Talking With Paul Newman

Paul Newman at fifty. One of America’s most popular film stars casts a wry look at his profession, his future, and his wife’s consuming interest in life insurance (Newman’s).

by Leonard Probst

PROBST: You have appeared in four plays on Broadway, thirty-live movies, and directed two films.

NEWMAN: Four. Gamma Rays, Rachel, Sometimes a Great Notion, and a twenty-two-minute monologue entitled On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, by Chekhov.

PROBST: The first play you did was Picnic by William Inge. And the first movie you did was no picnic, it was The Silver Chalice.

NEWMAN: NO, I refuse to deprecate that! To have the honor of being the worst picture made in the 1950s, and to have survived! That is no mean feat, I think. I don’t make any apologies for that anymore.

PROBST: You took out an advertisement in Los Angeles apologizing for it at one point. Why do you not apologize for it now?

NEWMAN: I’m a little more mellow and I’m not quite as feisty as I used to be. The first time it was shown on television, I guess, was fifteen years ago.

I took a two-column ad in the Los Angeles Times with a kind of funeral wreath around it, saying that I apologize.

PROBST: The Towering Inferno came out this year.

I thought it would be a junk movie and it was a junk movie, but I thought it was a good junk movie. Also, The Sting made more money than any movie last year and it became the fourth biggest moneymaker in the history of movies. Another thing happened this year that may possibly be the most significant of all—you had a party called “The Big 5-0.”

NEWMAN: Oh!

PROBST: We ought to record that—that’s the sound of pain—human pain! What did you get for your birthday?

NEWMAN: Well, Bedford gave me a Porsche. The Porsche had hit a telephone pole sideways at ninety miles an hour. It had neither transmission nor engine in it, it was an antique version of an antique version. The cockpit was absolutely empty, it had no seats in it. It was sitting in my driveway with a ribbon on it. So, I merely had the whole thing compacted and put in a crate about that big, and to the best of my knowledge its in his vestibule right now. I don’t see how he could move it. It took five guys to get it up there.

PROBST: At the party, you gave a speech?

NEWMAN: Not of any consequence. I pointed out the fact that I was very happy that there were no media people there. But I was also very happy with the media in general because they kept assuring the public that in the last twenty years I’d only shacked up with two people—Joanne and Redford. Then someone sent an article that had appeared in a newspaper saying Mr. Newman confessed he had only shacked up with two people!

PROBST: Who did you invite to the party?

NEWMAN: My friends haven’t really changed that much in twenty years. For the most part, they are screenwriters, actors, and people in the theater. PROBST: George Roy Hill was there, wasn’t he? He directed you in The Sling, of course.

NEWMAN: Yes. George and I have quite a marvelous relationship. He is, I think, an extraordinarily gifted man, he really has a concept of what a movie should be like. He has a great musical sense. He is loyal, affectionate, gifted, and the cheapest son of a bitch that I’ve ever met in my life. That’s why it’s marvelous to play practical jokes on him. You know, he can never afford, emotionally, to retaliate. I sawed his desk in hall in his office because he wouldn’t pay his bill for liquor which he had borrowed from my office. I hat was kind of the beginning of everything.

When I took over the direction of Sometimes a Great Notion, and was in bad shape because I did it involuntarily, he was the first guy to call up and say, “How are you?” I said. “I’m terrible.” He said. “I’ll be up.” He got in his airplane and flew up to Portland and said, “What do you want me to do?” I said. “I’ve got fifteen thousand feet of silent lootage and I don’t even have time to look at it.” So he sat in the cutting room up there for three days, put the sequence together, and I said. “What do I need?” He said. “You need twenty setups, you need a point of view of the kid. you need his walking shot away, and so forth.”And then he got in his airplane and left.

PROBST: HOW long can you continue to play a romantic hero?

NEWMAN: I don’t know, but there’s a little mustard left in the old fox yet! I think it’s all a combination of emotional attitude and genetics. I don’t think I’ve ever felt better. I run a couple or three miles every day and jump in the river out in back. And the reason I run a couple ot miles every day is that Joanne puts me on a rope at the end of a car. She’s very interested in insurance. She will probably outlive me by twelve or fifteen years—and she would like all of it as quickly as possible. So she cracks the ice down there in the river every morning and makes sure I jump in, on the theory it will start my heart or stop it, one way or the other.

PROBST: Can one go the Cary Grant route? Do you decide it’s time to become a director or to portray not the architect, the romantic hero, but the builder, the character role, in future Towering Infernos?

