“Acting is like letting your pants down; you’re exposed.” — Paul Newman


It’s his birthday today.

I am so glad I grew up in a time when Paul Newman was still a leading man (and he was a leading man up until the end). So I got to experience the pleasure of going to see Paul Newman on the big screen. As an Actors Studio fan-girl from when I was around 12, I was well aware of Paul Newman and his work. (That I would go on to be involved in the Actors Studio 15 years later, attending sessions, taking workshops, involved in the Masters Program that Paul Newman himself set up … not a coincidence. I met Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on the same night I met Elia Kazan. I held it together … barely.) I revere his acting. To look the way he looked is no small thing. But to look the way he looked and then to decide to work your ass off – and he WORKED, boy – in order to have a meaningful career – THAT is what sets him apart.


Here’s my favorite example of his work ethic. For an actor who cares about acting, there is no resting on laurels. You’re never set. The gig requires you to “show up” each time, no matter how big a star you are. There are problems to be solved. Always. There are pockets of resistance within everyone that need to be addressed. Always. Whether you’re just starting out or whether you’re Paul Newman.

Sidney Lumet tells this story in his book Making Movies, about directing Paul Newman in The Verdict:

He is an honorable man. He is also a very private man. We had worked together in television in the early fifties and done a brief scene together in a Martin Luther King documentary, so when we got together on The Verdict, we were immediately comfortable with each other. At the end of two weeks of rehearsal, I had a run-through of the script … There were no major problems. In fact, it seemed quite good. But somehow it seemed rather flat. When we broke for the day I asked Paul to stay a moment. I told him that while things looked promising, we really hadn’t hit the emotional level we both knew was there in David Mamet’s screenplay. I said that his characterization was fine but hadn’t yet evolved into a living, breathing person. Was there a problem? Paul said that he didn’t have the lines memorized yet and that when he did, it would all flow better. I told him I didn’t think it was the lines. I said that there was a certain aspect of Frank Galvin’s character that was missing so far. I told him that I wouldn’t invade his privacy, but only he could choose whether or not to reveal that part of the character and therefore that aspect of himself. I couldn’t help him with the decision. We lived near each other and rode home together. The ride that evening was silent. Paul was thinking. On Monday, Paul came in to rehearsal and sparks flew. He was superb. His character and the picture took on life.

I know that decision to reveal the part of himself that the character required was painful for him. But he’s a dedicated actor as well as a dedicated man. And … yes, Paul is a shy man. And a wonderful actor. And race car driver. And gorgeous.

I find that story so moving.

When he died, I wrote a piece about Paul Newman for House Next Door, where I picked out three roles/specific acting moments to examine how good a technician he was, how gifted he was with craft. Paul Newman always knew he had to work hard. Marlon Brando and James Dean were his contemporaries.

Imagine the head trip that must have been for young actors at the time. How do you even COMPETE? It must have been like Irish novelists working on their masterpiece in 1921, and then Ulysses came out the following year, scorching the earth with its impact. Or like young hopeful male singers in 1953, who were listening to new kinds of music, wondering if there might be a spot for them there in whatever it was that was happening, and then along comes Elvis the next year, and Boom, not only did he steal everyone’s thunder, he took over the world in 8 months time. And for three, four years after, the influence was so enormous that everyone just tried to sound like Elvis. Elvis created his own gravitational pull. Or like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was so influential you can hear it in EVERYTHING, in practically every other album released by other bands in the year or so that followed.

That was what it was like for young actors in the early to mid 1950s. Brando to Dean. You could not escape either of them. And that was what it was like for Paul Newman.

What do you do? How do you make your own way? Without imitating them? Without trying to be someone else?

Newman always said there was only one natural genius in his marriage. And it wasn’t him.

He had to WORK to get as good as he was. This makes his lengthy career even more extraordinary.

Here’s the piece I wrote for House Next Door about Paul Newman:

Indelible Ink: Paul Newman.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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20 Responses to “Acting is like letting your pants down; you’re exposed.” — Paul Newman

  1. One of my favorite PN movies is Harper, which isn’t a particularly good movie, but I loved his character…particularly his reading of the line “You must be physic.” Anyway, what a fabulous man.

    • sheila says:

      Jincy – I saw Harper and loved his character too but it’s been a while. Thanks for the line-reading heads up – I’ll look for it.

      Boy, could the man deliver a line.

  2. Todd Restler says:

    Like Used Cars, another lost early 80’s gem in Absence of Malice. Great work by Newman and Sally Field. And awesome supporting turns by Bob Balaban and Wilfred Brimley at his absolute Brimliest.

