In his five-decade evolution from hunk-ish Actors Studio rebel to the voice of Doc Hudson in Pixar's 2006 "Cars," Paul Newman was initially admired for a forceful presence (one not exactly diminished by his looks). And, eventually, he came to be both admired and beloved on an extraordinary number of levels. He carried himself with classy reserve, becoming a celebrity role model for how to keep your private life private and for being that low-key face on the salad dressing bottle and at the track.
None of this discounts his trove of treasured movies. On his way to winning a best-actor Oscar, life achievement Oscar, a Jean Hersholt humanitarian Oscar and eight more acting nominations, Newman amassed a filmography with uncommon consistency, though like every superstar, he had to survive such clunkers as "Lady L" or "When Time Ran Out."
Early on, he specialized in playing hustlers and heels and floundered when attempting comedy; his touch just wasn't light. Only later did Newman become one of the movies' best relaxed actors.
Though Newman's career did benefit from high-profile stage work in the early 1950s ("Picnic," "The Desperate Hours") and memorable contributions to TV's Golden Age ("The Battler," the original "Bang the Drum Slowly" and several more), it was a sometimes sticky apprenticeship, as evidenced by his earliest appearance available on DVD. It's on Vol. 1 of ABC-TV's cheesy "Tales of Tomorrow" (Image, $25), a live sci-fi anthology series that anticipated "The Twilight Zone." Cast as an Army sergeant on an Aug. 8, 1952, episode, Newman hysterically describes the fatality of one colleague after a woebegone rocket blast somehow leads to the freeze-over of a U.S. desert. At least the teleplay's title is nothing if not precise: "Ice From Space."
But in the end, the best of Newman's film career is an embarrassment of riches. Among his movies with robust fan bases are "The Left-Handed Gun," "The Long Hot Summer," "Harper," "The Towering Inferno," "Blaze," "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge," "Empire Falls" and "Road to Perdition." But for a combination of must-viewing and full career perspective, start with the following dozen DVDs:
"Somebody Up There Likes Me" (1956, Warner)
Newman became a star in his second feature with this slick adaptation of middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano's autobiography. Essentially, it's a story of rehabilitation: Despite years in reform schools and a dishonorable Army discharge, the Rock became a valued member of society.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958, Warner)
After the julep-heavy "The Long Hot Summer," Newman solidified his career by going South again in this adaptation of Tennessee Williams' play. He stole enough attention from Elizabeth Taylor for them both to earn Oscar nominations. When they reunited as Oscar presenters in 1991, Newman responded to a "Cat" clip by saying, "I thought we were lookin' pretty good back then." Taylor replied, "Hey, I think we're still looking pretty good."
"The Hustler" (1961, Fox)
The definitive movie about pool hustling pit Newman's callow "Fast Eddie" Felson against Jackie Gleason's wizened pro, Minnesota Fats. Newman, who had never held a cue, was coached by pool legend Willie Mosconi. The two swapped Newman's dining-room table for a pool table and practiced every night.
"Hud" (1963, Paramount)
In a morality play about generational clashing on a Texas cattle ranch, Oscar-nominated Newman wrestled a greased pig and too many other men's wives. And even though James Wong Howe's spectacular cinematography is in black-and-white, you all but feel the pinkness of Newman's Cadillac.
"Cool Hand Luke" (1967, Warner; also on Blu-ray)
After drunkenly vandalizing parking meters, Newman's Luke ends up on a Southern chain gang where the only things to do are watch a buxom blonde suds up a car or brazenly ingest 50 hard-boiled eggs on a bet. He also finds himself on the wrong side of Southern chain gang warden Strother Martin's "What we have here … is a failure to communicate" catchphrase.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969, Fox; also on Blu-ray)
Newman ended the decade as half of a casting coup for the ages. Playing off Robert Redford's breakout performance in William Goldman's jokey script, he gave a performance that at the time was his most loosened-up. An actor whose attempts at comedy once seemed overbearing suddenly seemed easygoing, beguilingly so.
"The Sting" (1973, Universal)
A reunion with Redford and "Butch" director George Roy Hill, this critical/commercial bonanza so captivated the public that Scott Joplin's theme ended up sharing concurrent Billboard pop chart placement with Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder.
"Slap Shot" (1977, Universal)
A key contender for Newman's best movie of the decade is this hockey comedy from director Hill, whose Nancy Dowd script may have set new standards for screen profanity at the time. It's probably Newman's funniest performance -- especially in scenes with the Hanson Brothers, a trio of violence-prone Neanderthals who bash opposing players and soft-drink machines with equal zeal.
"The Verdict" (1982, Fox)
Newman's best outing of the '80s, besting 1981's "Absence of Malice." As an alcoholic has-been attorney seeking redemption, Newman headlined one of the best courtroom nail-biters ever, with assists from screenwriter David Mamet and director Sidney Lumet.
"The Color of Money" (1986, Touchstone)
A quarter-century later, "The Hustler"'s Eddie Felson wasn't so "fast," yet it was an inspired idea to bring him back to the screen with some hard-earned middle-age maturity. It was also a good commercial move for Martin Scorsese, who needed a box-office hit. This time, Tom Cruise is the callow one, and Newman finally won his acting Oscar, just a year after he'd won a special one that paid tribute to his entire career.
"Nobody's Fool" (1994, Paramount)
In the movie of Richard Russo's novel, Newman is a family-estranged laborer battling a scoundrel contractor (Bruce Willis). Though nominated Newman missed the Oscar, he found a productive partner in Russo. He would win a 2005 Emmy for HBO's movie of the Pulitzer-winning "Empire Falls."
"Cars" (2006, Pixar/Disney)
Newman's one live-action movie about auto racing (1969's "Winning") was a stiff. But computer animation offered restitution, with the actor's final theatrical feature keenly casting him as a judge with substantial racing-car history. It was a smooth project to go out on and a no-lose chance to widen his fan base. You could almost hear someone saying to some oblivious tyke: "You know that old geezer who was the voice of Doc Hudson? The guy's been a superstar for 50 years."