Paul Newman: Mega-star and Mensch

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Paul Newman, one of the truly towering giants of the silver screen, who embraced being Jewish because he “liked the challenge,” and whose portrayal of the dashing Haganah officer Ari Ben Canaan in the movie version of Exodus, helped shape the image of the “New Zionist” ideal, was taken from our midst on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008, at the age of 83.

Newman, described by Aljean Harmetz in The New York Times as “one of the last of the great 20th-century movie stars,” lost his battle with cancer at his home in Westport, Conn.

We in the Jewish community not only appreciate Paul Newman’s unmatched acting in such films as Cool Hand Luke, Hud, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict and Road to Perdition, but also his historic performance in Exodus. We also appreciate the fact that despite the many temptations of Hollywood, Newman remained loyal to Joanne Woodward, his wife of 50+ years, and most important, because of his contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to numerous charities, including setting up camping programs for kids with cancer and other issues all over the country — and the world.

Paul Newman was that all-too-rare combination of mega-star and mensch.

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Paul Leonard Newman was born on Jan. 26, 1925, in Cleveland. His mother, the former Teresa Fetzer, was a Roman Catholic who later became a Christian Scientist.

His father, Arthur, “who was Jewish, owned a thriving sporting goods store that enabled the family to settle in affluent Shaker Heights, Ohio, where he and his older brother Arthur grew up,” according to the Times story. Newman was given a choice as to which of his parents’ faith traditions he would embrace. “I decided to be a Jew,” Newman has said in numerous interviews, “because it is hard to be a Jew and I like challenges.”

While Newman does not appear to have been especially observant as a “religious” Jew, his lifelong reputation as a kindly, sensitive, mentoring and decent human being, are clear indications that he was indeed a mensch, the Yiddish word that has come to mean a thoughtful, compassionate good human being. Among his close Jewish friends was St. Louis-born Jewish author A.E. Hotchner, the noted writer, whose book, King of the Hill, was made into a successful film in 1993.

Hotchner loved the salad dressing which Newman concocted and served to his friends. “You really ought to bottle and sell this stuff,” Hotchner is said to have encouraged Newman.

Paul Newman finally agreed to a partnership with Hotchner to market and sell the dressing, but only on the condition that most or all of the proceeds from the sale of Newman’s Own salad dressings would be donated to his charitable pursuits — a wish that has been fulfilled. The result was over $200 million dollars from the sale of the salad dressing, plus additional funds from Newman’s personal fortune, which created his network of life-sustaining charities.

Newman’s half-century in movies began with The Sllver Chalice in 1954, a Christological epic he later denounced as “the worst movie ever made.” His big break came in 1956, when he inherited a powerful role from his fellow “method” actor James Dean, after the latter was killed in an automobile crash, as the boxer Rocky Graziano, in the film Somebody Up There Likes Me. The film’s title seems to describe many aspects of Newman’s own charmed life, having been born with stunning good looks, including his signature blue eyes, and the opportunity to demonstrate his considerable acting skills in so many memorable films.

Harmetz in the Times summarizes Newman’s screen persona by noting, “If Marlon Brando and James Dean defined the defiant American male as a sullen rebel, Paul Newman recreated him as a likeable renegade, a strikingly handsome figure of animal high spirits and blue-eyed candor whose magnetism was almost impossible to resist, whether the character was Hud, Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassidy.”

An early favorite was as Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, in which Newman played a young pool whiz who took on the national champ Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason. Newman was finally to receive his long-delayed Oscar as Fast Eddie Felson in a sequel, three decades later, The Color of Money, in which Eddie mentored an up-and-coming pool shark played by Tom Cruise.

For Jews, however, Newman’s starring role in the film version of Exodus, based on the novel of modern Israel’s birth by Leon Uris, and directed by Holocaust survivor Otto Preminger, with a screenplay by the still-blacklisted Daltron Trumbo, was the most signficant.

Newman starred as Ari Ben Canaan, loosely modeled on the generation of young Israeli Haganah officers like Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, who fought so bravely to smuggle in Jewish refugees on rickety ships like the Exodus in 1947, and who saw combat in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-1949.

Prior to Newman’s appearance as Ari Ben Canaan, the major Hollywood studios, nearly all of them owned by European-born Jewish moguls who feared producing works that were “too Jewish,” were reluctant to cast Jewish actors in Jewish roles.

Jewish actors like Edward G. Robinson could play Italian gangsters in films like Little Caesar, or American Indians, like Jeff Chandler, in several films. Jews were also depicted as “victims,” such as the Jewish soldier in Gentleman’s Agreement played by John Garfield, formerly a Yiddish stage actor named Julie Garfinkle. Later, Jews would be represented by angst-ridden, urban nebbishes like Woody Allen, who lived in awe of masculine icons like Humphrey Bogart –or portrayed as shy, confused young men like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

Ari Ben Canaan, the blue-eyed, bronzed Israeli hero, who stood straight and tall, and who issued “Hagannah orders” with a commanding voice, did not suffer from the “shtetl slouch” of victimhood. Ben Canaan was truly a film expression of what Theodor Herzl and other idealistic founding Zionists called the “New Jewish Man or Woman”: strong, self-assured, Jewish, but secular and absolutely comitted to the establishment of an independent Jewish State to end 2,000 years of powerlessness, pograms, the Holocaust and exile.

Appearing with Newman in the star-studded cast of Exodus was Eva Marie Saint, as Catherine (Kitty) Fremont, an attractive, blond American Christian nurse, who becomes Ben Canaan’s love interest. In a key scene, Ben Canaan explains the importance of establishing a Jewish State to Kitty Fremont, who responds by “expressing the universalist American creed of equality,” according to a chapter on Exodus in the book Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting, by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Schandler.

Ben Canaan listens respectfully to Kitty’s feelings that all people are basically the same. “Don’t ever believe it,” he tells Kitty. “People are different. They have a right to be different.”

Hoberman and Schandler point out, “Ari’s forthright defense of ‘the right to be different’ mimics theories of cultural pluralism articulated fifty years earlier by the American philosopher Horace Kallen. An Israeli hero, Ari eschews any pandering for Gentile approval. Although Exodus projects intermarriage as the future of Kitty and Ari’s relationship, it also assures the audience that Ari will not lose any of his ethnic distinctiveness. Ari will remain a Jew; there can be no doubt in any viewer’s mind. When Kitty will come to love and accept him, she will love and accept him as a Jew.”

While much of the idealistic “bloom has gone off the rose” in Israel after 60 years of independence, the idealism expressed in the book and film Exodus, and the empowered Jew portrayed by Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan was a major contribution to a new and stronger image of Jews in film — no small achievement among many in Newman’s long career.

Eva Marie Saint, who appeared as Marlon Brando’s love interest in On the Waterfront, was among the many Hollywood friends like Robert Redford and so many others who praised Newman’s warmth and decency. Many also praised his longtime and faithful marriage to actress Joanne Woodward, who herself won an Oscar for Three Faces of Eve, long before Newman got his first statuette.

And so, Paul Newman, the star of Exodus, has made his final Exit from this world. Our Jewish tradition holds that we will be held accountable for our lives in this world in the World to Come. Based on his work, his charity and his lifetime as a mega-star and mensch, his memory will always be for a blessing. Farewell, Hud, farewell, Fast Eddie, and Shalom, Ari Ben Canaan.

We have a feeling that “Somebody Up There (Still) Likes You,” and that you will find peace and shelter in the shadow of the wings of the Almighty.