It's been a little over two years since Paul Newman passed away at the age of 83, but his absence is still keenly felt. His career -- and life in general -- could be a template for achieving mega success while retaining dignity and integrity. Not many other film industry figures have the kind of reputation he built over a lifetime; as a truthful, ego-free actor; a massive, if reluctant, sex symbol; and a philanthropic giant and social activist. (As he once quipped: "You can't stop being a citizen just because you have a Screen Actors Guild card.")
Newman's estimable film career was enhanced by his long term marriage to equally esteemed actress Joanne Woodward; his all-proceeds-to-charity Newman's Own line of products, among other philanthropic efforts; and his status as a serious auto racer. He seemed almost too good to be true, but he really was one of the coolest men alive.
Newman appeared in more than 50 feature films in almost 50 years (in addition to theater, television and documentary work), transitioning from the slick Hollywood of the '50s through subsequent eras with ease. So many of his roles and movies are memorable it's hard to pick highlights. We all have our own favorite Paul Newman, the one that comes instantly to mind when his name is mentioned.
For some it's an early incarnation, like his physically and emotionally intense embodiment of Rocky Graziano in 1956's 'Somebody Up There Likes Me,' (replacing originally-cast James Dean). He brought similar heat – and a load of sex appeal – to 'The Long, Hot Summer,' playing a con man who insinuates himself into a wealthy Mississippi family (which included future wife Woodward). He received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his Brick -- to Liz Taylor's Maggie -- in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in 1959.
Many consider Newman's portrayal of self-destructive pool player Eddie Felson in 'The Hustler' (1961) his finest moment, and it's generally believed he was robbed of that year's Best Actor Oscar (losing to Maximilian Schell for 'Judgment at Nuremberg'). Newman would wait 25 years and five more nominations to get the award for playing the same character in Martin Scorsese's sequel 'The Color Of Money.'
Some of Newman's best characters were decidedly unsympathetic. He recreated his Broadway role in the 1962 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' 'Sweet Bird of Youth,' playing an arrogant gigolo to Geraldine Page's faded movie star. The next year he was the crude, hard-drinking title character in Western 'Hud,' a tour de force of brash selfishness that got him yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination. Though lesser known, his turn as the hip, wise-cracking title detective in 1966's 'Harper' is as solid as anything Newman did that decade (he'd reprise the role in 1975's 'The Drowning Pool').
One of his most iconic incarnations was the tough title character in 1967's 'Cool Hand Luke,' a rebellious -- and totally badass -- prisoner in a Southern chain gang that confirmed Newman's affinity for antiheros. The next year he showed an entirely different side, as director of sensitive romantic drama 'Rachel Rachel,' starring Woodward. (He'd go on to helm Ken Kesey's 'Sometimes a Great Notion,' 'The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds' and 'Harry & Son,' a diverse slate of films.)
At the height of his popularity, he co-starred with Robert Redford in 1969's 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' -- a Western that pretty much perfected the buddy/action film genre -- becoming half of arguably the most charismatic (and attractive!) screen duo of our time. In 1973 the two reteamed for 'The Sting,' a similar if slicker buddy-crime caper that nabbed the Best Picture Oscar.
He continued dominating the 1970s as part of the all-star cast of über-disaster flick 'The Towering Inferno,' one of the best of a then-burgeoning genre. In 1977 he reteamed with 'Butch Cassidy' and 'Sting' director George Roy Hill for yet another genre-defining movie, gritty sports dramedy 'Slap Shot,' playing a hustling player-coach of a small-town hockey team.
Newman continued playing solid leads through the 1980s, with another career-boosting role, that of has-been lawyer Frank Galvin, in Sidney Lumet's courtroom drama 'The Verdict.' A few years later, 'The Color of Money' featured some wonderful Newman moments, though it was no match for its excellent predecessor. James Ivory's family drama 'Mr. and Mrs. Bridge' (1990) was worthwhile mainly for the dynamic between Newman's gruffly tyrannical character and Woodward's desperately cheerful one.
The actor turned in two more memorable -- and very different -- performances in the '90s: evil corporate bigwig Sidney J. Mussburger in the Coens' 'The Hudsucker Proxy' and cantankerous near-retiree Donald 'Sully' Sullivan in the drama 'Nobody's Fool.' His last big-screen appearance was an auspicious one; in Sam Mendes' 2002 crime drama 'Road to Perdition,' the 77-year-old Newman imbued crime boss John Rooney with toughness and depth; it's a fitting cap to his stellar body of work.
He'd go on to appear in TV movies 'Our Town' and 'Empire Falls,' and ended his long film career in 2006 by lending his voice to animated comedy 'Cars,' very appropriate given his racing history.
He once said, "I'd like to be remembered as a guy who tried -- who tried to be part of his times, tried to help people communicate with one another, tried to find some decency in his own life, tried to extend himself as a human being. Someone who isn't complacent, who doesn't cop out." It's obvious he fulfilled his mission, on screen and off.