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From our files: A conversation with Paul Newman

The Monitor spoke with the late actor and director in 1981 about selecting roles, plots that challenge an audience, and journalism.

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Over the years, Newman has found a lot of provocative envelopes, from "Hud" to "The Hustler," from "Cool Hand Luke" to his Tennessee Williams collaborations. It's been a fairly diverse career, peppered with great successes and a few fascinating flops, such as "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" and "Quintet," his Robert Altman puzzlers. Says the star, musing on it all, "It would have been a lot simpler to always look for one kind of hero image, and at times I wish I had. But it would have been a lot lazier, too." In all, he seems pleased with his various accomplishments and delighted that he found a few real gems - in his opinion, at least - along the way. "Slap Shot," for example. "What a deeply original film that was." says Newman enthusiastically. "I mean, nobody had ever seen anything like that: a movie about a second-rate hockey team!"

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Newman has also distinguished himself by moving beyond his acting career and into the director's chair. "Rachel, Rachel" was his first (and highly praised) effort along these lines, followed by "Sometimes a Great Notion," in which one scene - featuring Richard Jaeckel, Newman himself, and a rising river - must be among the most suspenseful episodes ever filmed. And don't forget "The Shadow Box," a rather shallow but definitively offbeat drama that Newman directed for television.

Not surprisingly , one of the toughest tasks for a complete performer / director like Newman is hunting out worthy material. "I used to spend 85 percent of my time reading," he says. "Now I spend 85 percent of my time reading for business." looking for scripts that might make feasible projects.

"I think my perceptions about film are pretty good," he continues. "But the fact is, there simply isn't much good stuff around. So what's an actor to do? You can stop working. But you have to keep the instrument tuned. So you take the best there is and hope for the best. And you always start with the idea that it's going to end up pretty good."

The only sure thing is that a serious actor's job is never a simple matter. "You may start with a pretty bad script, and make it into a pretty good movie - not a blockbuster, but reasonable. Or you may start with a good script, and fail to improve on it. So which do you give yourself the greater credit for? The great script might have been a great film no matter what. But you achievement on that 'pretty good' one was significant."

The too, Newman likes different kinds of "envelopes" to put his work into. For a pair of contrasting examples, he mentions "The Sting" - calling it "a plot movie" - and his own "Rachel, Rachel," which has "very little plot, but gives penetrating perceptions and comments on the human condition."

How about his latest, "Absence of Malice"? As he sees it, "the character moves inside the plot. The film is propelled more by the story than by the character development alone, but the characters are important too. And that's okay. You can do some very interesting acting under those conditions."

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