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Legacy: Model movie star Newman exuded smooth cool

Now THAT was a movie star.

Paul Newman, who died Friday at 83, was as talented as he was handsome; he seemed to downplay both gifts in such a way that made them, and him, all the more relatable and appealing.

In other words, Newman was cool. So cool. There’s no other word for it, really. Whether on-screen, behind the wheel of a race car or peering out at you from the salad-dressing aisle in the grocery store from a bottle of Newman’s Own, he never came off as less than the kind of guy that, if the circumstances were right, you’d love to have a beer with.

What’s more, he seemed like the kind of guy who would have loved it just as much as you did. Despite his success in the food industry, that’s charisma you can’t bottle and sell.

The number of movies Newman made stretches to nearly 60. He won an Oscar in 1987 for reprising the role of Fast Eddie Felson, a role he originated in “The Hustler” in 1961; he also received nine other nominations. (He also won an honorary Oscar, as well as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.) He was, by any measure, a major star whose best work spanned decades, not years.

And yet he was self-deprecating enough to sometimes show up, unannounced, for a cameo as an audience member for a gag on “Late Show with David Letterman” (a sure sign of good taste, being a Letterman man).

Cool, again.

Of course, you don’t really remember great actors for the awards they’ve won. You remember them for the movies they made, the parts they played. In roles such as the title characters in “Hud” and “Cool Hand Luke” or as the first half of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Newman radiated a cool – there’s that word again – rebellion that was remarkably appealing. (He was a rebel in real life, as well; he famously was delighted to have landed on President Nixon’s “enemies list,” in part for his stance against the Vietnam War.)

He could play serious (see 1981′s “Absence of Malice”), funny (he provided the voice of Doc Hudson in “Cars” in 2006) or, in the case of 1977′s “Slap Shot,” gleefully profane. And he did it all really, really well.

As he aged, Newman remained vital. He was 57 when he played, brilliantly, a drunken lawyer seeking redemption in 1982′s “The Verdict,” 61 when he won the Oscar for “The Color of Money.” And he was nearly 70 when he got the official stamp of ’90s hipster approval: a role in a Coen brothers movie. In 1994′s “The Hudsucker Proxy” he played Sidney Mussberger, a shady executive, with relish (“Sure, sure!”).

As famous as Newman became, as big a star as he was, the real secret to his success was that have-a-beer-with-him quality. Some stars entertain us even as their presence (Jack Nicholson) or their looks (Tom Cruise) intimidate us.

Newman, who had presence and looks to spare, wasn’t that kind of actor. No matter how big or small the role or the movie, we could relate to him.

Chances are, most of us never did sit down in a pub with Newman for that drink, no matter how much we might have liked to. But that’s OK. Many more of us did spend time with him, two hours at a time, in a darkened theater, enjoying his performances so much in the moment that it was only after the movie was over that we thought to marvel at them.

And that’s the kind of memory that lasts a lot longer, anyway.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett. Reach him at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com.


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