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Film icon Paul Newman dies at 83

Paul Newman, the Academy Award-winning star, activist, racecar driver and salad dressing impresario, died Friday at his home near Westport, Conn., after a long battle with cancer. He was 83.

The star of “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Color of Money” also pioneered celeb endorsements of candidates and championed numerous charitable causes, many of them supported by his highly successful line of food products.

His five daughters released a statement remembering their father as “a rare symbol of selfless humility, the last to acknowledge what he was doing was special. Intensely private, he quietly succeeded beyond measure in impacting the lives of so many with his generosity. Always and to the end, Dad was incredibly grateful for his good fortune … He will be profoundly missed by those whose lives he touched, but he leaves us with extraordinary inspiration to draw upon.”

“There is a point where feelings go beyond words,” Robert Redford said in a statement. “I have lost a real friend. My life — and this country — is better for his being in it.”

MPAA chairman Dan Glickman said: “Paul Newman soared to fame with a fondness for portraying scamps, louts and ne’er-do-wells, yet he will be remembered as an artist, gentleman and humanitarian whose extraordinary career was rivaled in every respect by an exemplary life. Incredibly, the effect of his charitable work will rival and perhaps even exceed the legacy he leaves us all on the silver screen.”

With his striking blue eyes and a handsome face that looked like a Rodin sculpture, Newman developed from a star presence into an Oscar-winning actor unafraid to tackle difficult roles.

Born in Cleveland, Paul Leonard Newman was the son of a sporting goods salesman. He grew up in the affluent Shaker Heights neighborhood. At 18, after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Navy and hoped to be a fighter pilot but was disqualified because of color blindness. He served out his tour of duty in the Pacific as a radioman third class.

After the war, he attended Kenyon College in Ohio on the G.I. Bill. He admitted that he was not much of a student; after being kicked off the college football team, he turned to acting. He said later, “I was probably one of the worst college actors in history.”

After college, he worked in Midwest summer stock until 1950, when his father died and Newman took over the family sporting goods business. When the business was sold a year later, he enrolled in the Yale School of Drama. After a year he left school for New York, where he landed parts in episodes of TV’s “The Mask,” “The Web” and “The Aldrich Family.”

In 1953, Newman was hired as understudy to Ralph Meeker in William Inge’s “Picnic” on Broadway. During rehearsals, however, he was upped to second male lead. Despite good notices, he still felt inadequate as an actor and started attending the Actors Studio, studying with Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt.

Warner Bros. offered a five-year contract in 1954, starting him at $1,000 a week. Newman then had to overcome one of history’s more disastrous screen debuts in “The Silver Chalice,” a wretched biblical costume drama, which led Newman to say, “I’ll never again wear a cocktail dress in a movie.” (When it was first shown on TV, Newman took out a wry ad in Variety apologizing for his performance.) The film sent him running back to Broadway, where he racked up great notices as the killer in “The Desperate Hours.”

He continued to work in television, including “The Death of Billy the Kid” on “Philco TV Playhouse” and a musical version of “Our Town” with Frank Sinatra and Eva Marie Saint. He was set to co-star with James Dean in TV’s “The Battler,” adapted from an Ernest Hemingway story, when Dean died in a car crash. Newman was given Dean’s showier role as an over-the-hill boxer, and his work convinced director Robert Wise to cast him as Rocky Graziano in the film “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in 1956. He offset more routine fare as “The Helen Morgan Story” and “Until They Sail” with work in films such as Arthur Penn’s nervy “The Left Handed Gun.” He continued to work in television drama, most notably “Bang the Drum Slowly” and “The 80 Yard Run.”

At this point, Warners was paying him $17,500 a week and loaned him out at $75,000 for films such as “The Long Hot Summer” and his first major hit, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in 1958. The pairing with Elizabeth Taylor in a sanitized screen version of Tennessee Williams’ hit stage play brought both actors Oscar nominations.

After more routine projects like “Rally Round the Flag Boys,” “The Young Philadelphians” and “From the Terrace,” Newman bought himself out of his Warners contract and returned to Broadway, where he created the part of Chance Wayne opposite Geraldine Page in Kazan’s production of Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.” (They reprised their roles for the play’s 1962 film adaptation.)

