Volume 78 / Number 18 - October 1 - 7, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Notebook

The silent young man with the blue eyes at Downey’s

By Jerry Tallmer

In the very early 1950s I had a friend who hung out at Downey’s, Eighth Avenue and 44th Street, and I would sometimes hang there with her. In the next booth there was often a cluster of aspiring actors around a rising star named Joanne Woodward, who was making it big on this new thing called television.

Next to her in that booth sat a silent, beautiful young man — her young man — who had nothing to say and seemed to be going nowhere fast.

Nobody knew his name.

They soon would. Josh Logan put him into “Picnic” as, so to speak, the visiting young hunk, and there was no stopping Paul Newman after that, whether he wanted it nor not. Quite often, as it turned out, he didn’t want it — the Oscar, for instance — and apologized for it.

As we would all learn over the years, he was a surprisingly serious man, be it films, the stage, racing cars, business, politics, human well-being, the family, the environment, the state of the nation and the world.

He appeared in some 60 movies or TV jobs over the years from 1967 to 2006, when, it is to be presumed, he stopped working because of the cancer that took him from us, at 83, last weekend.

Around the world this week many thousands if not millions of grieving people are reliving their memories of Fast Eddie Felson, Chance Wayne, Brick Pollitt, Hud Bannon, Henry Goodorf, Butch Cassidy, or some other cool or swaggering or wounded, blue-eyed, sexually magnetic male embodied by Newman in one picture after another.

I have two other preferred Newmans in my memory chamber — serious ones by a serious artist.

The first is Frank Galvin, the washed-up, used-up, disgraced, about-to-be-disbarred lawyer of Sidney Lumet’s 1982 “The Verdict,” screenplay by (of course!) David Mamet from a novel by Barry Reed.

We have had the washed-up hero in movies virtually ever since movies were invented. Most often it’s a cop or — heaven forfend — a newspaperman. A failing lawyer is something of a novelty, especially when made believable down to the very musculature, the jawline, the sagging exhaustion, the hopelessness in those fading blue eyes, the whole generous deliverance, as an actor, to failure of the self and betrayal by others, not least by the woman he’s been sleeping with.

The only parallel that pops out of nowhere into my head is Bing Crosby’s shockingly good performance as a four-flushing alcoholic actor in the 1954 screen version of Clifford Odets’s “The Country Girl.” One also suddenly remembers the great line in “Raisin in the Sun” that Lorraine Hansberry gave to the mama of washed-up Walter Lee Younger: Nothing left in a man? “There is always something left.”

There was just enough left in Frank Galvin to keep him plugging away, trying to uncover proof of a cold-blooded piece of medical malpractice, ringing doorbells, chasing down leads, entering motions, tangling with judges and a high-powered legal opposition. Until he got it.

A movie like “The Verdict” and a performance like Newman’s is as restorative as a cup of ice water in the desert.

The other Newman high on my list is as the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” brought anew to the New York stage (thanks to Newman) in 2002 under his friend James Naughton’s direction (and subsequently to TV).

This was once again a Paul Newman in firm, strong, gentle, thoughtful control — a serious effort (the whole show) by a serious, self-erasing artist.

Who would have thought, back there in the early 1950s in a booth at Downey’s…? And yes, he does have, did have, the bluest (cornflower blue) eyes ever given to a human being.

You know what they say about a ballplayer like Derek Jeter. He’s a pro. The highest praise in the American language. Sleep well, sweet prince. You’re a pro.

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