Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman R.I.P.

His last film role.

We lost one of the greats this weekend. Not just a great actor, but a great human being. Paul Newman, that tall angular leading man of the ice blue eyes and scrappy attitude, passed into the great beyond this weekend, at age 83. He had cancer in his last years but you probably didn't know; he fought it with quiet dignity, and didn't become infused with a sudden need to raise money and awareness of a disease he was dying of. Besides, he already donated $250 million to charity through his "Newman's Own" products- which started as a lark and became a household name. And damn, Paw Newman makes some good cookies.
My cousin Lou Taylor Pucci got to ride in Mr. Newman's private jet when they were filming one of his last projects, Empire Falls. It was a two-part HBO miniseries based on Richard Russo's novel about a dying New England town. Lou played a teen kicked around by shitty parents and school bullies; Newman was a shiftless old moocher, and played the part with gusto. The part had shades of an early famous role as Hud, the amoral prodigal son, all growed up; it was original enough that we weren't sure if we liked it, because he hit the truth about absentee, self-absorbed family men. You want to like them, but it's like hugging a porcupine.
Holding his own against force of nature Jackie Gleason

Newman may have played heroic rebels as in my favorite film of his, Cool Hand Luke, but he made his bones playing tragically flawed men. Eddie from The Hustler, who never knew when to quit; Sully in Nobody's Fool, who was anything but; Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, living in Big Daddy's shadow; the fearsome Judge Roy Bean. Then there were the anti-heroes with that sly grin of his, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or the grifter in The Sting. Or his breakout role as Rocky Graziano in the boxing classic Somebody Up There Likes Me. Somebody sure did, and he turned those steely good looks into a serious acting career after being dismissed as another pretty face at first.
He had a sense of humor about himself too.

One of his great later roles as the washed-up lawyer in The Verdict will be on Cinemax this week. And Turner Classic Movies is certain to do a retrospective, if you need some catching up. As for me, I'm glad the race-car obsessed fellow got his last memorable role as a voice in Cars, a fitting end. Kids'll recognize Doc's voice in an old b/w film and perhaps give it a try sometime. And they'll become acquainted with unforgettable characters like Luke, or Butch Cassidy. Rest in peace, Paul. I've got some dressing of yours in the fridge, maybe I'll have some salad and hard-boiled eggs tonight while I watch you sing "Plastic Jesus" in Cool Hand Luke.

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