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Paul Newman: Actor, racing driver, activist and philanthropist

Paul Newman was one of the most talented and popular screen actors of his generation. His athletic physique, sensual mouth and luminous blue eyes made him an uncommonly handsome figure on screen.

Besides acting, he directed films occasionally, and he was also a successful entrepreneur who raised millions for charity through his salad dressings, a philanthropist who established a foundation for children, a racing driver and a political activist who was proud of the fact that he was placed 19th ("only 19th?" he quipped) on an official list of President Nixon's "enemies".

A star who was often labelled "paradoxical" or "maverick", he tended to shun celebrity and was described as having "a moat and a drawbridge which he lets down occasionally." His marriage to the actress Joanne Woodward for the last 50 years was one of Hollywood's most enduring, though he excelled at playing rebellious, sometimes arrogant loners, such as the pool shark of The Hustler, the amoral Texan stud in Hud, and the anti-authoritarian prisoner in Cool Hand Luke. Asked by Empire magazine why he never committed adultery, Newman replied, "Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?"

His involvement in politics, motor racing and food production were said to be expressions of his frustration with the limitations of movie stardom, and his occasional films as a director revealed sensitivity and an empathy for actors. The screenwriter Stewart Stern said, "I think there is less impediment between his talent and its expression when he's directing. That's probably because, as in racing, 'Paul Newman' doesn't have to be there."

Not initially a critics' favourite – he had to combat comparisons with two other Method graduates, James Dean and Marlon Brando – his performances in such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer (both 1958) displayed a vibrant talent, and he received six Oscar nominations before finally winning in 1986. In 1978 Newsweek magazine listed Newman, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen as the three highest paid stars in the world. William Goldman, writer of Newman's films Harper and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, stated, "He could be called a victim of the Cary Grant syndrome. He makes it look so easy, and he looks so wonderful, that everybody assumes he isn't acting."

Born Paul Leonard Newman in 1925, he was raised in the fashionable suburb of Straker Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a Hungarian-Catholic mother and a German-Jewish father, who owned a large, successful sports store. He was not an exceptional scholar, preferring to spend his afternoons playing pool and drinking beer, though he excelled at football, basketball and baseball – a college photograph of Newman with a football was used in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After high school he drifted from job to job, proving most successful as a door-to-door salesman for Colliers' Encyclopaedia. A friend of his childhood stated that Newman's innate charm made him a very successful salesman.

In 1943 he enlisted in the Naval Air Corps hoping to become a pilot, but his striking blue eyes turned out to be colour blind, so he became a radio operator on a torpedo boat in the South Pacific. In 1946 he returned to Shaker Heights and on the war veterans' GI Bill enrolled at Kenyon College in Ohio to study economics, but shone most as a member of the football team – until, he recalled, "There was sort of a brawl that we sort of got involved in where several of us ended up in the clink. As I result I was then off the football squad. Since I had to do something with my time, I started acting."

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Newman later said that he acted to gain attention, but found it a painful process. "You have to learn to take off your clothes emotionally on stage," he said. "I was lousy. I couldn't let go yet I wanted to act." A lauded performance in the leading role of a college production of The Front Page convinced him that he could have a career in the theatre, and after graduation in 1949 he spent a season in summer repertory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, where his roles included the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. Joining the prestigious Woodstock Players, he appeared in 16 plays, including Cyrano de Bergerac and Dark of the Moon.

In John Loves Mary his co-star was Jackie Witte, and in December 1949 the pair married. The marriage lasted until 1956, and they had three children. Shortly after the wedding, Newman's father fell ill and he had to return home to help with the family business. His father died in 1950, and the following year Newman turned the business over to his brother and enrolled at Yale's graduate school of drama, "out of no burning desire to act, but to flee from the store".

He planned to become a directing major then return to Kenyon to teach, but he was spotted in a Yale production by agents, who sent him to New York, where success came quickly ("I was very, very lucky"), and he became a prolific performer on television's many anthology shows. He made his Broadway debut when spotted by director Joshua Logan and cast in William Inge's play, Picnic (1953).

Logan had considered him for the leading role of a charismatic drifter who disrupts lives in a small town, but instead he cast Newman as the shy, steady college graduate whose girl (Janice Rule) falls for the drifter (Ralph Meeker). Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize and ran for 14 months, during which time Newman studied under Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan at the Actors' Studio.

