Who was Paul Leonard Newman? The answer depends on who you ask. To many, the athletic man from Shaker Heights, Ohio, was simply the physical embodiment of the word heart- throb. The poster boy of female infatuation, his rugged good looks and cobalt stare could melt hearts like a top secret Cold War laser beam. In fact, he’s probably the only reason your girlfriend stayed awake to watch The Colour of Money with you last Friday night.
To others, Newman was a yardstick of cool. A purveyor of cinematic lifestyles that pandered to our wild daydreams and far-fetched fantasies, his many on-screen personas birthed a million alter egos. Who didn’t want to steal their daddy’s cue and make a living out of playing pool after seeing The Hustler on TCM?
Away from the tawdry, plastic veneer of Hollywood, the initials PLN were identified with the entrepreneurial spirit that so defined 20th-century America. The co-founder of a gourmet food company called Newman’s Own, he built a business empire.
But unlike other captains of industry, fat cats who devoured their large profits with fat greasy fingers, he gave his away to charity. Still dishing out the goods today, it’s estimated that this philanthropic organisation has donated around $300-million (about R2.4-billion) to worthy causes since its doors opened in 1982.
Being so many things to so many people, it seems impossible that Newman could have had any more facets cut into his already charismatic persona. But he did. Like so many other male actors of his generation (James Dean, Steve McQueen) he enjoyed a deep love for cars and racing. They transfixed him.
And the roots of his obsession can be traced back to an unlikely piece of kit: the VW Beetle. Newman was never one for bling and expensive badges, so the Bug was all he needed to fulfil his commuting needs in the 1950s. The thing was though, he soon tired of changing gears all the time in bad traffic.
“I was complaining to my mechanic about driving the VW back and forth to the theatre in New York and my home in Connecticut,” he told Motor Trend Magazine. “He said, ‘why don’t you dump a Porsche engine into it?’”
So that’s what he did. Enamoured with an everyday car that could kick the butt of much more expensive machinery, Newman tasted his first high on the drug of speed behind the wheel of a most unlikely candidate.
The transition from street to track, however, would only come much later in his career. While James Dean hit the petrol-stained amphitheatres of California in his early 20s, one of the first times Newman donned a helmet in anger was during filming of James Goldstone’s 1969 racing epic, Winning. To avoid the cheese of simulated projector screens, all the actors were filmed driving real cars on real circuits.
There was a spread of exotic machines available and Newman, then 43, made sure that he put every one of them through its paces.
Co-star Robert Wagner summed it up perfectly in Matt Stone and Preston Lerner’s 2009 book, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman. “You could see the start of his passion for the whole sport and the racing life. It was fabulous to watch – he was in that car all the time. He loved the cars, loved the drivers, loved the mechanical aspect of it – he loved every bit of it. We had to learn to walk, talk, and drive like racing drivers, and we did it. The only difference was that he absolutely loved it, and I was scared shitless.”
Asked if this brief foray into fast living would perhaps lead to greater things, Newman, who was renowned for being hard on himself, responded with doubt. Some thought otherwise but in his mind he was too old, his reflexes too slow.
Yeah, right. Unable to resist racing’s allure, he got over his self-confidence issues and finished his first full season of amateur club racing in 1973. There was no stopping his rise up the ranks. A media sensation, Newman kept climbing into some bigger and more powerful machinery until he found himself piloting a fearsome Porsche 935 Turbo at the Le Mans 24 Hour in 1979. Astounding the critics, he finished first in his class and second overall. Not bad for a 53-year-old.
Though he never returned to the French circuit, Newman continued driving in the US well into the beginning of this century. Along the way he set the record of becoming the oldest driver to be part of a winning team. Indeed, while most pensioners were hunched over their bridge tables, grumbling about their grandchildren, Newman celebrated his 70th birthday by nabbing a class win in the 1995 Daytona 24 Hours.
No matter where he went or what he applied himself to, it seemed that Newman and the word winning were intrinsically linked. Besides being co-founder of the highly successful Indy Car team, Newman/Haas Racing, he kept on excelling in the movie world until his death in 2008. Not just from an acting point of view – he won an Academy Award for The Colour of Money – but as a producer and director too. Although his single greatest achievement, or so it is claimed, was making it into Richard Nixon’s top 20 most-hated list for his opposition to the Vietnam War.
So, who was Paul Leonard Newman? Role model. Actor. Racing driver. Champion of the poor and down-trodden. All-round nice guy. Whichever label you stick with, it’s clear that many moons will pass before another man of such talent and humility comes around.