Paul Newman famously said he’d never cheat on his wife because: ‘Why go for a hamburger when you have steak at home?’ – but a new documentary based on his own family’s testimony reveals the rather less wholesome truth, writes TOM LEONARD
Paul Newman’s drinking was so bad that his long-suffering wife Joanne Woodward once found him lying insensible on the floor, his head bleeding after falling out of bed.
She came close to leaving him that night. ‘It was one of many, many scenes,’ she said.
When she did finally snap, bundling their three young daughters into a car and driving to their Malibu beach home, Newman came in hot pursuit, banging on the door and shouting to be let in. She refused and Newman, the blue-eyed actor lusted after by women worldwide, spent several nights sleeping in his car on the drive until they reached a compromise.
He couldn’t give up the booze completely, he said, but he would stick to beer rather than whisky and the half dozen martinis he was downing every night.
Given this was a man who would drink a six-pack of beer at breakfast, it wasn’t much of a concession. But, as a new TV series reveals, the episode offers an intriguing insight into how the 50-year partnership of ‘Hollywood’s golden couple’ — long regarded as blissfully happy and stable — was very different in reality.
Newman was one of the biggest pin-ups in cinema history and his success in holding down what was, by Tinsel Town’s standards, an epically long relationship with the same woman was a cause for endless congratulation on TV chat shows and interviews. The Newmans would just smile modestly and soak up the applause as the ‘It’ couple of the era, a pair who made 16 films together and who seemed to be everything the rest of their industry wasn’t — grown-up, devoted and normal.
Golden couple: But all was not what it appeared for Newman and Woodward, pictured here in 1965
As director Otto Preminger acidly observed: ‘Paul is an oddity in this business. He really loves his wife.’ When Playboy magazine asked him about his reputation for fidelity, Newman famously replied: ‘Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?’
In fact, Woodward loathed that laddish remark — it made her feel ‘like a piece of meat’, she said — just as she loathed other aspects of being married to Newman, including his alcoholism, and the fact that she had to give up her acting dreams to bring up their children while he, arguably a lesser actor, became a superstar.
She hated his philandering, too — indeed there was at least one hamburger. This loving but deeply complicated relationship, not to mention the restlessly unhappy personality that lay underneath Newman’s on-screen charm, is detailed in a six-part documentary made by Ethan Hawke. The actor, who made his name in the Dead Poet’s Society, was asked by Newman and Woodward’s children to make The Last Movie Stars (on HBO in the U.S. and coming to the UK soon) because they felt there needed to be an account of the pair’s often fraught life together.
Hawke, who went to high school with some of their children, was helped enormously not only by their very frank contributions but by more than 100 taped interviews Newman had conducted with everyone in his life — not only him and Woodward, but everyone from co-stars and directors to nannies — for a memoir. Newman stopped the interviews in 1991 and seven years later threw all the tapes on a fire at his local dump.
Unknown to the actor, however, they had already been transcribed. On the strength of Hawke’s moving and often shockingly candid film, it’s not surprising that the notoriously private and bottled-up Newman got cold feet about a memoir that would contain some very unvarnished opinions.
Temptation: Journalist Nancy Bacon, who had an 18-month affair with Newman
The revelations certainly puncture his image as the perfect husband and father — although his reputation as one of Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guys survives battered but intact.
A flawed but fundamentally decent man who devoted his later years to philanthropy after his only son, Scott, died from a drug overdose, Newman was nothing like the swaggering, self-confident macho figure — utterly irresistible to women — he played in films such as The Hustler, Hud, and Cool Hand Luke. Deeply insecure, he suffered from a crippling lack of faith in his acting ability, was non-plussed about his sex appeal and riven by guilt over his desertion of his first family for Woodward.
They met in New York on an oppressively hot August day in 1952. She was an aspiring 22-year-old actress looking for work when she stopped by her agent’s office largely because it had air-conditioning.