A fellow student was James Dean, and after Newman signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers, he found himself testing alongside Dean for the lead in East of Eden (1954). Dean got the role, and Newman was cast instead in a ludicrous biblical epic, The Silver Chalice (1954), a famous Hollywood disaster ("There are moments of which the Marx Brothers would be proud," one critic said). As a silversmith who designs the chalice for the Holy Cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, Newman was clothed in an unbecoming tunic he referred to as "a cocktail dress", and gave a performance critics labelled "cut-rate Brando" or "imitation Brando".

Years later, when the film was scheduled by a Los Angeles television station to be shown the entire week, Newman took out a black-bordered newspaper advertisement stating, "Paul Newman apologises every night this week – Channel 9." He later stated that he knew the film was going to be terrible, and felt particularly bad because East of Eden was filming on an adjacent sound stage.

Upon the film's completion, he asked his agent to get him a role on Broadway as quickly as possible, and he returned to the stage triumphantly as the psychotic leader of a bunch of escaped convicts who hold a suburban family hostage in Joseph Hayes' thriller, The Desperate Hours. Critics applauded, John Chapman of the New York Daily News praising his "splendid, tensely maniacal performance". (The role was played by Humphrey Bogart in the screen version.)

In contrast, he was a wholesome 17-year-old high school student in a musical version for television of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1955). His co-star Eva Marie Saint later praised Newman's unaffected personality, sense of humour and lack of pretension. He was scheduled to co-star with James Dean in a TV adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story, The Battler (1955), but when Dean was killed in a car crash, Newman moved from clean-cut youth Nick Adams to Dean's role, the boxer who in the course of the hour-long show changes from a brash 20-year-old to a disfigured, punch-drunk beggar. It was a tour de force and Newman liked the role enough to play it again in the 1962 film, Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man.

Dean had been scheduled to star in a biopic of the former boxing champion Rocky Graziano for MGM, and when director Robert Wise and producer Charles Schnee saw The Battler, they decided Newman would be perfect for the role. Before shooting was due to start, Glenn Ford suddenly left the cast of The Rack (1955), and MGM rushed Newman into the role of a soldier court martialled for succumbing to brainwashing and collaborating with the enemy. Newman's brooding, introverted portrayal was effective, but the sombre film was not popular. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1955), though, proved a critical and commercial success and a personal triumph for Newman, who brilliantly captured the mannerisms and nervous energy of the real Graziano. Wise and Schnee were so disappointed that Newman did not receive an Oscar nomination that they gave him an award themselves, which they called "the noscar".

Newman returned to Warners to co-star with Ann Blyth in Michael Curtiz's splendid evocation of show business in the prohibition era, The Helen Morgan Story (1956), the actor breathing vivid life into the character of a small-time crook and bootlegger whose stormy off-on romance with singer Morgan, to whom he refuses to commit himself, is the core of a powerful piece of cinema. The scene in which drops his cool façade to tell Morgan of his background is great screen acting, and proof that he was not just a handsome, romantic leading man. "If blue eyes are what it's all about and not the accumulation of my work as a professional actor," he once tersely stated, "I may as well go into gardening."

Robert Wise directed him again in Until They Sail (1956), in which he was an American airman in New Zealand during World War II, developing an uneasy relationship with a war widow (Jean Simmons) who is unhappy at the effect the young military men are having on the island's women, particularly her three sisters. Newman and Simmons played beautifully together.

Further consolidation of his talent came with his role as Brick, the tortured hero of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), in which he and Elizabeth Taylor struck sparks off each other with their dramatic sparring, both winning Oscar nominations. The same year Newman indicated that comedy was not his suit in Rally Round the Flag, Boys, but he was convincingly psychotic, if overly Method-like, as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun, and won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his sultry southern drifter in Martin Ritt's The Long, Hot Summer.

Playing opposite him was Joanne Woodward, who had begun a casual relationship with Newman when she was understudying Janice Rule in Picnic. Woodward later confessed that their affair began in earnest when they were on location for The Long, Hot Summer ("leading to all sort of interesting things in hotel rooms"). The couple were married in 1958, and were to have three daughters. Newman, who often stated that he did not really like acting, described Woodward as an "intuitive" talent, whereas he was a cerebral one. "Some people are born intuitive actors and have the talent to slip in and out of the characters they are creating," he said. "Acting to me is like dredging a river. It's a painful experience."

