Originally created 02/21/99

Newman thanks luck for success



NEW YORK -- Surrounded by posters for his movies and photos of his family, Paul Newman cradles a stack of mail in his lap, chuckling over a $2 check -- a payoff of a Super Bowl bet from his brother.

A moment later, he moves from the office to the sitting room of his Fifth Avenue apartment, and proudly displays a picture of his young grandson sitting in a little race car.

In shirt, tie and blue sport coat, Mr. Newman appears comfortable not only in his natty clothes but in his own skin. He settles in the middle of the sofa, puts his black loafers up on the coffee table, and is ready to be interviewed -- except, well, he's not quite sure about what.

That's understandable since the Academy Award-winning actor also is known for his line of food products, his philanthropy, his political activism and his race car driving, which he intends to pick up again.

And right now, he's the best thing in Message in a Bottle, the sappy love story which was released over Valentine's weekend and benefited from the timing. It was No. 1 at the box office, raking in $ 19.1 million.

Still, Mr. Newman would rather talk about politics and food than acting and movies.

He says he took his latest role because the character was a salty, devoted, funny father -- and because it was relatively easy.

"I haven't done a lot of films where I didn't have to carry the film. And that was nice. That was a relief, to know that the whole thing wasn't completely on my shoulders," says Mr. Newman, who is 74 and has made more than 60 films, mostly as a leading man, since the mid-1950s.

A moment after making it clear he doesn't care a fig about Congress, he calls for some Fig Newmans from his assistant.

He self-effacingly says his food business is out-grossing his films and that he still works as an actor because he has to support himself since all of the after-tax profits of Newman's Own go to various charities. This year, the amount that the company has given to charity since it started in the early 1980s will surpass $100 million.

He says he never dreamed that the company would become as large as it is. "If I knew it was going to be half this big I would have taken a cut," he jokes.

Business grew about 16 percent last year. "Not bad," he says proudly. Even more proudly he relates that one of his five daughters runs the company's organic arm and already has 70 percent of the organic pretzel business.

"She's cornered the market, run everybody else out of business, which I like. I like the barracuda aspect of her business," he says, breaking out some organic chocolate bars along with the non-fat Fig Newmans.

Since a lunchtime trip to Mr. Newman's place can be such a fattening experience, it's a wonder that he keeps his chiseled features and slender frame -- until Mr. Newman says the really tempting stuff simply isn't kept in his Westport, Conn., home.

"I got into the theater because I was running away from the sporting goods business," he says, referring to his family's long-ago enterprise in Cleveland. "I could never understand the romance of it -- I mean, of any (retail) business."

Now, he admits, it's ironic that he ran away from being in business "only to find myself back in it. And enjoying it really. And enjoying the cutthroat aspect of it. Now that I'm in this business I understand the allure of market share, and killing the opposition."

If there's any doubt, Mr. Newman makes it clear: "Yes, I'm very competitive."

It seems like ancient history now that when Mr. Newman was first starting out some people thought he was a Brand-X knockoff of Marlon Brando or James Dean. After an embarrassing debut in 1954 in The Silver Chalice, he knocked out moviegoers two years later with his performance as boxing champ Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me.

He received Oscar nominations over the next four decades for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice, The Verdict and Nobody's Fool. He won as best actor for 1986's The Color of Money.

He and Robert Redford teamed up as one of Hollywood's greatest duos in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, winner of seven Oscars, including best picture.

And he has distinguished himself as a director with such films as Rachel, Rachel, which he also produced and for which he received an Oscar nomination, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Harry and Son and Sometimes a Great Notion.

Mr. Newman attributes his longevity to "luck," but when it's suggested that sounds too simple -- if not downright disingenuous -- he explains: "Genetics is luck. Appearance is luck ... being born in the United States."

He says he worked "to correct deficiencies" but the fact remains he feels lucky to have been born a handsome guy and to go into a business where "the premium on that is extraordinary." Plus, you have a better chance at lasting longer if you're male, he says.

Married for four decades to Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward, he'd still like to work with her one more time. "I just hope it would aspire to something," he says, adding that he would like it to be the quality of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, in 1990, the last time they worked together. But nothing's on the horizon.

Mr. Newman and Ms. Woodward teamed up for most of their films in the 1950s and '60s, appearing in such movies as The Long Hot Summer (1958), From the Terrace (1960), Paris Blues (1961) and A New Kind of Love (1963).

As for the recurring hope that he and Mr. Redford would work together again, he says they have been looking for something for 25 years, but nothing has come close to the quality they had with Butch Cassidy and The Sting.

"We were lucky. We did two almost perfect films together. And to try to maintain that special quality is pretty tough."