Robert Redford Remembers Paul Newman

4 minute read
Robert Redford

I first met Paul Newman in 1968, when George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, introduced us in New York City. When the studio didn’t want me for the film–it wanted somebody as well known as Paul–he stood up for me. I don’t know how many people would have done that; they would have listened to their agents or the studio powers.

The friendship that grew out of the experience of making that film and The Sting four years later had its genesis in the fact that although there was an age difference, we both came from a tradition of theater and live TV. We were respectful of craft and focused on digging into the characters we were going to play. Both of us were fundamentally American actors, with the qualities and virtues that characterize American actors: irreverence, playing on the other’s flaws for fun, one-upmanship–but always with an underlying affection. Those were also at the core of our relationship off the screen.

Paul was very engaged at work. He was there. He liked a lot of rehearsal. But he was fun too. Whenever he’d make a mistake on set, he would enjoy it more than anybody. I’d look at him, and he’d look at me, and I’d say, “You’re not fooling anybody. You’re not staring at me intensely; you’ve lost your line.” And he’d roar with laughter.

We shared the belief that if you’re fortunate enough to have success, you should put something back–he with his Newman’s Own food and his Hole in the Wall camps for kids who are gravely ill, and me with Sundance and the institute and the festival. Paul and I didn’t see each other all that regularly, but sharing that brought us together. We supported each other financially and by showing up at events. And then we’d give each other a hard time. Whatever success one of us would have, the other would knock it down. If you’re in a position of being viewed iconically, you’d better have a mechanism to take yourself down to keep the balance. I think we did that for each other.

What impressed me about Paul was that he was very realistic about who he was. He knew the world of hyperbole and distortion he was in. That meant he maintained a certain amount of privacy. He was generous and a pillar of integrity. He was loyal and self-effacing. His commitment to his profession was serious, as was his commitment to social responsibility and especially to his family. He had a life that had real meaning and that will for some time.

I last saw him a few months ago. He’d been in and out of the hospital. I knew what the deal was, and he knew what the deal was, and we didn’t talk about it. We talked about what was on our minds: the election, politics, what needed to be done. Ours was a relationship that didn’t need a lot of words.

Mostly I’ll miss the fun we had. We played lots of pranks on each other. I used to race cars, and after he took this rare Porsche I owned for a drive, he began to get into racing. He had incredible reflexes, and he got really good, but he talked so much about it that I got sick of it. So I had a beaten-up Porsche shell delivered to his porch for his 50th birthday. He never said anything, but not long after, I found a crate of molten metal delivered to the living room of my (rented) house. It dented the floor. I then had it turned into a really ugly sculpture and dropped into his garden. To this day, neither one of us has ever mentioned it.

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