Page last updated at 19:20 GMT, Saturday, 27 September 2008 20:20 UK

Paul Newman: Rebel, rogue, hero

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Paul Newman
Newman was voted the greatest actor of all time by film experts in 2001

From Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke to Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman brought an integrity, vigour and wry impertinence to his roles that clicked with the anti-authoritarian spirit of the '60s and '70s.

Initially hamstrung by those piercing blue eyes and matinee idol features, he deliberately sought out more challenging, anti-heroic parts that ensured his career outlasted many of his contemporaries.

His characters - convicts, outlaws, con men and hustlers - were far from admirable. His gift, however, was to invest them with a charm, humour and crumpled nobility that made them irresistible to men and women alike.

It was this that enabled him in later life to become a distinguished character actor capable of elevating films like Road to Perdition, Message in a Bottle and The Hudsucker Proxy by his sheer force of presence.

Screenwriter William Goldman, who worked with Newman on Harper and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, once described him as "the least star-like superstar" he'd ever met.


"He's an educated man and a trained actor and he never wants more close-ups," he wrote in his 1984 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade.

"What he wants is the best possible script he can have. And he loves to be surrounded by the finest actors available, because he believes the better they are, the better the picture's apt to be."

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Newman (right) was due to play Sundance until Redford joined the film
That was certainly true in Butch Cassidy, in which Newman forged one of cinema's most iconic screen partnerships with co-star Robert Redford.

When he wanted to, however, the Ohio-born actor was more than capable of stealing the limelight.

Take The Hustler, for example, in which, as brash and cocksure pool shark Eddie Felson, he effortlessly upstaged the likes of Jackie Gleason and George C Scott.

Reprising the role in 1986's The Color of Money opposite an up-and-coming Tom Cruise landed Newman his only competitive Oscar.

In truth, however, he'd done better work earlier that decade in 1981's Absence of Malice and The Verdict the following year.

In the former, directed by Sydney Pollack, Newman played a businessman whose familial ties to organised crime saw him persecuted both by the US judiciary and an irresponsible press.

In the latter, he played an alcoholic lawyer who tries to salvage his tarnished reputation by taking on a daunting medical malpractice case.

One man alone, fighting the impossible fight against the odds, was a role Newman would return to many times.

And even if that fight was ultimately unsuccessful, as in Cool Hand Luke, his refusal to back down ensured he'd always be a winner in the audience's eyes.

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate!" cries his non-conformist prisoner at the end of that 1967 classic.

That, of course, was something the actor himself could never be accused of. Whatever the role, whatever the film, his inherent decency always came over loud and clear.

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