By 1960, Newman was a major star. He starred in Otto Preminger’s “Exodus,” followed by his second Oscar-nominated performance as pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in 1961’s “The Hustler.” In 1963, he starred as another memorable antihero in “Hud,” which brought a third Oscar nomination.

Films of varying quality followed, including “What a Way to Go!,” “The Outrage,” “Harper,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 “Torn Curtain” and “Hombre.” However, Newman was never less than good, even when the films (“The Prize,” “Lady L”) were awful.

Then came his fourth Oscar nom in 1968 for the iconoclastic chain-gang drama “Cool Hand Luke” — the film that made the phrase “What we have here is a failure to communicate” a motto of the ’60s counterculture. By decade’s end, Newman was consistently among the top 10 box office draws in the country.

He married twice, first to actress Jacqueline Witte in 1949. When they divorced in 1958, he promptly married actress Joanne Woodward. Two of their daughters, Melissa Newman and Elinor, aka Nell Potts, also became actors.

Newman and Woodward were active in liberal politics, supporting the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and throwing their support behind George McGovern four years later. Newman spoke out for civil rights, environmental protection and a nuclear freeze.

Newman was one of the first of a new brand of actor-activists with an interest in the civil rights era and the anti-Vietnam war movement — an interest that led to a more aggressive approach to political involvement. In early 1968, Newman campaigned tirelessly for McCarthy, then a relatively unknown senator from Minnesota.

When President Lyndon Johnson suffered crushing results in the New Hampshire primary and decided to exit the race, some advisers pointed to Newman as a reason for his challenger’s success. Without the movie star, the Granite State voters may not have taken a look.

He even toyed with the idea of running for office but said he realized he’d be elected “for all the wrong reasons.”

In the ensuing years, Newman’s political involvement landed him a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemies list — “one of my proudest achievements,” he would say many years later.

“More than the films, more than the awards, finding out that I was on Nixon’s enemies list meant that I was doing something right,” he declared.

Beyond serving as a delegate to the 1968 convention, he rejected overtures that he get into politics, but he continued to support Democratic party causes and was a frequent donor. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to a United Nations General Assembly session on disarmament. In 2004, he and a group of other stars canvassed homes in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Newman even knocked on the door of his childhood home to convince the new owners to vote for John Kerry. “I don’t give up my citizenship just because I’m an actor,” he told Salon.

His 1968 feature-directing debut, “Rachel, Rachel,” a sensitive story of impending middle age starring Woodward, received four Oscar nominations, including best picture. The film revived her career and brought Newman a director award from the New York Film Critics Circle. (Woodward also won.)

He went on to direct several other films and telepics, including “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1971), “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” (1972), telepic “The Shadow Box” (1980), “Harry and Son” (1984) and a TV version of “The Glass Menagerie” (1987).

In 1969, Newman started his own production company with John Foreman. The venture’s first film was the racecar drama “Winning,” which also initiated Newman into the sport that became his passion. And he found he had a real talent for it.

His first professional victory came in the rain at an SCCA trans-Am race at Brainerd, Minn., in 1982. He drove in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he co-drove a Porsche 935 to second place in 1979.

When it came to racing, Newman was interested in more than just being in the cockpit. He became a car owner in the Can-Am Series, campaigning cars for a number of top drivers. After competing against team owner Carl Haas in Can-Am, Newman formed a partnership with the Chicago businessman, starting Newman/Haas Racing in 1983 and joining the CART series. Now known as Newman/Haas/Lanigan and part of the IndyCar Series, the team has won 107 races and eight series championships.

In 1971, Newman also formed independent production company First Artists with Barbra Streisand, Steve McQueen and Sidney Poitier. It produced forgettable Newman films as “Pocket Money,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “The Mackintosh Man.”

Opposite Robert Redford, Newman made his most popular film yet to date with 1969’s bittersweet Western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The film made Newman the biggest star in the country, but he and Redford would top themselves in 1973’s “The Sting,” which went on to win seven Oscars, including picture.

