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Paul Newman: The Hollywood nice guy

“The best gift you can give yourself is the gift of possibility.” – Paul Newman

If you want to aspire to be like any celebrity hero, then let it be Paul Newman. It is a rare thing indeed that a star can be nominated for ten Oscars, win a Best Actor gong, be a certified Hollywood heartthrob for numerous decades, compete professionally in motorsports, pull off loafers with socks, and yet have all of that transcended by an even more admirable legacy. 

Granted he may have had a few run-ins with the law after heavy drinking sessions left him drunk and disorderly, but these always seemed to be skirmishes where he simply had to sleep off his slur under the watchful eye of the law. In fact, he even seemed to bond with the police over these incidents, learning to empathise with their plight during casual conversations when they were apprehending him.

“I think what I learned about the police,” Newman remarked, “is what a difficult thing it is for them not to become anaesthetised by the suffering, the blood and everything.” It is a solid measure of the man that even in his low moments he seemed to do his utmost to gain an understanding with his fellows. 

This level of self-measure was central to his acting work too. He was born into a wealthy family, but rather than pursue a life in business he sought to fulfil his passion rather than acquiescing to the comfortable measures of success that others would impose upon him. However, despite looking like a Michelangelo police sketch of a Hollywood leading man, by his own admission, his talent was acquired through grit and determination.

As Newman once said: “I don’t know the things that I have a gift for except tenaciousness.” And this tenacity went way beyond mere foraging away to find a footing in the industry. Even as an established leading actor, he remained aware and wary of the pitfalls of fame, disavowing quick cash roles where he played a vapid heartthrob and seeking more meaningful characters. “I picture my epitaph,” he said of his caution about jobs based on his good looks alone, “Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.”

(Credit: Alamy)

At the height of his career, tragedy would befall him when his son suffered a car accident and later died after an accidental overdose of the pain medication that he had been prescribed. Newman started The Scott Newman Centre in order the try and transfigure the grief of losing his son into meaningful change. The centre aimed to raise awareness of drug abuse and aid those in vital need of support. 

Another of Paul Newman’s charitable ventures would be his opus. One day, while making salad dressing for a dinner party, he realised that he was a pretty good saucier. Upon noticing that he had made too much, he wondered whether he could give the rest to neighbours or the local shop. And then his idea went nuclear, he wondered whether he could distribute absolutely bucketloads of the stuff. He partnered with his writer pal A.E. Hotchner and together they formed Newman’s Own and vowed to give all of their profits to charity. All these years later that mantra still stands and it is believed that the brand has raised well over $250 million for charitable organisations around the world. To put that into perspective, Live Aid raised less than half of that. 

Not content with setting up a mere two non-profit companies, he also set up Hole In The Wall Gang summer camps to ensure that disadvantaged children got the chance to enjoy a holiday. Now there are eight camps scattered around the world and they have seen millions of children pass through the doors over the years into a space of joyous escape.

Newman offered this simple explanation for his philanthropy: “I was trying to acknowledge, I think, luck, and what an important part it has played in my life.” That glorious sentiment is one that is still overlooked by so many today where people celebrate their own good fortune and berate others for their lack of it; paying no mind to the classic Kurt Vonnegut law: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Newman was kind in the extreme. In fact, he was so kind that he ended up on Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemy List’ for his outspoken truths about the Vietnam War and socialist inclinations. What’s more, he carried this trailblazing set of beliefs into Hollywood itself, being one of the first actors ever to campaign for equal pay among the sexes and an early outspoken supporter of gay rights. In 2018, Susan Sarandon even remarked that while they were filming the 1998 film Twilight, Newman learned that he and Gene Hackman were earning significantly more than her and he offered to give up part of his salary to ensure that the three leads each received their equitable share. 

From finding his favoured career as a footballer in ruins after injury, his career in the air force likewise shattered due to colour-blindness, and years of fallow work as a lowly actor, he never succumbed to pride when success finally found him. He always remained aware of his own good fortune and while basking in the beauty of it himself, he tried his best to share it with others too. Hollywood might have a dark side, but it has its fair share of heroes too. And boy could he wear the heck out of a suit…