The disaster film–the world’s tallest skyscraper is on fire–that was to become 1974’s biggest hit was in its final production stages, shooting in the plaza in front of what was then The Bank of America World Headquarters on California Street.
Newman abruptly burst into view carrying a big bag of the popcorn he had prepared himself in his trailer–the precursor to Newman’s Own popcorn. On a grim set where everyone was freezing and just trying to get through, the gesture lightened the mood considerably.
That was my first encounter with Paul Newman. It would not be my last.
I had flown up to San Francisco from Los Angeles to write about the filming despite a last-minute phone message from the movie’s publicist telling me not to come. I pretended I never got the message and hopped on a plane.
When I showed up, the publicist nearly had a heart attack. However, since I was already there, he had little choice but to allow me to hang around. “Whatever you do, don’t speak to anyone,” he admonished nervously. That was fine. One did not want to talk, one wanted to watch and listen. After all, this was the most star-studded set I was ever on, and I understood that night I was unlikely to be part of anything like it again any time soon.
Inside the lobby of the Bank of America building, O.J. Simpson wandered past. Outside, William Holden was complaining to director John Guillermin that they were about to do an overhead shot for his climatic sequence that would never be used (it was). Faye Dunaway huddled on the steps to the plaza, ravishing in the evening gown she would wear throughout the movie.
But all eyes were on Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, the biggest names in the picture, and, at the time, the biggest stars in the world. An hour of so after he distributed the popcorn, Newman reappeared strolling around with McQueen who sipped a can of beer. That’s me with them in the photo below–except I’m a few feet off camera.
I thought again about that San Francisco night this past week as the Cannes International Film Festival unveiled its 2013 poster. The poster features Paul Newman with his wife Joanne Woodward curled like two commas coming together for a lingering kiss. It’s a fitting tribute, and a reminder not only of the steady glow Newman’s stardom threw off for over forty years but also of a time when there were real stars who made popular, intelligent movies that attracted huge audiences. Those days, to say the least, are long gone.
By the time I met him, Newman had already appeared in such enduring classics as Somebody Up There Likes Me (replacing James Dean, who had died in an auto accident); The Long, Hot Summer (the first time he co-starred in a movie with Joanne Woodward); Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (with Elizabeth Taylor); The Hustler; Sweet Bird of Youth; Hud, Harper, Hombre–his ‘H’ period; Cool Hand Luke; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.
For those of us of a certain age, many of these weren’t simply very good films, they were magical markers along the celluloid highway, the man himself the epitome of cool, the blue-eyed sex symbol for generations of movie goers.
When I finally met him he was promoting Absence of Malice, a good thriller about the newspaper business he made with Sally Field, directed by Sydney Pollack, I could not resist asking if he was surprised to find himself the sex symbol still at the age of fifty-five. Newman replied with a rueful smile that he was amazed that it had gone on so long, that everyone hadn’t got tired of it.
But nobody had, and for a long time thereafter, nobody did. Part of Newman’s appeal was his ability to defeat age. From the 1950s into the 1980s, Paul Newman never lost his cool or seemed out of style. Meeting him again and again over the years, he never appeared to gain a pound or take on a wrinkle (he took a sauna every day; maybe that had something to do with it).
He at once knew how to play to his stardom, and how to put it away when it wasn’t needed. He moved around without bodyguards or an entourage. One time I was having lunch in the lounge at the Warwick Hotel in New York. As I got up to pay the bill, there was Newman at the next table, putting on a scarf, getting ready to leave the restaurant, barely noticed by anyone.
He was certainly not gregarious or even particularly outgoing. But he was always courteous, and when you asked him a question he gave you an answer. I remember talking to him for The Verdict, the film directed by Sidney Lumet in which he thought he’d done his best acting, and being surprised at how forthright he was about his own problem drinking over the years.
There was much to admire about him. He made great movies, kept a safe distance from Hollywood (in Connecticut and New York), stayed married to the same woman for fifty years, and tried to give as much of his fortune away as he could to various charities. When I asked him about the money, he snapped, “Why not? I don’t need it.”
One of the last times I saw him, ironically enough, was at the Cannes Festival that is honoring him on its poster this year. He was presenting a film version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that he had directed. After a press conference with Joanne Woodward, I lingered to watch him as he prepared to leave. He looked paler than I remembered, and for the first time it struck me that even Paul Newman could get old.
Still, when he died in 2008 at the age of eighty-three, it was difficult for me and a lot of others to grasp that he was gone. He had been so much a part of our movie lives for so long, and had looked so damned good up there on the screen, surely death would give him a pass.
But it didn’t.
The memory of him I always carry goes back to that long ago night on The Towering Inferno set. They were preparing to shoot what would be the last scene in the movie: the inferno in the tower finally has been extinguished and Steve McQueen confronts Newman and co-star Faye Dunaway on the steps of the Bank of America plaza.
It was just before dawn and Newman stood illuminated in the darkness at the top of the steps, surrounded by half a dozen attendants and makeup people. They swarmed around, working on various parts of him, spritzing his clothes with water, applying makeup, brushing at his hair.Hud and Harper, Cool Hand Luke and The Sundance Kid, they all stood there in that predawn light, accepting the attention with a studied, slightly amused, stoicism. This was Paul Newman, who he was, what he did.
The movie star at work.