NEW YORK — Call Paul Newman "a film legend," and he bursts out laughing. "Maybe just say I've been blessed."
Paul Newman has been in love with acting for the past 50 years, and his fans will be happy that he's again on the screen in what he describes as a caper movie. "Where the Money Is" marks his 53rd starring motion picture role. It teams Newman, Linda Fiorentino, and Dermot Mulroney.
"I liked this script - it has a lot of larceny in it," Newman admits. "It was driven by the characters, not by the special effects. There are no bodies, no explosions, no profanity. It was so surprising to read a script like that. I said 'yes' right away."
He adds, "The story is a graceful hustle, a bit of Butch Cassidy and some of Fast Eddie. It's the greatest fun I can have because it's intimately connected to practical jokes."
He plays a convict who fakes an illness. "He just wants to get out of prison and into a rehabilitation facility long enough to plan an escape. I spent time in a retirement place in Connecticut to research the role. When he meets this nurse, played by Linda, she's the only one who thinks he's faking it. It's only after she lets his wheelchair with him in it slide off the pier into the water, that the truth comes out. Then, things begin to change."
Newman has lost none of his charm and charisma. One hot summer day, the actor and his daughter, Nell, stopped at the local ice cream parlor in Connecticut near the family home.
As Nell tells me, "Naturally there was a waiting line. The mother at the counter was trying to order, and at the same time control her five-year-old who was playing airplane, spreading his arms straight out and making a loud noise like a jet engine."
She turned around to reprimand the youngster, only to look right into the blue eyes of Paul Newman. She was flustered and flushed. She paid for the cone and left. Soon she was back again, walked up to the counter, and asked, "Didn't I order an ice cream cone?" The server nodded. "Where is it?" the mom asked, holding out her empty hands.
Newman tapped her on the shoulder and said, "You put it in your purse!"
This summer the actor, who is also a professional race driver, will compete in a half-dozen circuits. "After one more season, I may retire," he says with a slight shrug. "And after one more movie, I may retire." His blue eyes turned devilish as he confesses, "I've been saying that for the last 15 years, but I may just have to stick with it sooner or later.
"When I do my acting swan song, I'd like it to be with Joanne [his wife, Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward]. If that doesn't happen, I'd like it to be with Robert Redford [his costar in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' and 'The Sting'] or with Tom Cruise ['The Color of Money' - for which Newman won an Oscar as Best Actor in 1986].
What he'll never quit is expanding The Hole in the Wall Gang Camps. All the profits, more than $100 million so far, from his Newman's Own foods go to charity, some to the camps. This summer, 5,000 youngsters will enjoy "Hole in the Wall" camps at no cost. Sites include Ireland, France, upstate New York, Connecticut, and Florida.
Recently, he started a group called "The Committee to Encourage Cooperative Philanthropy." The actor goes to CEOs of large companies and speaks in a new kind of language. "There's no talk of bottom line and charts. Just about doing the right thing to help others."
Newman loves auto racing, while his wife prefers the ballet. They respect each other's choices. "That's how they've been married 42 years," insists Nell, the oldest of their three daughters.
"I wanted dad to get involved with organic food," she confides. "He agreed to me manufacturing fat-free pretzels, and they were very successful. He wasn't too excited about branching out from his salad dressings, sauces, lemonade, and popcorn. That's when I came home for Thanksgiving and told mom I was going to cook the entire family dinner.
"After the meal, we all gathered in the living room before the glowing fire, and dad said, 'Honey I've never eaten anything more delicious.' That's when I sprung it on him. 'Everything was organic!' " Newman's Own and Newman's Own Organic will continue to give all profits to charity.
Newman still shudders when he remembers his screen debut in "The Silver Chalice." He had studied acting at the Yale School of Drama and the New York Actor's Studio. He made his Broadway debut in 1953 with "Picnic" (where he met Joanne). After his successful Broadway appearance, Warner Brothers offered him a film contract. Then they put him in this "toga turkey" built on the tribulations of ancient Greece. His hair was lightened, a laurel wreath added to his head, and a very short toga selected for his wardrobe. He admits it was a miracle that his career flourished after such a devastating debut.
Who would have dreamed such classics as "Somebody Up There Likes Me," "The Hustler," "Cool Hand Luke," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting," "The Color of Money," and many more would be in his future?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society