He and Woodward starred in Mark Robson's over-heated version of John O'Hara's novel, From the Terrace (1960), after which he was an expatriate jazz musician in Paris in Martin Ritt's Paris Blues (1960), for which he learned to play the trombone. He gave a restrained performance as the young Hagannah leader in Otto Preminger's epic account of Israel's struggle for independence, Exodus (1960), and then had one of his most memorable screen roles, as "Fast" Eddie Felson in Robert Rossen's riveting pool-room saga, The Hustler (1960).

Typically, he prepared by training obsessively with the famed pool player Willie Mosconi. As the brash, go-getting Eddie, Newman gave one of his finest performances, and it won him a second Oscar nomination. Now commanding huge fees, he was able to move with Woodward into an elegant, antique-filled carriage house on the Upper East Side of New York, where they entertained friends including the writers Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood. He returned to Broadway in Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, and repeated his role of a gigolo involved with an older actress in the screen version.

Though he had flops, such as Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man and the comedies, A New Kind of Love and What a Way To Go! (both 1963), they were balanced by such distinguished movies as the enjoyable, Hitchockian thriller, The Prize and Martin Ritt's Hud (both 1963), in which he etched a superbly nuanced portrayal of a hedonistic, irresponsible rancher at odds with his decent father, idolised by his young brother, and set on seducing the housekeeper (Patricia Neal) who proves less willing than most ladies to fall into his arms. When she finally leaves, Hud refers to her as "the one that got away." Neal won an Oscar, but Newman, though nominated, lost for the third time.

With Hitchcock directing the starry team of Newman and Julie Andrews, The Torn Curtain (1965) seemed a surefire hit, but failed to please public or critics, though Jack Smight's private-eye movie, Harper (1965), though not as good as the 40s films it tried to emulate, was a hit. The following year Newman had one of his iconic roles, as the charismatic prisoner who refuses to let his spirit be vanquished by the cruelty of chain-gang guards in Cool Hand Luke (1967). It brought a fourth Oscar nomination, after which Newman directed his first feature film, a gentle, thoughtful movie about loneliness, Rachel, Rachel (1968), starring Woodward, and both film and star were nominated for Oscars. (The first film he directed was a 28-minute short in 1961, On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, based on the Chekhov playlet.)

He directed Woodward again in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), based on Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play and co-starring the Newmans' daughter under her stage name, Nell Potts, plus The Shadow Box (1980) and a screen version of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie (1987).

Newman's passion for motor racing ("the first thing that I ever found I had any grace in") started when he starred in Winning (1969). Newman not only took part in races (and was injured several times) but in 1975 he formed his own team, and from April to October each year he would not make films, becoming instead P.L. Newman, sports car driver. He finished second in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1979, and in 1995, at 70 he became the oldest driver to be part of a winning team in a major race, the 24-hour at Daytona.

Winning was followed by another of Newman's greatest hits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The studio, 20th Century-Fox, had planned to cast Steve McQueen as Butch with Newman as the Kid, but Newman and director George Roy Hill wanted Robert Redford as Newman's co-star. "George and I bulldozed the studio, and got our way" Newman said. Despite mixed reviews, the film broke box-office records. "It was the most fun I've ever had on a movie," Redford said. Newman said, "It's too bad they got killed at the end, 'cause those two guys could have gone on forever."

Most of Newman's co-workers praised his sense of humour and love of practical jokes, which makes it all the more strange that many of his least successful performances were in comedies. In 1970 he formed the film company First Artists with Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier with the aim of making offbeat independent films such as WUSA (1970), which told of a drifter (Newman) who becomes disc jockey for a New Orleans radio station with a Fascist agenda, but neither this nor other projects, including Sometimes A Great Notion (1971), which he directed, Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (both 1972), were successful.

Throughout his career Newman had the luck, or judgement, to come up with a hit when needed, and in 1973 he reunited with Redford and George Roy Hill to make The Sting. "It was evident right at the beginning that it was first-class material, and if we did our work together, all three of us, it couldn't miss," Redford said. Utilising Scott Joplin melodies for a delightful score, which prompted a renaissance of ragtime, and with a marvellously convoluted and clever script which gave Newman and Redford the opportunity to play off each other with infectious aplomb, the film was a massive success. Hill described Newman's playing in the famous scene in which he and Robert Shaw cheat each other at poker as "one of the best pieces of comedic acting I've ever seen. I defy any actor to play the scene better."

