Paul Newman’s Early Years
He would have just turned 96 in January, but he died of cancer in 2008, at age 83.
He was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 25, 1925, in a family that welcomed religious differences. His mother was a Roman Catholic, born in Hungary, who as an adult became a Christian Scientist. His father was the son of Jewish parents who had also immigrated from Hungary. His father ran a sporting goods store, and his mother worked in the store while raising him and his older brother.
He identified himself as a Jew, though he never practiced the religion. And he was married for 50 years to a Protestant from Georgia.
A Very Close Call
He graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 1943 and joined the Navy. He wanted to be a pilot but was disqualified because he was color blind, so he instead trained as a radioman and gunner. He flew out of aircraft carriers in the Pacific, and narrowly escaped death in the spring of 1945. During the Battle of Okinawa he was scheduled to report to the USS Bunker Hill, but his pilot came down with an ear infection and was grounded, along with his crew. Soon after, when he was supposed to be on board the ship, the Bunker Hill was hit by two kamikaze aircraft, resulting in explosions and fire that killed 346 sailors, including the entire contingent from his squadron.
For his service he received a Navy combat action ribbon and Combat Aircrew Wings. Then, after the war, he returned to Ohio and went to Kenyon College, studying both economics and drama.
Paul’s Family Life And Career
He graduated in 1949 and married his girlfriend Jackie Witte — they had a son and two daughters together. He landed some acting roles in summer stock in Wisconsin and Illinois, then after his father died, he sold his interest interest in the family store to his brother and headed east — first to Yale Drama School for a year, then to New York City where he studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio.
A Broadway Debut
He made his Broadway debut in 1953 in Picnic, trying out for the lead role of Hal, but ending up being cast as Hal’s old college roommate. He later took over the lead role, and fatefully, also met a woman, an understudy for the production who was to become his second wife.
A couple of years later the two actors worked together on the film The Long Hot Summer. He ended up divorcing his wife, and they married in February 1958. The following month his new wife won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in The Three Faces of Eve.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward remained married for 50 years, until Newman’s death in 2008. They had three daughters together, and starred together in a total of ten films. In addition, Newman directed his wife in five other films.
Paul Newman, famous for his rugged good looks and deep blue eyes, was himself nominated ten times for Academy Awards, starting with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then The Hustler, Hud and Cool Hand Luke. He finally won Best Actor for his role in the 1986 film The Color of Money. But, ironically, he was not nominated for his work opposite Robert Redford in his two most popular films: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973).
Newman was almost as famous for his activities outside of the movies. He was a lifelong Democrat and cast his early support for Eugene McCarthy for president in 1968. He was proud of the fact that he made Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemy’s List.”
A Passion For Auto Racing
He was also interested in auto racing. He owned a number of race cars and competed professionally in several auto races. He was active in a number of charities including The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a camp for seriously ill children in Connecticut (named after his gang in Butch Cassidy). He was an environmentalist, preserving lands around his home in Connecticut; he donated $10 million to establish a scholarship fund at Kenyon College; and he helped form a committee to encourage corporate philanthropy.
He ultimately put his money where his mouth was when he founded a company called Newman’s Own, starting with salad dressing. He later quipped, “The embarrassing thing is that the salad dressing is outgrossing my films.” Regardless, now seven years after his death, Newman’s Own is going strong with a whole line of upscale culinary products; and the profits still go to support Newman’s favorite charities.