NEWMAN: I don’t know. Motion pictures being what they are today. I might very easily go into marine biology. There are two things working against the actor. One, if you’ve been in the business as long as I have, the audience will simply not accept you in certain parts. People will not accept me with a black wig and a putty nose. That’s not what they want to see. Two, there’s an escapist kind of film which is very fashionable now. The Towering Inferno is a perfect example. I knew that the quicker I got off the screen and the stunt man got on, the quicker the picture would start rolling.

I knew it was going to achieve what it wanted to achieve—and that is to frighten people. It dealt with height, which is very fearful, and fire. The combination in creating a danger movie is irresistible. You call it a junk movie, and I say. yes, it probably is that, but it is a very distinguished junk movie.

PROBST: Distinguished escapist movies are preferable to pretentious movies that take themselves seriously?

NEWMAN: I don’t know what’s happened in the theater, in television, in motion pictures. Writers exhausted themselves in the social upheaval films of the thirties and the forties, and in the kitchen drama, which was Bill Inge, which in a way was Tennessee Williams, the psychological drama of Mommyneverkissed - me - which - is - why -I - am - the - way - I-am. Television exhausted that very early, much before the cycle would have normally if it had just been theater. We’re stuck now with no new vision of life that seems to be dramatizable. The playwrights are exhausted, very much as the institutions in this country are exhausted. There’s not a single institution in this country which isn’t under attack. Congress, the presidency, the church, marriage, feminism, masculinism, the labor unions, corporations, all of them. There is nothing to replace religion and marriage, there is nothing right now to replace the kitchen drama, which, in terms of serious drama and serious theater, replaced the social-upheaval plays of Odets and Kingsley. The writers don’t know what to write about.

PROBST: You recently made a movie. The Drowning Pool. How did you respond to that?

NEWMAN: The Drowning Pool is really a continuation of the Harper character. I simply adore that character because it will accommodate any kind of actor’s invention. He can do the most outrageous things. He can be different characters in order to accomplish certain ends. He can put people on. he’s got a great sense of humor, so I can horse around. It’s just lovely to get up in the morning, it’s great to go to work, because you know you’re going to have a lot of fun that day.

PROBST: Is that character close to you personally? NEWMAN: NO. There are very successful mannerisms from certain parts that stick to your own personality. It may be a walk, it may be a way of listening to people, it may be a story, it may be a way of sizing a person up. You finally wind up as being half what you are yourself and half fragmentations of the characters that you play, not the unsuccessful characters but the successful characters. PROBST: YOU are known for preparing very carefully for roles—for The Sting you watched William Powell play the Thin Man.

NEWMAN: Well. I watched about fifteen of his movies.

PROBST: To observe how a con man plays a con man?

NEWMAN: No, what I did with that, particularly, was just to watch the movies, with no idea of creating that character or anything anywhere near it. I think there are certain things that happen by osmosis, and that’s what I depended on—for that part, at any rate.

PROBST: What did you depend on for The Towering Inferno?

NEWMAN: When you create a role that you think is fairly close to your own upbringing, which mine was basically—Shaker Heights. Ohio, Kenyon College. Yale—and you get a part like the architect, there’s nothing you need draw upon except yourself. When you get a part like Rocky Graziano or Hud or Hombre or the Battler, then you have to draw upon your own observations of other people or your own fantasy. The thing that I’m concerned about right now is that I’m running out of original things and I’m falling back on successful things that I can get away with. I duplicate things now. I don’t work as compactly as I used to work, simply because the demands aren’t asked of me anymore. PROBST: Is there a future for Paul Newman in pornographic movies? If a good writer—a modern Chekhov—were to come alone?

NEWMAN: Well, I don’t think so. No. I’m not interested in pornographic films, not because I have any modesty about them, but I’m not turned on by them. You may have seen me going into Deep Throat in a red beard . . . and a big hat.

PROBST: You once said you were not as interested in concepts or messages as in creating emotions. Why?

NEWMAN: Because I think there’s so little genuine emotion. It’s manufactured—pornographic films probably being the best example. A friend told me that some friends of his had come down to his place in New Jersey and had said. Here’s five thousand dollars—you know where all the action is, make us a pornographic film. So he got four younu ladies from Swarthmore—which I thought was rather interesting—and three or four volunteer truck drivers, and they made a pornographic film for five thousand dollars and brought it back into New York. The distributors, to a man, turned the film down. They said the people were having too much fun, it was done for their benefit and not for the benefit of an audience. And they simply could not distribute the film.

