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Newman’s Method Was One of Detail

September 28, 2008

By DUANE DUDEK

In 2002, Paul Newman made a rare promotional appearance in Chicago, for “Road to Perdition,” directed by Sam Mendes and co- starring Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig. During those sessions, Hanks, Mendes and Newman himself talked about Newman, his impact and his style of work in this excerpt from film critic Duane Dudek’s 2002 story.

Taking questions and answering those that interested him, Newman was self-deprecating, eccentric and droll, sly as a fox and sharp as a tack.

And he never passed up a chance to promote his salad dressing.

“He’s a very calm man,” said Hanks. “You get the sense he’d rather be off racing cars. Or making peanut butter.”

While filming “Perdition” in Chicago, Hanks recalled, Newman “was doodling around one day and I said, ‘Paul, what are you working on there?’ And he said, ‘I’m trying to come up with a new label.’ “

“Tom is very free in front of the camera,” said Mendes. “He doesn’t want to nail too many things down before he starts.”

Newman, Mendes said, “is much more particular. He wants to know, partly because he feels shaky now with lines sometimes, exactly what I want from him. He’ll talk about the placing of a full stop or a comma.”

The happiest Mendes saw the veteran actor during shooting was when the director agreed to change the word “where” to “here.”

“We changed one letter,” Mendes said. “And he was thrilled. He said, ‘That’s much better. What a relief. Now I can do something with it.’ He’s that particular.”

Newman apparently has been that particular for a long time. He said he has always insisted on “two weeks of rehearsal, which I give for nothing, (on) almost every picture that I’ve done since 1954.”

“You can discover a lot of things on your feet. And if you don’t have any rehearsal time, anything that you find on screen is by accident.”

“Perdition” cinematographer Conrad Hall won his first Oscar from working on one of Newman’s most popular films, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). He also filmed Newman in “Harper” (1966) and “Cool Hand Luke” (1967).

Hall (who died in 2003 at age 76) said that while photographing Newman he observed that the actor is “the same identical person” now as he was then.

Before the camera, Hall said, “he saves the best part of his performance for the close-up. As an actor and a director, he knows how important that part of the performance is for him. So he gives his all in that.

“The other thing I noticed is that his baby blues, which are still a remarkable part of his persona, are just a little bit less blue. But they still sparkle beautifully and perform wonderfully.”

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