From a burgeoning Jazz Age suburb to a torpedo bomber in the Pacific, from the womb of academia to the free- for- all of Broadway and live TV, from the gilded cage of a Hollywood studio contract to the wild freedom of directing films for his own production company, from the filth and noise and danger of professional auto racing to the staid and venerable confines of the Philanthropy Hall of Fame, Paul Newman's life is a blazon of the American century, incorporating the very best national traits in a compact and comely package.
For fifty years, on-screen and off, Newman vividly embodied certain tendencies in the American male character: active and roguish and earnest and sly and determined and vulnerable and brave and humble and reliable and compassionate and fair. He was a man of his time, and that time ranged from World War II to the contemporary era of digitally animated feature films. He was equally at home on Hollywood soundstages, in theatrical workshops, in the pits of racetracks, and especially on the blessedly raucous fields and in the log cabins and swimming holes of the camps he built and maintained for seriously ill children. The world was his for the claiming—and he claimed only the bit that he felt was reasonably due him, and he gave back more, by far, than he ever took.
He was ridiculously handsome and trim, with a face that belonged on an ancient coin, eyes that stunned and dazed even cynics, and an athlete's compact, lithe, and peppy body. Having fallen into acting as a profession, he would have been guaranteed at least minimal success by sheer virtue of his physical charms. If he'd had no talent or tenacity or intellect or drive, he might still have enjoyed fame and riches. Put him in a dinner jacket, and he could sit confidently at table with presidents or poets or kings. He looked the part—in fact, he looked any part, virtually, that he was asked to play.
But he was smart and cagey and suspicious of fortune too easily won, and he was scrupulous in distinguishing the things that came to him through luck from those he felt he'd earned. He opted to live as far as reasonable from Hollywood, preferred barn coats and blue jeans to tuxedos, and chose the company of troupers and mechanics and beer- swillers over that of celebrities and swells and hobnobbers every time. There was crust and vinegar to him, and he relished the opportunity that his position in life afforded him to startle big shots with his sometimes downmarket tastes and preferences. And vice versa: he loved to sprinkle unexpected stardust in the humblest of contexts, just when he was taken for an ordinary joe.