My fantasy of making the perfect movie is very, very simple. You have an idea for a film, you work with a screenwriter or a playwright—it can be either a film or a play—you get a marvelously inventive director, and you cast it the way it ought to be cast, not because you have to cast it a certain way. You get together and you have four incredible weeks of rehearsal and then you shut it down. And no one ever sees it. That would be a marvelous movie. You never crank a foot of film and you never have an audience to come in and see it.

PROBST: Don’t you need public acceptance for what you do?

NEWMAN: NO. I don’t need it anymore. There may have been a time when I did, but I don’t need it anymore.

PROBST: What do you see as your work? Is it to act?

NEWMAN: I’m not sure that I know anymore. There are severe limitations. A script came to me about nine months ago, about Robin Hood. He had just come back from the Crusades and he was over the hill and he was having trouble getting up over those walls. Maid Marian was forty-three, just out of a monastery. Incidentally, under certain circumstances I can do a film if I can bring in a piece of material that will cost less than three million dollars. I get no salary; I participate much later, once the budget is in—and if it’s under three million dollars, they can’t stop me from making the picture.

PROBST: Terrific contract.

NEWMAN: So, with this picture, thev said. How do you plan to play it? And I said. I’m not sure. I would want to look older and I will probably want to put on some weight, I will probably have a beard. And they said, Yes, we suspected as much. And they said the picture would cost about three and a half million dollars without me getting anything, because it is not a small production. They said, We can’t stop you from doing the film if you can brinu it under three million, but we know you can’t do that. We simply don’t want you to make the film. They don’t want to see me play a part like that.

PROBST: You can only play parts in which you are recognizable, in which the image continues. But you’ve got to run three miles every day?

NEWMAN: Oh, I don’t mind that. That’s kind of fun. Tied to the car like that.

PROBST : Do your children watch?

NEWMAN: Watch what?

PROBST: Watch Dad run?

NEWMAN: Occasionally, not very often. Joanne likes to run, incidentally, when she’s not dancing. We have a very peculiar family. Joanne went on point when she was thirty-five—she will be the oldest ballerina to try Swan Lake.

PROBST : You have six children?

NEWMAN: More or less.

PROBST: How many of them have become actors or actresses?

NEWMAN: Well, my daughter Susan has just been cast in her first Broadway play. They’ve all taken the jump rather late. I don’t think they wanted to be connected with the old man’s shirttails. And my son Scott was in a guest-star role on Marcus Welby, his first part.

PROBST: He was in Towering Inferno?

NEWMAN: Yes.

PROBST: Last year your son had given trouble to some .sheriffs in California. What did you say when he called up and said, Hey, Dad, I’m charged with resisting arrest?

NEWMAN: The incident with him was blown ail out of proportion. And I think that’s deliberate. The accusation is always on the first page and the retraction on page nineteen. So what you’re left with is the memory of the accusation without ever knowing really how the whole thing finally came out.

PROBST: What do you do when you get a telephone call like that?

NEWMAN: YOU go in the kitchen and you get about three ice cubes and you chill a beer mug and you sit there and think a while. Listen, there’s not much you can do except offer what support vou feel is required.

The funny thing about it is. I got into acting because I got thrown into jail. I was on the football team at Kenyon College. We always used to have brawls between the town’s guvs and the college kids. We used to swipe their girlfriends at the local gin mill. Those brawls. I thought, were great fun. You wind up with a black eve or a bloody nose, but no one had a chain and nobody had a knife and nobody had a gun and you knew it was on a one-to-one basis and there was a great sense of humor because vou’d see these guys on Monday and you’d try to knock out a couple of teeth the next Saturday night. It was part of the culture in those days.

There was a big brawl out there and the quarterback and the first-line guard and tackle were thrown in the clink, and as they were taken out by the local gestapo, one of the guvs threw me his keys and said. “Drive my car in.” and so I drove his car in about a half an hour later and went into the sergeant’s office, and I said, “Burt asked me to give you his keys.”He said, “Let me take a look at your knuckles.”So the door closed in back of me. Four were thrown out of school and two of us were placed on probation. And it was simply because I couldn’t play football anymore and I didn’t want to study that I went back into the theater. About ten days later I got my first part in a play there—this was my junior year I was in ten subsequent plays as a result of that. I have the funny feeling that if I had never been thrown in the clink I would have become an economics major and would have been in a sporting goods business in Cleveland, Ohio.

