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)