RIP Paul Newman

Though not for the reasons you might think. Or maybe so anyway.

The first thing I thought of when hearing the news this morning was that my parents would be sad to hear the news. Some cultural figures, no matter how long lasting, how notable their continuing presence, are associated most closely with a time, place and generation, and while Newman continued to work ever more sporadically over time as I grew up and became aware of him, I was also aware that he was an inherited figure for me, somebody who had made his impact in earlier times, before I was born and in my earliest years.

Reading some of the comments over on ILX has been helpful — Drew Daniel, in a brief comment, noted, “His performances in “Hud” and “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” have always meant a lot to me, his kind of masculinity is missing nowadays from Hollywood.” This seems as good a read as any, and other comments in the prepared obits now surfacing on the news sites mention his aptitude for playing anti-heroes, characters going against various kinds of grains. I think it’s interesting to note a potentially unconscious but extremely deft character choice on his part: whereas Robert Redford, perhaps his most famous acting partner thanks to the one-two punch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, played a role glorifying the press in All the President’s Men, Newman ended up playing in Absence of Malice, a much different film. And this some years after having ended up on Nixon’s enemies list, something which Newman apparently took a lot of pride in (who could blame him? talk about a compliment!).

Butch Cassidy is I suppose my favorite film by him but as I said in turn on ILX, “I don’t have a defining performance in my head to draw on as being a favorite; I’d say he was more someone who transcended film if that makes any sense. Obviously his public profile vis-a-vis politics and philanthropy was a large part of that.” He wasn’t quite famous for being famous but he ended up pretty close — and for me it was, indeed, down to the salad dressing in terms of how I first really got to know him. It was introduced while I was living in upstate New York, and since Newman famously lived not too far away in Connecticut it felt like a bit of regional support, in a way. The eyecatching woodcut-style illustration of his face — his famously handsome, eye-catching calling card — was clearly meant to be the selling point above all else for the first time buyer.

But as was stated right from the start, the whole point of the Newman’s Own enterprise wasn’t to make a mint for himself — and with that first dressing as the start and a slew of other food products to follow, a nice combination between mass market and the kind of stuff that Trader Joe’s would eventually fully popularize, good down-the-middle efforts that weren’t hypergourmet but were no slouches either, he raised a huge amount of bank for a variety of causes. I’ve spoken before about my thoughts on charity but it strikes me that Newman’s approach wasn’t a bad one at all, and it would have been both personally and professionally satisfying to see it grow the way it has, and to know that it’s left in good hands.

Is my interest in food derived in part from all this? I wouldn’t say so, the initial seeds were already in place when I was smaller, but in retrospect I see now that the growth of Newman’s food interests from personal gifts to the enterprise that it is is something that comes from similar sources. One loves what one creates, so why not share? The killer motto of the company — “Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the Common Good” — says it all, with wit, knowledge and awareness, that the common good can be found both in the support to those in need the company stands for as much as in the good cuisine one can enjoy or contribute to.

This story from the Hartford Courant celebrates the food aspect of his life and work, and is worth a read. I’ll end with a quote from it, and a thanks to him for setting what strikes me all in all as a good example — to explore and create and try many things in life, and to not be defined simply by the one thing you are most well known for.

To a younger generation, Paul Newman wasn’t Butch Cassidy or Cool Hand Luke or Fast Eddie Felson. He was a witty guy who ran a food company that made popcorn, salsa and spaghetti sauce.

….

The actor was a hands-on director of the company, whether the task was taste-testing new products or presiding over the finals of a Newman’s Own recipe contest.

“He really loved good food, so he was really involved in the business,” said Kirsten McKamy, who worked for Newman’s Own for eight years. “He wasn’t just a figurehead; he came up with ideas.”

….

The chef marveled at Newman’s accomplishments not only in the arts but also in the fields of food, business, philanthropy and auto racing. “It’s almost unfathomable that one human can have that much reach,” he said. “But the interesting thing is, when you take all that away, he’s just a normal guy. He loves things like having a ham salad, riding a bicycle, ordering eggs over the counter at a diner. He loves the notion of Americana and America, in the sense of that Norman Rockwell time.”

Nischan, who spoke with great respect for the actor, said he was thankful for the opportunity to be witness to Newman’s ability to dream of new ideas, to articulate those ideas and to his sense of humor.

Speaking about Newman a few months before his death, McKamy also remembered the actor’s wit. Her boss was a man with a “very dry sense of humor” and who thought before he spoke. “He is a man of few words, but the words he comes out with are perfectly chosen.”

Would we were all so fortunate. It’s good to reflect on somebody who was, and didn’t keep it to himself. RIP, and thanks.

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