Thursday, October 25, 2007

Exits: Paul Newman and Robert Redford

“Certain friendships,” Robert Redford once said about Paul Newman, “are too good and too strong to talk about.” This month, Redford broke his silence to say that the final movie they planned to make together was not to be:

"It's not happening, sadly. Paul and I were planning to do a film version of Bill Bryson's wonderful book ‘A Walk In The Woods.’

"I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn't decide if we were too old to do it. Then we decided, 'Let's go for it.'

"But time passed, and Paul's been getting old fast. I think things deteriorated for him. Finally, two months ago he called and said, 'I gotta retire.' The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart."

Like their other work together, it would have been about the friendship of men, two old college buddies walking the Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine.

Toward the end of life, biology is destiny. A British actor of the past century, A. E. Matthews, who worked to the age of 90, explained, “I get up every morning, look at the obituaries in the Times and, if my name isn’t there, get dressed and go to work.”

But last spring, the 82-year-old Newman told an interviewer, "I’m not able to work at the level I would want to. You start to lose your memory, you start to lose your confidence, you start to lose your invention. So I think that's pretty much a closed book for me."

Redford at 71 has a new picture coming out next month, “Lions for Lambs,” which he directed and plays a leading role in. More polemical than his previous work, Redford hopes the movie will encourage young people “to take command of their voice" in American politics.

Over long careers, Newman and Redford personified an alternative American manhood to the full-throttle macho of John Wayne and the young Clint Eastwood--a more complex mix of strength, wit and sensitivity. (Newman turned down "Dirty Harry.")

Off-screen, they lived away from Hollywood--Newman in Connecticut, Redford in Utah--lives of social responsibility rather than movie-star celebrity.

In 1968, my path crossed Newman’s as we both stepped out of our working lives to oppose the war in Vietnam. When I invited him to lunch with a dozen magazine editors, he told me the prospect of talking about himself was so unnerving he had stayed too long in a steam bath to calm down. Sitting next to him, I had to titrate the balance of beer and ice water to keep him relaxed and hydrated as he eloquently described his feelings about the war.

In the early 1980s, our mutual friend A. E. Hotchner wrote about their light-hearted efforts to bottle and sell Newman's salad dressing. Since then, a line of Newman's Own products has earned $200 million for charity.

Meanwhile, Redford was creating a mecca for independent film makers in Sundance, Utah and giving their work recognition and commercial opportunities.

As Newman exits from the public stage and Redford keeps working for the public good, those repeated showings of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" on TV are reminders of how much actors can accomplish in what we call real life.

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