The following year Newman co-starred with Steve McQueen in one of Hollywood's most profitable films, the disaster movie, The Towering Inferno. Insiders predicted fireworks from the combination of Newman with the moody McQueen, but the two respected each other and got along well; billing problems were solved when it was arranged that one actor would have first billing on the left of posters, while the other's name, though second, was higher. Newman played private eye Harper again in The Drowning Pool (1975), wore a beard and wig as Buffalo Bill Cody in Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and satirised his love of motor racing with a cameo in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie (1976). In George Roy Hill's Slap Shot (1977) he was the star player of an ice hockey team who are failing until they play dirty. "It's one of my favourite movies," Newman said. "Unfortunately, that character is a lot closer to me than I would care to admit – vulgar, on the skids."

Far from on the skids, he received his fifth Oscar nomination for Absence of Malice (1981), in which he played the victim of erroneous reporting who plots revenge on the journalist responsible, and the following year he was nominated again for an admirably uncompromising performance as an alcoholic lawyer who takes on a malpractice case in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict. It was a fearless performance in which he allowed his character's weaknesses to be displayed. "It was such a relief," he said, "to let it all hang out in the movie, blemishes and all".

Harry and Son (1984) was the first film in which he both directed and starred, stating afterwards, "Never again – you can't do both."

In 1986, he was awarded a special Oscar "in recognition of his many memorable and compelling screen performances and for his personal integrity and dedication to his craft." The following year he finally won the award as best actor, for his sterling reprise of the pool player "Fast" Eddie, now the mature master coaching a cocky newcomer (Tom Cruise) in Martin Scorsese's The Colour of Money.

Newman's screen appearances were rarer after he turned 60, but he was to receive two more Oscar nominations – as best actor for his charmingly wily old rogue in Nobody's Fool (1994), which won him the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and best supporting actor for his mob boss in Road to Perdition. In 2003 he returned to Broadway to star in a revival of Our Town, playing the stage manager, and in 2006 he produced and acted in the mini-series Empire Falls, winning an Emmy for his performance.

In May last year he announced his retirement from acting because he could no longer reach the level he aspired to. "You start to lose your memory, you start to lose your confidence, you start to lose your invention. So I think that's pretty much a closed book for me."

Despite occasional rumours, the marriage of Newman and Woodward was regarded as one of the happiest in Hollywood. Both were dedicated political activists – Newman involved himself in politics as early as 1956, when he actively supported Adlai Stevenson's campaign. In 1963 the pair demonstrated in Alabama with James Garner and Marlon Brando, promoting civil rights, and in 1968 they opposed the war in Vietnam and campaigned for the Democrats. They championed many humanitarian and liberal causes including gay rights and nuclear non-proliferation, and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter appointed Newman as a US delegate to the UN Conference on Nuclear Disarmament.

The same year, Newman's son Scott, a failed actor turned drug addict, died of an overdose of painkillers and alcohol. Newman confessed that he was "emotionally remote" from his children, saying, "I don't think I'll ever escape the guilt", and in 1980 he started the Scott Newman Foundation, which helps children with drug problems, and also created facilities for children with incurable diseases.

A visit to Hollywood's celebrated restaurant Chasen's, where he found the salad dressing "too oily", prompted him to devise his own dressing. The resultant franchise, which expanded to include pasta sauce, salsa and other products, has made over $220m [£120m] for charities. In 1999 Newman donated $250,000 to the relief of Kosovo refugees, and his views on ecology were known well enough for a Simpsons episode to feature a farmer who states, when his cornfield is destroyed by radioactive gas, "Paul Newman's gonna have my legs broke."

Though for many years they maintained a flat in Manhattan and a house in Beverly Hills, the Newmans spent most of their time at their converted barn in Westport, Connecticut, designed by the Broadway designer Ralph Alswang and set in three acres of apple trees and river banks, where they led as private a life as possible.

The Westbrook Country Playhouse announced earlier this year that Newman would make his debut as a stage director in October with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, but on 23 May he withdrew because of ill-health. It was later revealed that Newman, a former chain-smoker, had lung cancer.

Paul Leonard Newman, actor, director, motor racing team owner and driver, philanthropist: born Cleveland, Ohio 26 January 1925; married 1949 Jackie Witte, (one son, two daughters), marriage dissolved 1956; 1958 Joanne Woodward (three daughters); died Westport, Connecticut 26 September 2008.

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