There, she ran into another jobbing thespian, whose piercing blue eyes, Greek god-like looks and pristine appearance in a seersucker suit initially left her cold. She said Newman, who was five years older and had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, looked like ‘an ad for ice cream soda’, adding: ‘I thought, ‘Yuck, that’s disgusting’.’
But months later they worked together as understudies in a Broadway play called Picnic and fell for each other. Newman said: ‘It took me time to persuade her I wasn’t as dull as I looked.’
As the actors they were understudying danced on-stage, Newman and Woodward did the same behind the scenes. ‘Soon I’d begin to have this terrible problem in my pants and she’d say, ‘My goodness, what is this?’,’ Newman said in an interview for his memoir. ‘I was in pursuit of lust.’
This was a problem, as Newman was already married. He and wife Jackie Witte had two young children and would soon have a third.
But clearly it wasn’t too much of a problem for Newman who found the gregarious Woodward, a beautiful Southern belle from Georgia, so much more attractive than his shy and retiring wife.
‘We left a trail of lust all over the place — motels, hotels, public parks and bathrooms,’ Newman admitted of his affair with Woodward, adding coyly: ‘All of it’s better left to the imagination.’
Aside from the physical attraction, Newman and Woodward, pictured, also bonded through their upbringing. Both were the children of successful businessmen fathers and difficult mothers
Aside from the physical attraction, they also bonded through their upbringing.
Both were the children of successful businessmen fathers and difficult mothers. Indeed, Newman identified so closely with his father, an Ohio sporting goods retailer, that he was convinced that, like him, he would die at 55.
And he got on so badly with his overbearing mother that, after she once suggested Woodward was having an affair with their friend Gore Vidal, he threw her out of their taxi and didn’t speak to her for 15 years.
He and Woodward conducted an affair for five years, during which time they both moved to Hollywood and won studio contracts.
Eventually, in 1958, he divorced Jackie and married Joanne, leaving the former with three children — Scott, Susan and Stephanie — under the age of five.
Jackie was interviewed for Newman’s memoir, saying: ‘I was very angry. I felt very betrayed and do still to this day.’
Stephanie Newman, tells the documentary that her mother was ‘destroyed’ by the divorce and that she was ‘disgusted’ by how her father had treated her.
Ironically it was Woodward who was the bigger star initially and, in 1957 aged 27, she won a Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces Of Eve. She was even hailed as the most promising actress of her generation
‘I was a baby and had to watch my dad and step-mum ride off into the sunset with Hollywood contracts.’ However, she concedes that Newman and Woodward did feel enormously guilty about their behaviour and — Woodward in particular — put much effort into incorporating the three older children into their family.
Even so, Newman conceded he felt bad that his children with Jackie lived modestly in the Los Angeles suburb of San Fernando Valley while his ‘princesses’ — Elinor, Melissa and Claire — with Woodward lived in a huge Beverly Hills mansion.
Ironically it was Woodward who was the bigger star initially and, in 1957 aged 27, she won a Best Actress Oscar for The Three Faces Of Eve. She was even hailed as the most promising actress of her generation.
Two years later she had their first child and from the start felt immensely torn between career and motherhood. When she once left the toddlers to film on location, she said she ‘felt overwhelmed with guilt’ and didn’t do it again.
She could only watch enviously as Newman’s career took off with Somebody Up There Likes Me and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, co-starring Elizabeth Taylor.
‘I hope the children understand that although they were each and every one of them adored, if I had to do it all over again… I might not have had children,’ Woodward admitted bluntly years later. ‘Actors don’t make good parents.’ Actors don’t always make good spouses either.
Two years later she had their first child and from the start felt immensely torn between career and motherhood
‘From the first time I met Paul I always knew he was a drunk,’ said Woodward. ‘We always had Christmas Eve dinner and Paul would get drunk and pass out, leaving me feeling like the last of the great Christian martyrs at one o’clock in the morning, filling all the stockings and putting the things under the Christmas tree — ‘What a wonderful person I am while that sh*t over there is getting drunk!’
