I grew up watching Paul Newman. I remember being impressed that a star of his magnitude would appear in one of Irwin Allen's disaster epics, "The Towering Inferno." In a skyscraper filled with greats and near-greats, including the likes of O.J. Simpson and Fred Astaire, Paul was the voice of calm reason amidst the flames. Compared to the other nominal hero of the piece, Steve McQueen, I understood this guy. He had seen his dream compromised by the bean-counters who had sacrificed quality for quantity and now he was the designer of a one hundred and forty floor death trap. I didn't get that same sense of authenticity from O.J.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" is one of the few movies that I will stop everything to watch, no matter where I happen to tune in. It is the model on which all other "buddy" movies have been made in the past forty years. Whether it's the pending knife fight with Harvey for leadership of the gang, or the last few desperate moments before he and Sundance go out in a blaze of gunfire glory, Butch is the epitome of wiseacre cool.
But nobody was as cool as Luke. I first saw "Cool Hand Luke" when I was in high school. It was, I believe, an attempt to get us to relate film to the written word, as well as a nice two-hour chunk of time that our English teacher could catch up on her grading. That didn't matter. I would happily have spent the entire semester dissecting the symbolism and character of this ne'er do well who, like Butch Cassidy, always had an answer for everything, even if that answer wasn't always right. I suspect that Luke's egg-eating exhibition may have been the thing that sparked my own interest in stunt-eating.
As role models go, I expect I could do a whole lot worse than Paul Newman. When asked about his ability to remain faithful to his wife of fifty years, Joanne Woodward, he said, "I have steak at home, why go out for hamburger?" The fact that he was included on Nixon's enemies list because of his liberal views was one of his proudest achievements. He was also one of the most dedicated and generous souls, giving tens of millions of dollars to charity, including setting up camps for severely ill children.
And he drove race cars. Professionally. How cool was that? Tom Cruise only wishes he was that cool. Paul Newman was.