Q (from the audience): Since you are so bankable, wouldn’t you have the power, more or less, to do what you want to do in the movies?

NEWMAN: The Robin Hood thing is a perfect example. Not entirely. I get the best scripts, under the most prestigious auspices. And they are uniformly bad. I have not read a serious film that’s any stood. I’ve read films that purport to be about serious things, and they’re simply no good. The big problem, of course, is. if you decide to do a serious film, whether it be about the United Nations or about the Indians or about homosexuality, it it’s about a serious subject, then you better make certain that the material is impeccable. It doesn’t make any difference if you do a bad western, it doesn’t make any difference if you do a bad disaster film, but if you do a bad film about a serious subject, you’ve done the subject a disservice. You’ve got to be three times as careful, and the writer must be four times as good, if you’re going to do a serious film.

PROBST: In The Towering Inferno, did you do those riskv things we saw you do?

NEWMAN: I tried to stay away from that. My theory about all of that stunt stuff is you do what you can do well. If you can’t do it well, you don’t blow the movie just to glorify your own ego.

Q: What role did you find most challenging, and what did you like best?

NEWMAN: There’s a lot of difference. The thing that the critics don’t understand and sometimes the public does not understand is, you may start off with a script which you have great hopes for. It may or may not come off. Do you give yourself more points for making something almost good out of something that’s mediocre? Or do you give yourself more points for doing a picture like The Hustler, where the character was always there, in which it was just a matter of digging? I give myself more points for a picture like WUSA than I do for The Hustler, because that part demanded a lot more.

Q: What do you think of the Academy Award structure?

NEWMAN: Well, it’s been a matter of common knowledge that the Academy Awards do not represent what the actor would call any great critical acclaim. I think it’s important for, let’s say, a small film. I think it was very important that Rachel was nominated. Not because it meant more money in the coffers, but when I did that film, I had something to prove, since the film had been turned down by every major studio. I wanted people to see it. I wanted people to see the material. I wanted them to see the performances. The Towering Inferno winning the best special-effects award is not going to make any difference.

The Academy does some things that are outrageous; for instance. Dede Allan is the best cutter in the business, but she works in New York. She has never been nominated for an Academy Award although she cut Rachel, she cut Arthur Penn’s film, she cut all of Kazan’s films, she cut The Hustler, yet she’s never been nominated because she’s a New York cutter, and the film editors are nominated by Los Angeles film editors.

PROBST: One of the things written about you is that you are a New York fellow, that you are the biggest actor in the movies not to live out there, and that because of your liberal tendencies you’ve been nominated for four Oscars but the only Oscar in your home in Westport. Connecticut, belongs to your wife. Would you take an award if they gave it to you?

NEWMAN: I would have to weigh that very seriously. I don’t know. At one point in my life. I suppose. an Oscar would have been very important, but I don’t need the medals anymore. I’d probably be very indifferent unless it was for a very specific reason in terms of penetration.

PROBST: What do you mean, penetration?

NEWMAN: Being able to make a film be seen.

Q: What is your reaction to the New York critics? NEWMAN: What can I say about that? The critics have too much power. I’m not always certain that their credentials are belter than ours in terms of judging something. But it works both ways. It has worked both ways with me. Without the notices Rachel got, it would have gone right straight into the sewer. By the same token, I thought they were rather harsh with, let’s say, Gamma Rays. It’s very simple, you know: when things are good, the critics are great, and when they’re not good, they’re terrible.

Q: Why do you prefer living in the New York area to Hollywood?

NEWMAN: I can be much more private in Connecticut. People can’t catch up with you there as easily, and I’ve never liked the California scene. No, I can’t say that. What I really like is mobility.

I love California for about a year. I like Connecticut for about two and a half years. The fact that I can move back and forth is a great luxury. We have a lot of options, and that’s very pleasant. I’ve stayed here because New York was always exciting for me and I suppose even the memory of that odor still lingers although the activity is long gone. And I like the seasons.

When Joanne and I used to come back in the middle fifties and sixties. I remember one time we came back over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge and it was as though someone had dropped the flag or something. We both were quietly weeping into our beer, at just the joy of coming back to where the action was. Those were the days of live television.

