As many tributes to Paul Newman will suggest, he was the last of the great movie stars of the 20th century.
But he was one of the first in a new brand of actor-activist.
His interest rooted in the civil rights era and the Vietnam war, Newman took Hollywood participation to a new level, particularly in 1968, when he campaigned tirelessly for Eugene McCarthy, then a relatively unknown senator from Minnesota.
When President Lyndon Johnson suffered crushing results in the New Hampshire primary and decided to exit the race, some of his advisers pointed to Newman as a reason for his challenger’s success. Without the movie star, many Granite State voters may not have taken a look.
Until then, Hollywood seldom was used as anything more than a prop — a good wave to the crowd and a few light remarks and that was it. But Newman capitalized on the inevitable publicity that came with fame, savvy in what he said and when he said it.
Ron Brownstein wrote in “The Power and the Glitter,” a history of Hollywood and D.C., “As politics came to be seen as more packaged, slicker, more like acting, many stars felt less anxiety about using celebrity as a political tool.”
If Newman had any anxieties, he seldom showed it. His activism landed him on Nixon’s famous enemies list, a fact that he many years later called “one of my proudest achievements.”
“More than the films, more than the awards, finding out that I was on Nixon’s enemies list meant that I was doing something right.”
Journalist Barbara Howar, a friend of Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward, wrote in a VLife article that “although normally quite jolly, he had a penchant for flippant remarks and a smoldering temper like a spark of injustice flared into an acetylene torch.”
But Newman’s outspokenness never seemed to hurt his popularity, and he was seldom a lighting rod in the way that Jane Fonda and other stars became coming out of the turbulent 60s and 70s.
His participation was less about grandstanding and more grassroots, or as much as a star could pull that off in glare of celebrity. Howar recalls one dinner he had with the Newmans in which “he was intent on two things only: a juicy cheesaburger and a a beefy tome just published by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia George Kennan.”
By the 1980s, his work through his Newman’s Own charity, started as something of a joke, often drew more publicity than his political involvement. It set a standard for philanthropic activity among high-profile figures, raising some $250 million, according to a spokesman for the foundation.
“I wanted to acknowledge luck, the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others, who might not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it,” Newman said.
Other than serving as a delegate to the 1968 convention, he rejected overtures that he get into politics, but he continued to support Democratic party causes. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to a United Nations General Assembly session on disarmament. In 2004, he and a group of other stars canvassed homes in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Newman even knocked on the door of his childhood home to convince the new owners to vote for John Kerry. “I don’t give up my citizenship just because I’m an actor,” he told Salon.
In later years, Newman invested in the Nation magazine, contributed frequently to candidates, and didn’t miss occasional opportunities to jump into the political fray. Last year, Democrats frequently enlisted him to help raise money, including in a fund-raising letter and video he did for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he called President Bush the country’s “biggest internal threat.”
Stars will always come under fire for speaking out; in Newman’s eyes, what else was he to do?
Canvassing Indiana for McCarthy in 1968, and trailed by a horde of reporters, Newman told a crowd, “I am not a public speaker.
“I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.”
Photo: Life archives, 1968.