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Despite the movie line, Paul Newman was a “communicator”

Paul Newman was my hero on the big screen. Even the legendary Clint Eastwood, another favored actor of mine, takes a back seat to Newman.

From the first time I saw his steel-blue eyes in “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), I was hooked. There was just something unique about this man…one with a seemingly quiet demeanor who was able to give powerful performances in front of a camera.

Newman died on Saturday of cancer. He was 83.

What separated Newman from other actors was his giving spirit. He made millions making movies, but it was through his food corporation, aptly named “Newman’s Own,” that enabled him to stand head and shoulders above the other Hollywood types. The sale of those products – salad dressing, pasta sauce, popcorn, salsa, wine and lemonade – could have added to his fortunes, but Newman rather chose to donate all proceeds to charity. As of 2007, those sales had exceeded $220 million.

On the screen, Newman delighted his audiences in such roles as boxer Rocky Graziano (“Somebody Up There Likes Me” – 1956), Ben Quick (“The Long, Hot Summer” – 1958), Brick Pollitt (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – 1958), Anthony Lawrence (“The Young Philadelphians” – 1959), Ari Canaan (“Exodus” – 1960), “Fast Eddie” Felson (“The Hustler” – 1961), Hud Bannon (“Hud” – 1963), John Russell (“Hombre” – 1967), and, my favorite, Luke Jackson in “Cool Hand Luke.”

Some of my other favorite Newman movies were “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” (1972), “The Sting” (1973), “The Drowning Pool” (1975), “Slap Shot” (1977), “Absence of Malice” (1981), “The Verdict” (1982) and “The Color of Money” (1986). It was that last listing in which this great actor finally received his well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor.

And did you know that it was Newman’s voice behind two recent successful movies….“Cars” (where he portrayed Doc Hudson in 2006) and “Dale” in 2007 in which Newman was the narrator of the story on the life and times of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Speaking of racing, Newman also found fame on the track. He competed in Sports Car Club of America events where he won several championships. In 1979, he drove in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans where he finished second while driving a Porsche 935.

Over a stretch of nearly 20 years, Newman drove in the Trans-Am Series. At the age of 70 he became the oldest driver to be part of a winning team in a major sanctioned race, winning in his class at the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona.

In 1983, he co-founded Newman/Haas Racing with Carl Haas, a Champ Car team. Newman also owned a NASCAR Winston Cup car before selling it to Penske Racing.

But of all his success, it remains his role of Luke Jackson that captured the heart of this movie bug. In this movie, Newman plays the role of an inmate sent to a Florida prison camp after being charged with cutting the heads off parking meters.

“Luke” bucks the prison establishment throughout the movie, earning the respect of his fellow inmates in the process. The film contains my favorite movie line of all time – “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

The life and times of Paul Newman did just the opposite…he had a knack of communicating with his audience.

Cal Bryant is Editor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald and Gates County Index. He can be reached at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.