October 3, 2008, 11:40 pm
‘Tis but a Man Gone … but What a Man
I hate having to say goodbye to Paul Newman.
He was one of the last of the giants. It’s as if a Sequoia has fallen.
And, corny as it sounds, he was on that shortest of short lists: real good guys.
His good deeds, charities and availability for worthy causes should get him into anybody’s heaven.
If his artistic talents were short of Brando’s — and whose weren’t? — he was a hell of a lot better steward of his acting gifts than the man Jack Nicholson always called “The Man on the Hill.” And he, Brando, never once returned to the stage, where those lucky enough to see him there make you envious. saying, “If you think Marlon was powerful in the movies . . . ” Mr. Newman delighted theater-goers by repeatedly returning to Broadway.
He and I first met on my old daytime show, which he had discovered early and lent support to when people of his caliber didn’t yet. He kept coming on through the years and was the ideal guest. He would be funny, Even silly. And, as easily, dead serious and even profound.
It was fun to watch the faces in the audience when he stepped onto the stage. It was as if they were seeing a deity. Once I saw (and heard) an astonished woman down front say, “Oh, my God! There he is!” (I almost asked her, “Did you think I was kidding?”)
(I lied a moment ago. I just remembered that, in fact, we had briefly met before in New Haven. I was a “freshie” at Yale and had just seen him onstage at the venerable Shubert Theater in the Broadway-bound “The Desperate Hours.” Three times at $1.20 each — mid-’50s prices. Front row, second balcony.)
Those startling good looks could take most of your breath away. I found that out when I all but smacked into him on the street. About a decade later I asked him, one the air, if he remembered a flustered freshman type who blurted, ” Great performance, Mr. Noonan!”
“Was that you?” he jested.
I wince a bit, remembering how much I kidded him once on the show about sweating. He had just come from the gym and perspired like a lemonade pitcher in August, apologetically daubing his face with his handkerchief. I remember playfully calling attention to it, saying, “I only allow my guests to sweat backstage.”
I sweat now, recalling this. But such impertinence seemed O.K. because his complex, congenial charm made you feel like an old friend, even a buddy. right from the start.
Once he came into my dressing room before the show and put some kind of drops in his eyes. I asked if they were the ones Peter O’Toole used that supposedly enhanced the blue in his eyes. He denied this and then, stepping back and looking at his reflection — and feigning sudden discovery — said, “My God! No wonder everybody wants me.”
He wasn’t kidding. When the young Brando came to New York, bipeds of every known sex hungered for him. “You must get that too,” Paul said once, with a smirk. I admitted it was true, but probably to a lesser degree. “Because you’re half a foot taller than I am,” I suggested — as if that were the only difference.
“Gays, too?” he asked.
“Especially,” I said.
Wickedly, he had a bright idea: “Hey, why don’t you and I date each other a few times in public and maybe they’ll all leave us alone.”
We got to laughing ourselves silly over the idea.
Paul: Will you be embarrassed if I call before we go out and ask what you’re going to wear?
D.C.: Not at all. I’ll probably say, “I’m wearing something mauve and clingy . . . and a simple veil.”
By that time we had all but convulsed ourselves over our saucy, alleged humor. I said that we must have looked “like two Deke frat boys, howling with laughter over belching, up-chucking and the passage of gas.”
“You just described a former me,” he said. “Just a different frat.”
* * *
Paul’s fondness for elaborate pranks and practical jokes lasted, some felt, a bit too long. A famous friend who might prefer not to be ID’d said that while Paul was a responsible and mature adult, “his sense of humor froze at about seventh grade level.”
He and Robert Redford had become friends with “Butch Cassidy.” And Redford had a beloved sports car. In a move that few real seventh graders could afford, Newman managed to have it towed away — under cover of darkness — and compacted. The heavy and massive block that resulted was returned to Redford’s front lawn.
Nobody needed to guess who had done it, least of all Bob “Rarely Anyone’s Fool” Redford. The following morning the ugly monolith of glass and steel was gone from the Redford lawn. Dawn revealed it: it had suddenly and mysteriously found its way to the Newman residence, where it could be plainly seen . . . on the roof.
[Robert Redford responds.]
Paul’s ire was kindled by lots of things, ranging from autograph hounds to Richard Nixon. Despite having been draped with awards, he convincingly maintained that his appearance on The Great Unindicted Co-Conspirator’s “Enemies List” was his favorite honor. As one similarly honored, I believe that.
He refused to ratify the oft-assumed showbiz rule that celebrities are honor-bound to gratify every pest who feels entitled to a chunk of any celebrity’s time, whether the bothered and famous one is strolling, eating or, um, attending to nature’s demands. Paul was hilarious in describing how once in an NBC men’s room an astonished fan realized whom he was standing next to, turned 90 degrees while still in midstream and said, “Wow, Paul Newman.”
Newman: “I was ashamed of what they were going to think at the cleaners.”
* * *
For way too long, our paths failed to cross. The last time I saw him was at a party here in the city for some noble cause. It was at the Johnson apartment (as in Johnson & Johnson) on Park Avenue. As usual on such occasions, Paul stood apart, his back to a wall, observing.
We chatted. Years earlier he had confessed to the practice of dunking that famous face in ice water each day, “for preservation purposes.”
It must have worked because there was no doubt who — at just short of 80 — he was, But, standing with him, I felt something was wrong with the picture.
Then I realized what it was. And how many years had gone by. And how time is nobody’s friend.
Paul Newman and I were, for the first time, the same height