In Rehearsal with Paul Newman
“I bet I could eat fifty eggs.” So says the lead character, Luke, in “Cool Hand Luke,” one of Paul Newman’s greatest roles. Newman’s whim begins the eating contest that is one of the cornerstone scenes of that strong and shattering film.
I don’t know of one other fine actor and movie star who made so many good films and portrayed so many memorable characters. He was HUD and he was FAST EDDY FELSON in THE HUSTLER and it’s sequal, THE COLOR OF MONEY. He was BUTCH CASSIDY and the stumbling, drunken attorney who finds redemption in THE VERDICT, and the wanderer BEN QUICK in THE LONG HOT SUMMER and a con man in THE STING, and ... well, you probably know all this. He was nominated for an Oscar nine times. Won it once.
But the characters he finely rendered didn’t add up to the man himself. He was more than that as he lived his life, in his long marriage with the breathtaking actress Joanne Woodward, in his living in the East and staying out of the Hollywood jungle, and, mostly, in his generosity, raising hundreds of millions for charities, like his various camps for ill children. This, all together, makes a hero.
When asked to name ‘my favorite films,’ “The Hustler” and “The Verdict” always appear on the list. He was my hero, too, part of what formed me as a man and a writer. I was 20 years old when I was deeply affected by his performance in “The Hustler,” and I was 59 when I had my chance to work with this man, and I was as thrilled as any boy meeting his favorite baseball star or Astronaut.
I had adapted the Nicholas Sparks novel, “Message in a Bottle,” that was to star Kevin Costner and Robin Wright, with Newman portraying ‘Dodge’, the seadog father of Costner’s character.
When I met him, he immediately disarmed me of any nervousness or awkward worship. He was so enthusiastic, like a boy himself, full of energy and fun and excited about the film.
He had traveled through the Carolinas with a tape recorder to study the accents of the local men along the coast who were of an age (he was 70 at the time) to match his character.
He complimented my script and called it ‘bullet-proof,’ and as the rest of the lead actors, director and producer gathered with him in the rehearsal room, he began rattling off a few jokes. There were always a few jokes, some raw, some smart, but it was his energy and animation that carried the humor and made us laugh along with him.
During the first long rehearsal day, his energy didn’t flag. He was up for doing any important and difficult scene, and when there weren’t enough actors to portray all of the characters, I was called to fill in.
So picture me, standing next to Paul, saying the lines I had written and watching him embody his character with his own look and body and more of my dialogue – just three feet away. Even though I’ve spent over 40 years in film, working with many fine and noted actors, this moment thrilled me and still does, years later.
We worked well into the afternoon, before we broke and gathered around the table, talking and joking again. We were tired and starved, and Paul remarked how hungry he was, and I agreed.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “I bet I could fifty eggs.”
I had the great pleasure of making him break out with that deep laugh he had such easy access to, and that I’d heard in so many of his films, and I felt gratified that I could give him that moment, this fine actor and good man and noted philanthropist and...this hero of mine.