For all of us big Paul Newman fans, it came as thrilling news last week that Knopf will be publishing the Hollywood icon’s unfinished memoir next fall, largely based on his own oral history along with interviews with his friends and family, actors like Tom Cruise and directors including George Roy Hill of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” fame.
I’ve been obsessed with Newman my entire life, having grown up watching all his movies and going gaga every time he appeared on-screen. I met him once years ago when he and Joanne Woodward visited an acting class that I was in with one of Newman’s daughters. Meeting and conversing with that dreamy blue-eyed wonder was, well, you can just imagine.
I spoke with Knopf editor-at-large Peter Gethers, who will be editing the yet-to-be-titled memoir, and we agreed that Newman, Steve McQueen and Sidney Poitier are the most charismatic actors in cinema history. And Newman’s popularity hasn’t waned. When people were asked in a recent Twitter chain to name the sexiest, most talented actor ever, Gethers says: “Two to one it was Paul Newman. He’s still such an icon.”
In a heated auction, Knopf won the rights to publish the memoir, which will be compiled from thousands of pages of transcripts discovered in the basement of Newman and Woodward’s Connecticut home. About 1,000 of the pages came from recordings made by Newman, which he completed about 10 years before his death in 2008 at age 83. More than 10,000 pages are interviews conducted by his good pal, late screenwriter Stewart Stern.
If nabbing the rights in mid-April weren’t enough, Gethers and Knopf really lucked out when suddenly many additional pages of Newman’s own transcripts surfaced. “His storytelling ability is extraordinary,” says Gethers. “It’s really potent.” What surprised him most? “What will really stun people is what a brutal childhood he had and how it scarred him for a long time,” he says, describing Newman’s mother as being “borderline emotionally abusive” and his father as “very difficult and stern.”
Gethers says what fans will love about the book is that it’s a raw, unflinching narrative revealing how “wildly insecure” Newman was as a young man, unsure both of his identity being half-Jewish and his attractiveness to women (huh?). The memoir also shows how he overcame his flaws. “The arc of his life is very interesting,” says Gethers. “He became a much better husband, father, major humanitarian who raised $1 billion for charity, and eventually comfortable as a superstar.” The editor adds: “The book isn’t sugarcoated — it feels very real and honest.”
In his recordings, Newman attributes a lot of his strength to Woodward, his wife of 50 years, says Gethers. At 91, Woodward is not among the family members he’s dealing with in preparing the memoir, though she controls the rights. Gethers has never met her, nor did he meet Newman, though he’s a longtime fan of the actor’s work.
“He was quite fearless in his roles, playing tough, mean, complicated characters,” Gethers says, citing his performances in films like “Hud,” “The Hustler” and “The Verdict.”
“And that translates into how he writes the book.”