Monday, March 21, 2011

Failure to Communicate: How I Pissed off Paul Newman

I love Paul Newman – a man, who by all accounts (some first hand) was as kind and generous as he was talented and handsome.  Everything about him, from his penetrating blue eyes to his iconic movie roles to his wicked sense of humor, was the stuff of legend.  And he was quite the local hero as well: whether it was racing cars at Lime Rock, selling spaghetti sauce at Stew Leonard’s, or fund-raising for the Westport County Playhouse, he always drew a crowd. But unless it was to raise awareness for one of his many causes, he never seemed to actively seek the attention - people just wanted to be around him. And when they approached him, he was always appreciative of their compliments and considerate with his time. 

I’m sure he had his faults, we just didn’t know about them.  But even if the tabloids did have something bad to report, I doubt they would. And even if they did, no one would buy them, for he was that loved.  In fact, next to Mother Theresa and Elmo, I can’t think of another modern day person more adored and revered.


It happened over 15 years ago, but I’m still ashamed.  And mortified.  I’ve met many celebrities in my life. I’ve shaken hands with Michael Keaton. Passed Dave Mathews a Diet Coke. Convinced an idiot guard to let Mike Myers and his friends into the SNL studios. I shared an elevator with Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks (and cringed when my friend turned to her and said, “Voh-dee-oh-doh, Laverne!”) But no one could compare to Paul Newman. And I went and pissed him off.

Here’s what happened: A few weeks before my run-in, I saw him on an episode of “Inside the Actors’ Studio” where he was promoting his latest movie, Nobody’s Fool (based on a great book, by one of my all-time favorite authors, Richard Russo.) They were discussing a memorable scene about a stolen snow blower, and James Lipton made a comment about how funny and improvised it seemed. Paul Newman agreed, but gave all the credit to the movie’s director, Robert Benton. Problem is, that scene was lifted verbatim from the book  - as was most of the movie, which retained a huge portion of the book’s dialogue and story.

Now, as an aspiring author myself, it bothered me that the real author, Richard Russo (a Pulitzer Prize winner), wasn’t being given credit for his work. Plus, even though we’ve never met, Mr. Russo was the “Author in Residence” at my college, so I felt personally affronted for him, and vowed that if I ever saw Paul Newman, I would confront him about it.

Of course, I never thought I’d have such an opportunity (but we all know what happened to thought*) and then one day it presented itself.

At the time, my sister-in-law had a beauty shop in Southport, and for whatever reason (I think her landlord was Paul Newman’s former limo driver or something like that) Mr. Newman started coming in to her shop for his haircuts. Afterwards, he would go across the street to The Horseshoe Bar for lunch. So one day I was there dropping off my brother, or maybe picking him up, and was told I had just missed Paul Newman.  The girl who had actually cut his hair saw my disappointment and said I could probably still catch him at the Horseshoe, so I ran right over. And there he was, casually sitting at the bar, enjoying a cheeseburger.

Now, by that time I had gotten over my “anger” with his failure to acknowledge Richard Russo’s contribution to his movie, but thought it might make for a funny ice breaker. You see, as much as I enjoy meeting famous people, I have never stopped one on the street or asked for an autograph  - but if a natural opportunity arises, I try to take it. And here was my opportunity to meet my all-time favorite, could be a saint, star of stage and screen, Paul Newman.

So I walked right up to him and said…

“Mr. Newman, I have a bone to pick with you!”

“Excuse me,” he said, slowly putting down his beer and turning to stare at me with those blue eyes. ”Do I know you?”

“No, but I saw you on the Actors’ Studio last month, and you owe Richard Russo an apology! You went on and on about Robbie Benson (in my nervousness, I accidentally substituted the name of the 80’s pretty boy for the 80-year old director) and never once mentioned Richard Russo…”

“Did Russo put you up to this,” he asked, pronouncing Russo with a “soft u” instead of the oo sound I used.

“What? No. I never met him. I just thought…”

“Hold on,” he said, holding up his hands. “You don’t know me. You never met him. Yet you felt compelled to interrupt my conversation with Gordon here (he nods toward the man behind the bar) to demand an apology?”


“Do you make it a habit of defending the honor of strangers,” he asked, winking at Gordon. “Or am I your first?”

“No Sir, I just…uh…”

“Well then buzz off!” he said, raising his voice loud enough to get Gordon laughing.

Then he turned his back on me.

Had it just ended with “buzz off” it might have been a funny story. But seeing him turn his back practically broke my heart. I felt like such a jerk. There were so many other ways I could have played this scene out. I could have complimented him on his haircut.  Dared him to eat 50 eggs.  Or simple taken one of the empty stools on either side of him and just quietly shared a beer with one of my heroes. Instead, I insulted him.

Looking back on what I just wrote, and the fifteen years of guilt that followed, it occurs to me that I really shouldn’t have been so hard on myself. I realize now that I’m not to blame - it’s that damned Richard Russo’s fault! And if I ever get the chance to meet him, I’m going to demand an apology!

Little something for the ladies!

* "Thought thought he had to fart, but he shit his pants instead." - the wisdom of my mother, Kathleen Wood


  1. I admire your integrity--and passion on behalf of writers everywhere!

  2. *giggles* Yeah... these things always play out better in our imaginations, eh? That's why we typically write them instead of enacting them. Cute story, though... and yeah... Paul was pretty dreamy back in the day... Still love him...

  3. Still laughing... Let us know how it goes with Russo. He'd better be appreciative considering you gave up such a momentous opportunity to impress old blue eyes on his behalf. Don't think I could have managed a coherent conversation under the same circumstances. Those dreamy eyes would have left my tongue tied in major knots.
    But it does bring up a question. I wonder how many actors read the books their movies come from.

  4. It could of been worse, he could of picked up on the Robby Benson reference and laughed you right out of the place. Better to feel guilty then stupid I suppose, but I do love this story. It's so Paul Newman. Got any Robby Benson stories? Now he was a little hotty.

  5. Awww. Now I don't like him anymore.

  6. Thanks all! I guess I should start looking for another icon to harass, as I've had more traffic come through here today than ever. Also picked up half a dozen new followers

    Anyone know where I can find Robby Benson?

  7. Damn Russo! LOL! This story is awesome. I LOVE Paul Newman ;)

  8. :) thank you for all the gratuitous pictures of Mr. Newman...i offer a less romantic angle...perhaps the screenwritten version of the story omitted that particular scene, but was nuanced so well that the actors did indeed perform it verbatim??? :)

    ps - start watching law & order i bet Robby Benson will show up on one of those :)

  9. Ah gotta love a post that makes me *cringe* Love it! Lucky it was Paul Newman, if it had of been Sean Penn he might of glassed you?? Be careful!

  10. Newman had class. I think that he was kind to you.