The arc of Paul Newman’s life – who died at 83 on Friday – is like that elusive, flawless 90-mph drive around the race track, something Mr. Newman enjoyed doing competitively in his middle age. No sudden braking, no sudden swerves, just a smooth, hard-charging negotiation of the curves and straightaways; exhilarating and daring, but always under control.
It was a life many men would envy. A handsome actor, whose looks never deserted him, Mr. Newman married fellow movie star Joanne Woodward in 1958, and they stayed married. They raised their children in Connecticut, far from the circus of Hollywood. Mr. Newman’s undeniable charisma and mesmerizing blue eyes may have put him in movies, but his acting is what sustained him as a leading man through the late 1960s and 1970s. He turned down films that would have earned him big paychecks in favor of challenging, interesting projects. Two of those films, “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls,” helped introduce Maine’s wonderful novelist Richard Russo to the rest of the nation.
It was in the late 1960s that he took up car racing. When his cars won, he deflected the credit onto his team. And his demeanor at the races suggested that he was more interested in testing himself than winning trophies.
Many movie, music and sports stars give back. But Mr. Newman put his own spin on charity. In his late 40s he launched, with his family, what has become an extraordinarily successful company, Newman’s Own, selling, among other things, popcorn, salad dressing, salsa, spaghetti sauce, coffee and dog and cat food. The ingredients were always healthful, the quality always excellent. Every post-tax dollar – estimated at $250 million – has been donated to worthy causes.
Mr. Newman’s formative years are not as well known, and they are possibly the most instructive, particularly to young men and women. Though he never seemed to make a wrong move over the last 50 years, there were plenty of stumbles in his early 20s. After serving in the Navy Air Corps on a torpedo bomber in the South Pacific during World War II, Mr. Newman struggled to adjust to civilian life. A profile of him in Esquire magazine in 2000 said he had been tossed off his college football team, and “made the front page back home in Cleveland after duking it out with the cops.”
He managed a golf range, sold encyclopedias door-to-door and had been “a grim disappointment to his father,” failing at running the family business, a sporting goods store, which had to be sold.
So if there is a lesson to learn from Mr. Newman’s golden life, it is that a late start doesn’t predict where you’ll be when the checkered flag comes down.