Paul Newman made everything in his life appear easy, right up to dying on his own terms.
No long, public goodbyes for Newman, 83, who died Friday night after a long battle with cancer. Newman recently quit chemotherapy treatments because he wanted to die at home.
As an actor and humanitarian, Newman deserved curtain calls but preferred privacy. A world still benefiting from his talent and generosity paid him back by honoring that wish. Even tabloid deathwatchers backed off, after reporting his imminent demise in June.
Privacy was always part of Newman's politely rebellious image, as much as eating 50 hard-boiled eggs was Cool Hand Luke's. Living in Connecticut made Hollywood come to him. Staying married to Joanne Woodward and scandal-free for 50 years mocked the celebrity cliche with each anniversary. Racing cars and raising charity funds were genuine passions, not just photo ops.
Asking Newman how he did it all would get only a self-deprecating wisecrack and a blue-eyed twinkle.
The list of Hollywood celebrities playing success so close to the vest is short, and the passing of an aging star like Newman is likely to shorten it. For all the positive examples Newman left, perhaps the most underrated is how he handled fame with uncompromised class.
The trait was more publicly visible in Newman's performances, in a range of characters with diverse backgrounds and motivations, from amoral charmers (Hud, The Hustler) to genial sharks (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Slap Shot) and everyman crusaders (Absence of Malice, The Verdict).
What the roles share is Newman's commitment to themes beyond mere dialogue, suggested with astonishing nonchalance. Making it look easy never seemed more effortless, a product of studying first-generation Method at New York's Actors Studio.
Newman seldom cried or yelled in dramatic scenes but convinced viewers that he might at any moment. He tossed away comedic lines that lesser actors would milk. Newman was likelier to use being handsome as a character's flaw — especially the coiled sexuality of his Tennessee Williams antiheroes — than as sex appeal.
Viewers could usually trust Newman not to accept a role purely for money. He had too much respect for himself and the audience for that. The rare times when he did (the disastrous When Time Ran Out, his 1954 debut in The Silver Chalice), Newman publicly apologized for the results. Such integrity probably deprived fans of a couple of dozen more performances, maybe a couple of more hard-mined gems.
That same sense of honor carried over to Newman's personal life: his Hole in the Wall camp for terminally and chronically ill children, funded by proceeds from Newman's Own food products; refusing to be merely a celebrity owner of race cars but compete past Medicare age; burning his tuxedo on his 75th birthday because he was through with formality.
Newman always believed in what he was doing, on screen and in real life. He just never felt obligated to make it look difficult. He'd claim luck or timing made it happen, or perhaps genetics, like the time he suggested his self-deprecating epitaph:
"Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown."
Newman's eyes closed for the final time Friday night. They were still blue.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com.