“I check my pulse and if I can find it, I know I’ve got a chance” – Paul Newman
Political activist, auto-racing enthusiast and legendary actor Paul Newman had many strings to his bow, appearing in some of Hollywood’s greatest ever films from The Sting, to Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
Establishing himself onto the cinematic landscape from the late 1950s, he would thrive as a result of his good looks and natural charm through to the end of the millennium and seal off a magnificent career at the turn of the 2000s.
His legacy is one praised for its cinematic impact but also elevated by his extraordinary charity work outside of the silver screen. Co-founder of Newman’s Own, a food company that donated all its post-tax profits to charity, raising over $550 million, as well as the founder of SeriousFun Children’s Network giving those with serious illnesses the opportunity to go on holiday.
His life’s work continues on today as a working, living legacy, but so too does his achievements in cinema, his films shining as bright beacons marking the greatest of 20th century American filmmaking.
Let’s take a look at his very best…
Paul Newman’s 10 greatest movies:
10. Slap Shot (George Roy Hill – 1977)
Director of Paul Newman’s previous outings The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot puts Newman in a challenging comedic role that the actor embraces and excels in.
A slapstick comedy that barely made a significant mark upon its release, Paul Newman’s role as Reggie Dunlop, the coach of a failing ice-hockey team, is ferociously enjoyable. A brash, arrogant man who chooses to take violence to his teams’ opponents, Dunlop might be a comedy caricature but Newman helps to ground the character in some sort of reality, taming the otherwise raucous comedy with a highly enjoyable performance.
9. Nobody’s Fool (Robert Benton – 1994)
Based on the novel of the same name from writer Richard Russo, Newman’s late-career performance in Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool is subtle, quiet, and a genuine tour-de-force.
Narrowly missing out on an Academy Award (losing to Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump) for his role as Sully, a stubborn, cranky elderly man who begins to reflect on his life following his reconnection with his estranged son and grandson. Combatting the perpetual fate of old-age, Newman’s profound portrait of a broken elderly man is heartbreaking and humble, though trickled with some of Newman’s hallmark wit and charm.
8. The Verdict (Sidney Lumet – 1982)
Many believe Paul Newman’s role as Frank Galvin in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict to be his greatest ever performance, one perfectly layered with a fragile vulnerability as well as a dominating assertion.
Adapted from Barry Reed’s novel, the story sees Newman’s Frank Galvin, a lawyer and alcoholic, at the centre of a medical malpractice case against a powerful catholic hospital. Instead of settling in the face of a difficult case, Newman represents the dogged determination of American justice in order to see the case through to a fair verdict. Having to tackle his own inner traumas in order to fight for the justice of the victims, Newman’s galvanising and emotional performance is an absolute powerhouse.
7. The Colour of Money (Martin Scorsese – 1986)
With a little help from the legendary director Martin Scorsese, Paul Newman would finally win his first Oscar in The Colour of Money, the semi-follow-up to his iconic 1961 film The Hustler.
Newman’s Eddie Felson is a changed man since his days as a hustler, and has now turned his trade into tutoring those who want to make it big in the pool. Taking Tom Cruise’s Vincent under his belt, Eddie teaches him all the tricks of his trade as his new protege becomes too cocky and the old hustler must return to the game. Exciting and animating, The Colour of Money contains few of the hallmarks that make Scorsese so revered, but this is no bad thing, with Newman’s absorbing, magnetic performance as Eddie Felson he helps Scorsese to resurrect a classic, stylish tale.
6. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks – 1958)
A classic adaptation of the timeless Tennesee Williams play, Richard Brook’s version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a film with thematic value way ahead of its time.
The homosexual hero at the centre of the plot is Paul Newman’s Brick Pollitt, an ex-American football player who now wills his life away with excessive drinking and an apathetic attitude towards his wife. This all changes upon the arrival of his father, whose terminally ill condition takes both characters down a road of past revelations.
Brooks’ sublime adaptation is endlessly powerful and emotionally manipulative, led by Newman’s stellar performance as a broken man coming to terms with his own self-hatred. He was unlucky not to receive an Academy Award.
5. Hud (Martin Ritt – 1963)
Captured in muddy monochrome, Martin Ritt’s adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel is a deeply heartbreaking, dark and troubled Texan drama.
Newman plays the deeply damaged ranch hand Hud Bannon, a man scarred by the accidental killing of his brother in a car crash and the alcoholism he has consequently sunken into. Frank and emotionally heavy, Hud was unlike many Hollywood films of the time, portraying a defeated individual whose arrogant, amoral sensibilities, made him a difficult if sympathetic protagonist.
Whilst fellow cast members Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas would each take home Academy Awards for their performances, Newman would narrowly miss out to Sidney Poitier, and would have to wait another 23 years until achieving Oscar success.
4. The Sting (George Roy Hill – 1973)
The second and final film the iconic cinema duo of Paul Newman and Robert Redford would make alongside each other, the highly accomplished heist film The Sting was directed by previous collaborator George Roy Hill, the great mind behind both Slap Shot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Set in the background of the American Depression in the early 20th century, Newman and Redford play Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker respectively, a pair of con men who team up to pull off an elaborate heist on a murderous racketeer. With thanks to both the utterly natural chemistry of the two leading men, as well as a fun, snappy script from David S. Ward, The Sting would earn itself an Academy Award for best picture and become an iconic comedy caper as a result.
3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill – 1969)
Based loosely on the real-life crimes of two of the infamous Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a somewhat unconventional Hollywood Western that asks the audience to sympathise with the crooked duo.
Directed once more by consistent Newman collaborator George Roy Hill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid follows the pair of outlaws as they evade a pursuing posse and head for Bolivia following a botched train robbery. Effortlessly elevating each others performance, Newman and Redford star as the two titular characters, snapping droll dialogue back and forth thanks to William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay.
What’s more, the film is also responsible for one of cinema’s most iconic ending shots…
2. The Hustler (Robert Rossen – 1961)
The original iteration of “Fast” Eddie Felson that we would later see in Martin Scorsese’s The Colour of Money, The Hustler is a stylish, unconventional sports film with a seriously smart performance from Newman in the lead role.
Robert Rossen’s film follows Newman as Eddie Felson, a cocksure up-and-coming pool player who plans to face a long-time champion in a high-stakes match. Along the way, the arrogant young gun cons less-skilled players out of their money and falls for a writer played by Piper Laurie. It’s one of Newman’s most iconic, confident and suave roles, and one which would later reward him 25 years later when he would reprise his role as Eddie Felson in Scorsese’s quasi-sequel.
1. Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg – 1967)
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” – Captain
Paul Newman’s portrayal of the iconic “Cool Hand Luke” is amongst his finest performances, a cool, rebellious and county-cultural thorn in the side of the prison conformity in which he resides.
After getting arrested for cutting parking meters off their poles in a drunken rage, war veteran Luke, played by Paul Newman, is arrested and sentenced to two years in a Southern-American rural prison. There, he refused to conform to the authoritative hand of the wardens, despite unbearable torture his charming arrogant will cannot be broken. The impregnable spirit of Luke in the face of harsh adversity is what makes the character so beloved, and the story so memorable, particularly considering its pertinence to modern-day sentiments.