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