; both things that were invaluable to an actor.
One day she left a message on my answering service to call and left a number. I called the number, she answered. “Are you anywhere near 57th street?” I told her I was and she asked me to stop by at ICM and see her, and she gave me a floor number. Occasionally Rawn would fill in as a receptionist or assistant in offices of various agents at the agency. That day she was the working in Audrey Wood’s office. Audrey Wood was an agent. Tennessee Williams was Audrey Wood’s client as was Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With The Wind. When I arrived Rawn informed me Ms Wood was out of town. “Follow me,” she said. I followed her through a door into an office. It was Audrey Wood’s office. The office was maybe fifteen by twenty. The walls were adorned with framed book covers and movie posters all of them from Gone With The Wind. Virtually every square inch of the office was covered with these frames. That in itself was pretty amazing until on closer inspection I realized that every one of them was in a different language. The enormity of that was truly mind boggling. “I thought you would like to see this,” Rawn smiled. Yeah, she was right, it was important for me to see that room.
Rawn was a delicate soul. In many ways she was the reality of Blanche DuBois the character in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I always wanted to direct her in that role. She would have been very good. There’s a pretty good chunk of irony whirlin’ around in this tale; one more quirk of fate, Rawn died this past June. At the memorial I was chatting with Sabra Jones of the Mirror Theatre. We were talking about Rawn, about how she touched so many lives. “And we’re going to lose Paul next,” she whispered, being discreet so the others around would not hear. “I know,” I nodded.
It was Rawn who was responsible for my meeting Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It is a gift I cherish to this day. Let me explain.
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