A financial high water mark, if not a creative one, was 1974 blockbuster “The Towering Inferno,” for which he and co-star McQueen each received $1 million and a reported 20% of the gross. It was a major box office success, but for the rest of the decade, Newman’s only first-rate work was in the hockey comedy “Slap Shot” (1977). Films such as “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” and “Quintet” (both for Robert Altman) showed Newman trying to stretch his talents in all the wrong ways.

He got back on track in 1981 with a character role as a cop in “Fort Apache the Bronx,” followed by two more Oscar-nominated lead roles in “Absence of Malice” and “The Verdict.” Both were mature performances from an actor who had moved comfortably into middle age without losing his onscreen energy and charisma.

In 1982, Newman and writer A.E. Hotchner set up a corporation to manufacture and market Newman’s Own salad dressing, spaghetti sauce and popcorn. “What started as something of a joke in the basement of his home turned into a highly respected, multimillion-dollar-a-year food company,” said Newman’s Own Foundation vice chairman Robert Forrester. “And true to form, he shared this good fortune by donating all the profits and royalties he earned to thousands of charities around the world, a total which now exceeds $250 million.”

Among the beneficiaries was the Scott Newman Foundation, which Newman set up to combat drug abuse after the death of his only son from an accidental overdose of alcohol and Valium in 1978. He also established the Hole-in-the-Wall Camps, which children with serious health conditions attend free of charge. He founded the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, an international forum of business CEOs and chairmen focused on corporate philanthropy that counts top executives from companies such as American Express, the NBA and Halliburton among its membership.

In 1986, Martin Scorsese convinced Newman to return as Eddie Felson in a sequel to “The Hustler,” “The Color of Money,” opposite Tom Cruise. The film received modest reviews, but Newman’s performance was highly lauded and brought him a long-overdue best actor Oscar.

Newman lost none of his daring as he got older, trying on many different kinds of roles; some fit better than others. The repressed Midwestern patriarch in 1990’s “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” opposite Woodward and directed by James Ivory, was a perfect fit, a work of subtlety and strength in an overlooked film. “Fat Man and Little Boy” and “Blaze,” both in 1989, were more problematic.

After a four-year screen absence, Newman had a doubleheader in 1994: “The Hudsucker Proxy” and Robert Benton’s “Nobody’s Fool,” the latter earning him his eighth best actor Oscar nomination. His portrayal of an aged gangster in Sam Mendes’ 2002 drama “Road to Perdition” earned him another Oscar nomination for supporting actor. One of Newman’s last performances came in his first animated role as the voice of Doc Hudson in Pixar’s “Cars.”

Newman returned to the stage in 2002 as the Stage Manager in “Our Town” at the Westport Country Playhouse, where Woodward was then the artistic director. Newman reprised the role later that year in his farewell engagement on Broadway and again for PBS.

Westport Country Playhouse artistic director Anne Keefe said: “The Westport Country Playhouse board of trustees and staff are deeply saddened by the passing of Paul Newman, a compassionate humanitarian. Our hearts go out to Joanne Woodward and her family, who have shown extraordinary strength and spirit during this difficult time.”

Recognition of Newman included the Kennedy Center Honors in 1992 and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Cecil B. DeMille award in 1984. In 1985, the year before his “Color of Money” win, Newman received a special honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his many and memorable compelling screen performances (awarded for his body of work) and for his “personal integrity and dedication to his craft.” In 1993, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charity work.

His longtime agent, ICM chairman-CEO Jeff Berg said: Newman’s “award-winning film career brilliantly co-existed with a lifetime commitment to social justice and philanthropy. He once told me that Newman’s Own was one of his most gratifying achievements. He elevated the role of concerned citizen.”

Although he epitomized Hollywood stardom, he was known for his down-to-earth manner. He declined autograph requests and kept his distance from the film capital, preferring to spend most of his time in the 18th century Connecticut farmhouse he shared with Woodward. He skipped several Oscar ceremonies in which he was up for awards and burned his tuxedo, saying he would not accept any more awards for charitable work.

In December 1994, he told New York magazine: “I am a terrier. I am lucky to a fault, but I am also very determined. I will somehow get that bone.”

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Woodward; daughters Susan, Stephanie, Nell, Melissa and Clea; two grandchildren; and his brother, Arthur Newman.

Donations can be made to the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps (www.HoleInTheWallCamps.org).