LOS ANGELES - "I wish I was 79 again," quips Paul Newman, who turned 80 in January.
He's far from being retired. His food company, Newman's Own, has donated $200 million in lifetime profits to charity. He supports the Hole in the Wall Camps, which provide outdoor vacations for terminally ill children (the name comes from the "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" hideout). He owns an auto racing team that will compete this year in Australia, South Korea and Argentina.
And oh yes, Newman is still doing what he does best - acting. He appears on HBO on Saturday and Sunday in "Empire Falls" (9 p.m.), a film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo, who also wrote the script.
Empire Falls, Maine, is a crumbling town that once thrived with clothing mills. The hangers-on comprise a rich mix of families whose secrets and failings provide the drama as well as some light touches.
Newman plays Max Roby, the wily and irreverent patriarch of one of those families, whose unkempt beard is reputed to be littered with cracker crumbs. Newman gets fifth billing and disappears for a long stretch when Max runs off to Florida with a senile priest.
Other members of the cast include Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright Penn, Aidan Quinn - and Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, in a rare villainess role as the heiress who wields malevolent power over some of the town's citizens.
Having also played an old-timer in the adaptation of another Russo novel, "Nobody's Fool," Newman read "Empire Falls" with more than the usual interest.
"An extraordinary book," the actor said in an interview. "I know there was a lot of interest in making like a two-hour film out of it, and I thought that would truncate all the values in it. It had to be done in a longer format. No major studio wants to make a 3-hour, 3 1/2-hour film."
HBO had no such qualms.
As an executive producer, Newman helped line up the stellar cast, and he insisted that "Empire Falls" be shot in Maine.
"That's where it was set in the mind of Russo, and that's where we shot it," he said. "We would have saved a little money by going to Canada, but I think the film would have suffered. And I think there's an obligation whenever it's possible that we should shoot here in the United States."
One of the first Method actors to become a movie star, Newman is a stickler for realism. He grew a vagrant-style beard for the role of Max, but it didn't last long.
"Joanne made me shave the homeless part off first. Then she got the rest of it; I should really say while I was sleeping," he joked during a telephone chat from his home in Westport, Conn. "She was not enamored with it."
Newman is his usual debonair self about becoming an octogenarian: "It's only a number." He celebrated the Jan. 26 event with 75 friends and relatives.
"I did have fun," he admitted. "I had the Emerson String Quartet - what could be better than that?"
His hair is white now, but otherwise Newman seems as fit as Hud, Harper or Cool Hand Luke, something he credits to his morning fitness routine: "365 days a year- weights, exercises, aerobics."
Newman - who's been nominated nine times for an Oscar, winning in 1986 for "The Color of Money - was evasive about his future acting plans: "There's a lot of stuff floating around, but I don't like to talk about it until it's in cement. I think I'd like to make one more film and then take a powder. It's time Joanne and I spent quality time together."
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