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The Coolest Hand: Paul Newman, 1925–2008

Author Richard Russo, director Sam Mendes, and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman remember.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman
I met him when we were doing Nobody’s Fool in 1994. I was in my twenties and he was maybe 70. He took me out to dinner and challenged me to a game of Ping-Pong. He beat me three times in a row. I remember him wanting to beat me— he was so competitive and it was so much fun and, right there, I felt like I belonged. That never stopped, till now.

He’s one of the only people who showed up to everything. Every show I directed, everything I acted in. Even some small theater with 60 people, some event for a theater that needed help. He and Joanne were just part of this amazing extended theatrical family. I still think that I want to grow up and be like him. That’s corny—no, it’s true. It’s not corny, because it’s him. You want to grow up and be like him, to take his example and learn from it. He was so giving with art and life, and he connected the two, creating something that nobody does or has done.

Richard Russo
There was a pivotal scene in the film Nobody’s Fool [which Russo wrote] when Paul’s character, Sully, and his son Peter are sitting in a car. Sully’s trying to explain why he bailed out so early in the boy’s life, about what an abusive father his own father was. In the screenplay, Sully went on for about a page. Paul said, “We don’t need all that.” I said, “How’s the viewer supposed to react to the past if it’s not explicated?” He said, “I’ll know what to do.” So I cut it at about half. I thought I’d done my job, until I saw it afterwards. He’d cut it down to “He was a big man. Your mother was just a little bit of a woman. And, boy, could he make her fly.” That was all that was left, but with the camera pushing in on his face, all that history was in that haunted look. Paul told me, “Don’t rob me of my memory. That’s all I have. If you share my memory with the viewer, you’re stealing it from me, and I’ve got to have that.”

All the time, actors want more lines, juicier lines. Paul understood that less was more. For him, the words were often so much less important than the physicality, the gestures. He was a dream of a physical actor. Even as he was just eating up the camera, he never showed the slightest interest in eating the camera.

Sam Mendes
I worked with him on Road to Perdition in 2001. Conrad Hall was the cinematographer—he was about Paul’s age. He’d also shot Harper, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy, so he had seen Paul from the age of 40. At one point he was shooting a close-up of Paul looking into a fire, and I turned round and Conrad was crying. I said, “What’s the matter?” And he just said, “He was so beautiful.” And I said, “Well, he’s beautiful now!” And he said, “Yeah, but he was so beautiful.” I think he was crying for both of them. But whereas Conrad was not at peace with the idea of death and growing older, Paul said several times, Yeah, I’ve had some great innings, it’s about time I give this up, it’s all a bit silly. There was a real sense of grace and dignity. He had nothing left to prove. He knew what a fortunate life he’d led. That lent him an aura of a minor deity, to me. He had sort of ascended already. It was not about him, and I suspect it hadn’t been for some time.

He used to walk on his hands, by the way. He was 76 years old, and I walked into the room twice when he was walking on his hands. He was entertaining the kids on set. He was immediately drawn to them and had to make them laugh.

Click here for the complete interview with Sam Mendes and here for David Edelstein’s tribute.


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