    And Slap Shot I saw in the theater at 8 years old. (I am realizing my Parents just didn’t give a crap, if they wanted to see a movie they just took me – Animal House, too- one of the many ways times have changed). As a kid my favorites were of course the Hanson brothers. The brawl they start during pre-game warm-ups still cracks me up every time.

    But watching it again recently I am struck by Reggie Dunlop’s last lines, as he tries to convince his already long gone ex-wife to stick around through his next team:
    “It’s gonna be great!”. He never changes a bit in that movie. When did Hollywood decide the main character must “learn” or “change” or “grow”. I understand many great movies have characters that do that, but many do not. I love Reggie Dunlop, he is in the canon of all-time great movie characters.

    • sheila says:

      // I am realizing my Parents just didn’t give a crap //


      Reggie is the best. Paul Newman said it was the character he felt closest to, of all of his roles which 1. does not surprise me and 2. is hilarious.

  3. Melanie says:

    My first real Paul Newman movie was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It really had an impact on me which is weird because it came out when I was only 8 years old and I really didn’t like westerns. I think I was attracted to the Newman/Redford chemistry. Not long after that came The Sting and I was totally in love. Of course Redford was the young hottie with Newman being the mature mentor (not really the word I’m looking for) in both those movies. I remember seeing Cool Hand Luke on TV as well as The Hustler. Just sayin’ – if I’d seen Newman in The Long Hot Summer before I was forced to endure Faulkner I might have an entirely different appreciation for F’s work. He just embodies ‘sultry’ (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, too. Not Faulkner, but similar feel.) My fondest and most enduring memory of Paul Newman are his beautiful twinkling eyes in many roles at many ages. He never lost that.

    • sheila says:

      Melanie – Oh, The Sting, The Sting! Had fun writing about that in the post. Love that stage in Newman’s career.

      And Long Hot Summer he’s just sizzling!

      I love him in Hud too – that Patricia Neal anecdote in my post is hell-a interesting.

  4. carolyn clarke says:

    I fell in love with Paul Newman in “The Young Philadelphians”. I don’t remember the plot at all but I remember him as incredibly sexy. I watched “The Towering Inferno” for him and Steve McQueen and every time it’s shown on TV, I watch the first five minutes when he is flying around in the helicopter around the building and the last five minutes with him and McQueen, dirty and wet, talking together. My God, the sex appeal. I even liked him in “Torn Curtain” though I understand from stories that he hated working with Hitchcock, but the scene where he murders the spy in the oven is killer because of his face after he murders the man. But my favorite is “Nobody’s Fool” with Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Melanie Griffin, Margo Martindale. It is a fantastic little movie with a fantastic cast and they don’t show anywhere near enough. He’s showing his age and his wisdom in this movie and he is funny and heartbreaking and compassionate, all at the same time. My favorite Paul Newman movie.

    • Jessie says:

      Something about seeing that gif at the top of the post made my heart kick in my chest with love. Oh, I love him! Every version of him makes me swoon.

      Carolyn, Nobody’s Fool looks like a corker. I must have been too young to take notice when it came out and it sounds like it’s slipped from view since its release. I’ll keep a weather eye out.

  5. Emily says:

    They brought their fucking toys!

  6. Dan says:

    My first Newman movie was seeing ‘The Color of Money’ in theaters. I didn’t really understand who he was until much later.

    I also love Nobody’s Fool.

  7. Michael McCarthy says:

    I truly enjoy your website. I love film. I have a theory about Newman. I feel he was at his best when he took on a role that encapsulated the “Lucky loser”. Fast Eddie Felson/Cool Hand Luke. A character who had no business going anywhere, who had the odds stacked up so high there wasn’t much hope; but Newman had luck on his side. Almost as if, one terrible decision and everything goes away. Not for Paul Newman. That smile when he figured out a way to get what he needed. Some people say there’s no such thing as luck, only hard work. Maybe that’s true. Newman had both.

    • sheila says:

      Michael – thanks for reading and commenting and your nice words.

      This is SUCH an observant comment you’ve made – this is really good stuff, and I like your theory a lot. Lucky loser. Fantastic.

      It’s like … using his looks, or just accepting that his looks are what they are … and so doors open, or … something like Sweet Bird of Youth – I mean, boy is Chance a loser – but he’s hot and sexy so he can be basically an escort – but … that’s a short-lived kind of thing … what’s gonna happen when his looks go?

      This is stereotypically a feminine worry – so his openness to that aspect of himself is what made him the actor he was.

      I also love him when he’s a RAKE.

      Thanks again for this comment!

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