She believed her troubled husband only really found peace when he was ‘dead drunk’ or, later in life, when he took up motor racing.
His daughters tell the documentary that Newman was a ‘functioning alcoholic’ who was never late for work nor, indeed, looked the worse for wear in public.
Melissa recalled he would often fill up a sink with ice and water and then plunge his face in it before heading off for filming.
In his own interview for the memoir that was never written, Newman said that he believed he drank because he allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his frustrations with life.
In the 1970s, when he started making films he hated such as disaster movie The Towering Inferno, he admitted his drinking was ‘out of control’. He ‘must have driven Joanne crazy’ he admitted but he said that she drove him mad, too.
Woodward could be refreshingly nonchalant about celebrity and regularly used to turn up on chat shows with her knitting. However she found it hard to cope with being married to an international sex symbol
Melissa concedes her mother could be ‘very difficult’ — mercurial, neurotic and given to bearing grudges. ‘They were artists and so when they got into a fight there was a lot of yelling and throwing and storming off,’ adds her sister Claire. But they also shared a passionately physical relationship. Their daughters say they could never understand why they had to go through two doors to enter the couple’s bedroom — and one of those had a bolt.
Woodward could be refreshingly nonchalant about celebrity and regularly used to turn up on chat shows with her knitting. However she found it hard to cope with being married to an international sex symbol. ‘Paul and I were walking down the street one day and we passed these two girls both of whom gave Paul the usual response,’ she said.
‘Then one looked at me and said: ‘Is that her?’ I just felt like running after them and shouting, ‘Yes! It’s me! I don’t know what my name is but it’s me!’
For his part. Newman insisted that women realised he wasn’t remotely sexy once they met him and ‘their level of sexual interest declines with every passing moment’.
But was that just false modesty? The film refers obliquely to his rumoured infidelity, with Woodward saying: ‘I could never make him understand that I had the most awful terror of what might have been happening … my instincts are incredible which is probably why he finally confessed it all.’
Exactly what he confessed is not clear although, in 2009, biographer Shawn Levy revealed that Newman had an 18-month affair with a curvaceous journalist named Nancy Bacon. It started when she was sent to interview him while he was filming Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid in 1968.
When rumours appeared in the Press, Newman and Woodward took out a half-page advert in the LA Times to mock them, only for Bacon to confirm it was all true and call their affair ‘the worst kept secret in Hollywood’. She said his friends would joke: ‘Paul may not go out for hamburger, but he sure goes out for Bacon.’
Melissa Newman says her mother was always aware she was ‘taking a risk’ by having a relationship with a man who’d cheated on his first wife and was likely to be ready to do it to her, too.
‘I found a book written by somebody he had an affair with … in a drawer in the bathroom,’ said her sister Elinor. ‘There’s a terrible moment there where you realise your dad is fallible.’
Newman certainly felt fallible when his only son, Scott, a stuntman, died in 1978, aged 28 from a drug overdose. The actor’s troubled eldest child had taken his parents’ divorce particularly badly — he was caught sniffing glue when he was just 12 and would beat up his step-sisters.
From this point on Newman’s acting roles became darker and deeper while he established himself as one of Hollywood’s great philanthropists — setting up a drug rehabilitation centre, a camp for desperately ill children and launching ‘Newman’s Own’, a food company that started with the salad dressing he would make and give to friends — that has raised more than $550 million for charity since 1982.
He didn’t care that some thought it was tacky and his friends said it was an obvious bid for ‘redemption’ after allowing Scott to die.
Paul Newman died of cancer aged 83 in 2008 — a year after his wife, now 92, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and retreated from public view.
His perfect looks had propelled him to the top of Hollywood.
Perhaps it was always too much to expect he would have a perfect private life, too.