Chayevsky, Tad Mosel, Tennessee, and Arthur Miller, Bill Inge—and Off-Broadway was just getting started. And to leave that rather sterile pad out in California and come back here was a high point of the year. It isn’t anymore, and I don’t know whether I’ve become less susceptible to stimuli like that or whether it’s deader. I suspect it’s deader.

Q: What was it like working with Tennessee Williams and Kazan in Sweet Bird of Youth?

NEWMAN: It was really interesting. I was getting successful and very confident, and that’s exactly the quality that Kazan didn’t want. And the thing that I give him points for in terms of the play is the way he handled me. I learned a great deal from that. Whenever he would give me a piece of direction or whenever I would come over with an idea, he would say, “Paul, try this.” And I’d say, “Okay.” Or he’d come over to Geraldine Page and she’d say, “What if I try this?” and he’d say, “Try it.” And so we would play the scene, and then we would separate, and I would hear him go over to Geraldine and say, “Ah, right on!” I’d say, “God,

I thought she was really off a little bit, that’s not what I expected her to do.” Then he would walk over to me and say, “Ah, try it again.” He was chopping me down. By opening night, it was marvelous. I didn’t have any security in the part at all. And that’s precisely what he wanted. Tennessee was going through bad times then, really bad times, and I didn’t see as much of him as I should have.

Q: Do you feel acting studios help a young person who wants to be an actor?

NEWMAN: The Actors Studio, whether they like it or not, has either credit or blame for what I’ve become as an actor. I certainly came out of a very academic background, which was not very helpful, and I learned everything I’ve learned about acting at The Actors Studio. But in those days it was known what was required of you. So the people who taught could teach you that. It was naturalism, it was the school of Inge, Miller, and Tennessee, and very realistic and emotional things on television, the Robert Montgomery Presents and The Philco Playhouse. As the playwright flounders, the actor flounders, and the acting schools flounder because they don’t know what’s fashionable or what works. And so I don’t know how valuable those schools are now.

Q: Do you want to work with big American film directors such as Peckinpah or Bogdanovich? NEWMAN: I have no urge to work with any specific directors or actors. I only have a very real desire to find a script that’s genuinely distinguished.

Q: Do you think a director makes a film?

NEWMAN: No. I don’t think the director makes the film if the characters are interesting. The characters can carry a film, too. If the story is good enough, the story can carry a film. I think there are probably only two genuinely original filmmakers in this country, Kubrick is one and the other is Cassavetes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good, but they’re original. I’ve turned down a lot of films because there’s been a lot of violence in them — but it’s reflective of our times. I’m bored by it. That’s why I’m not interested in working with Peckinpah.

PROBST: Does it bother you if an actor runs for political office? Like Ronald Reagan?

NEWMAN: I don’t like Ronald Reagan, but 1 think an actor shouldn’t be denied the privilege of running for public office because he’s an actor, any more than I think an actor should be denied the privilege of campaigning for a candidate because he’s an actor.

PROBST: Have you become less political in the last year? I know you supported Ramsey Clark. NEWMAN: The whole country has become less political. I’m getting tired. I’m going to leave it up to you people now.

Q: How do you feel when you are in a gathering with a lot of females who are oohing?

NEWMAN: I’m faintly embarrassed, because what is created on celluloid has about half to do with me and half to do with what the playwright gives me to do.

Q: The gay world sees your films as having a pervasive theme—and Joanne’s also—of a same-sex friendship. What about gav civil rights?

NEWMAN: Well, if people can find serenity and peace and comfort among each other. I’m certainly not interested in what their sexual proclivities or their sexual interests are. In England they’ll do Sunday, Bloody Sunday, they are not concerned about whether they’re playing homosexuals, or lesbians, or anarchists, or fascists. They merely go out and play the characters. If that’s what’s being written, and it’s interesting, then they’ll do it. But I have a sneaking feeling that if I were to play a homosexual, it simply would not be accepted by the audience, that they’d go away saying. Well, there’s something fake about that. So. I am in a dilemma. Q: Do you feel you owe anything to your fans, such as autographs?

NEWMAN: It’s a matter of public knowledge that I don’t sign autographs. Mostly because you say. What do you owe?—well. I think I owe one thing, and that is to give the best and most competent performance that I can. To say that I am required by some kind of mystic law to be stopped every fifty feet on Fifth Avenue and be required to put my signature on a piece of paper, or if I’m having dinner with my children in a restaurant, to be bothered. I say, No. I’m sorry, those rules were made thirty or forty years ago, and I was not allowed to vote, I wasn’t even around to vote on it.