They were longtime Upper East Siders, though many think of Connecticut as the favored home of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In the end, it was, but prior to that, one could see them dining at Table d’Hôte, on East 92nd, not to mention frequenting the theater they loved. As HBO viewers are learning — via Ethan Hawke’s six-part documentary called “The Last Movie Stars” — these two may have graced, and been awarded, for their work on screen, but their talent was primarily honed on stage.
As Isaac Butler beautifully details in his recent book, “The Method: How The 20th Century Learned to Act,” Newman and Woodward were active members of the Actors Studio, the Stanislavsky-turned-Strasberg-turned Kazan style of acting. (They met as understudies in “Picnic” on Broadway.) How much that impacted their notable movie work is up for debate, but no one questions their commitment to the craft. The first time I visited New York, one of the plays I saw was “Baby Want A Kiss,” starring the couple. The play was not memorable, but it certainly proved the couple’s eagerness to return to where they had begun. Many years later, I saw Newman as the Stage Manager in a Broadway revival of “Our Town.”
But Newman should also be appreciated for one great idea. It was the belief that all kids — including those with life-threatening illnesses — should be allowed to have fun, and fun should be taken seriously. With money raised by the Newman’s Own dressings and sauces (his other great idea!), the first Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was opened in Connecticut in1988. Now the Serious Fun Children’s Network sponsors camps around the world, each free to families, supported by private donations. More than 300,000 kids have been helped.
I recall a benefit saluting the camps — and Newman in particular — in 2015 at Lincoln Center. This was one of those nights when you were laughing at David Letterman, ogling George Clooney, (who, appropriately, does the voice of Newman — opposite Laura Linney as Woodward — in the documentary) singing with Carole King, and weeping at the projections of Newman and those happy campers. My daughter was so moved that she texted me later, “I am planning to send all the money I don’t have.”
Above all, it made one respect the time and money this man gave, when he certainly didn’t have to. Full disclosure: My father, Harold Willens, and Newman were political pals. They raised money for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, cofounded The Center for Defense Information in Washington, served as special United Nations delegates together in the name of disarmament, and brought The Nation magazine back to life when it was in a serious crisis. When my father was honored in Los Angeles, Newman was the emcee. Later, he complimented me on my own introductory speech. He took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You were funny, you were tender ...” He had me at “you.”
Speaking of those eyes, he once drove my father — 90 miles an hour, in his VW with a Porsche engine — to Santa Barbara. They stopped on the way for breakfast. Newman was wearing large sunglasses, which he took off the very moment the oblivious waitress was about to pour piping hot coffee. She took one look at those baby blues and the coffee went right down my father’s pants, giving him some minor and memorable burns.
And I’ll never forget one day when we were eating lunch at a tennis club. Just as I was about to pour on the club’s salad dressing, Newman put out his arm and said, “Don’t touch that.” Then he asked for a little oil, vinegar, and a few other goodies and made me his own. Best asparagus appetizer ever.
The Hawke doc is only a week old at this writing, so I don’t know how much of Newman’s non-acting work will be included. That acting, as we’ll surely see, got better as he took on more complex, and age-appropriate roles in “The Verdict,” The Color Of Money, “Twilight,” and “Nobody’s Fool.” But his method of ensuring that good causes find supporters, and kids with serious illnesses be allowed to have fun, is what I most applaud.