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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 1, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    Paul Newman, political activist

    Deaglán de Bréadún


    The extent of the coverage given to Paul Newman’s death was a little surprising. A major star in the past, he was not a name on the lips of young moviegoers today. But like all good actors, he had a strong sense of timing and this showed, even in his departure.

    He passed away on Friday last and the news was on the wires Saturday morning. This gave the Sunday papers (usually starved for news) ample time to prepare generous spreads – also the equally news-starved Monday publications. Newman would still be a name anyway to the age-group which runs the production side on most papers.

    It was always my understanding that Newman was an atheist or at least an agnostic and I have seen a quote attributed to him that, “If you don’t do it here, it doesn’t get done.” I don’t know if he maintained that stance until the end, when he was diagnosed with cancer.

    Living to the age of 83 is a good innings which we would all wish to emulate. Like many people, I seem to have been watching Paul Newman movies ever since I could walk, starting at the latest with Exodus, a saga about the birth of Israel which would probably be picketed by the Left and bombed by Islamic fanatics if it were to come out now. 

    You were always pretty sure of a good night’s entertainment: he didn’t do “plonkers”. He was a contemporary of James Dean,  who could have been the greatest of them all if he hadn’t died tragically at 24, and Marlon Brando, who was the greatest of them all.

    Good as he was, Newman never achieved the heights scaled by Brando in On the Waterfront and The Godfather. His biggest successes were on the light entertainment side, e.g, Butch Cassidy and The Sting. There is a telling quote from Lee Strasberg of the legendary Actors’ Studio, who said Newman never equalled Brando because he “coasted on his good looks”. It could be argued that he didn’t do enough movies with the lucky combination of great script and great director that every actor needs to make it to the ranks of the  immortals.

    Newman’s charity work is well-known in this country. The Barretstown Camp for sick children is a wonderful institution. His “Newman’s Own” salad dressings were a purely altruistic enterprise and all credit to him for that (they’re pretty good dressings too).

    He was also a political activist who contributed funding to the left-liberal Nation magazine. He played his part in the civil rights movement in the US.  A strong supporter of the presidential candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy and a forthright opponent of the Vietnam War, Newman made it onto Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” which was apparently a source of great pride to him.  He was the polar opposite in politics to Charlton Heston, another big box-office draw, who had a strong predilection for right-wing causes and was a major supporter of the gun lobby in the US. One wonders if Newman’s political activism had a bearing on the inordinate length of time taken to award him an Oscar.

    I suppose if you were to bracket Newman he would be in the same league as the ultra-cool Steve McQueen: women fancied him and men wanted to be like him, although Newman was the better actor. Like McQueen, he was a racing-car enthusiast and took part in the sport at the Mondello circuit. I understand that Newman was quite small in stature, but of course this did not come across on the screen. Like many in Ireland, he was said to be “fond of a drop” and, when he felt like it, could put away the beer and wine with the best of them.

    It’s hard to imagine life without Paul Newman who brought so much fun and enjoyment to us all. He was a great human being, by all accounts and a good friend to this country. I hope it was not too difficult for him at the end. I shall celebrate his life by taking out one of his old movies on DVD (From the Terrace is one I’d be interested in: I have a vague recollection of seeing it in a cinema in Wexford town as a kid) and watching it someday soon.

    Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times


    • David White says:

      I only watched Exodus for the first time ever a few months ago. It’s a real propaganda piece. Complete distortion of the facts (as I understand them anyway), and probably even racist. As you say, the Left would go mad if such a film were to be released today.

    • Steve Rawson says:

      He was a little taller than you Deaglán – 5’9″. But he was similar in that he had a devilish grin, drank like a fish and would then give away all his money before struggling home to dear ol’ Joanne

      Anyway, anyone who could eat 50 eggs and be on Nixon’s hit list is fine by me.

    • Deaglán says:

      Good to hear from you Steve and thanks for the pen pictures! I should add that I don’t actually drink, tho’ I’ve eaten a lot of eggs in my time. But give me a call and we’ll go for coffee so you can tell me all the dark secrets of the Greens from the days when you worked for them as press officer.

    • Tim says:

      Deaglán, Thank you for this piece in tribute to a great man who, actually, did not receive adequate credit for his contribution to the world through good works as well as entertaining us so well as an actor.

    • Susan says:

      “One wonders if Newman’s political activism had a bearing on the inordinate length of time taken to award him an Oscar.”

      Um, have you seen some of the folks who have received Oscars? Especially in the 70′s era. Political activism in Hollywood is not an impediment unless one is on the far right. There is no rhyme or reason to the Oscars really.

    • Susan says:

      By the way, Charlton Heston also marched for civil rights and much like Ronald Reagan started out as a liberal until moving to the right.

    • Deaglán says:

      Same was true of Frank Sinatra. He and Reagan apparently couldn’t tolerate the hippy culture of the 1960s, the long hair and the draft-dodgers.

    • Ivor says:


      According to a 1982 interview with John Skow for Time magazine, Newman – whose father was Jewish – apparently did not follow any religion as an adult. According to Skow, “he (Newman) calls himself a Jew” because in Newman’s words “it’s more of a challenge”.

      I guess therefore it might be more accurate to say he was an atheistic Jew, although as you suggest the diagnosis of cancer may have affected his beliefs. Perhaps he became a Catholic Jew – his Catholic-born mother eventually became a Christian Scientist – so perhaps he became a Catholic-Christian Scientist Jew – just to be on the safe side. Why take chances!

    • Deaglán says:

      This reminds me of the Belfast story about the guy who declared he was an atheist. “But are you a Catholic or a Protestant atheist?” he was asked.

    • Ivor says:

      David White,

      Is there anything or anyone that “The Left” opposes that they would not automatically in the end accuse of being “racist”? Those who have no real arguments usually resort to name-calling. This the left has in common with its opposite, “The Fascist Right!”

    • movie fan says:

      I have always admired Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways… His Newman’s Own line is high quality stuff and the proceeds go to good causes, win-win

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