Paul Newman played countless roles throughout his life: actor, director, racecar driver, and even salad dressing maker. His acting career was distinguished by his handsome looks and “method” style. His role as prison escapee Luke Jackson debuted 50 years ago today in Cool Hand Luke, the chain gang drama in which “failure to communicate” drives an impenetrable wedge between nonconformist Luke and the Florida prison system.
Newman earned an Oscar nomination for his work in Cool Hand Luke, and it gave him the freedom to attempt a role behind the camera. Though he was famous for his undeniable attractiveness, it bugged Newman that his good looks might be interpreted as the source of his star power. “If blue eyes are what it’s all about, and not the accumulation of my work as a professional actor, I may as well turn in my union card right now and go into gardening,” he told writer Jane Wilson when she interviewed Newman for the 1968 Post story “What If My Eyes Turn Brown?”
At the time of the interview, Newman was on set filming his directorial debut, Rachel, Rachel, fresh from the success of Cool Hand Luke. Despite his reputation as a box office shoo-in, Newman claimed a degree of self-consciousness about his skills as an actor, which may explain his desire to prove himself worthy as a filmmaker: “It has something to do with the way you feel when you wake up in the morning. One day you say to yourself, ‘My work is impeccable. There’s nothing I can’t do. Molière, Shakespeare — you name it!’ But next morning you think, ‘The work I am doing is childish. It is scaled to adulation and financial return, and that return is out of all proportion to my contribution. It’s silly, it’s stupid, it has nothing whatever to do with being an adult.’”
A host of nominations and wins from the Academy and Cannes Film Festival — spread across six decades — tells a different story about Newman’s lifelong contributions to cinema. Though his name may always be synonymous with physical comeliness, Newman’s versatility and uncompromising creative drive have been widely recognized.