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Exclusive: Sam Mendes Tells His Best Paul Newman Stories

In next week’s issue, author Richard Russo, director Sam Mendes, and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman share fond memories of their time working with late screen legend Paul Newman. Mendes, who worked with Newman on the Oscar-nominated gangster epic Road to Perdition, had many memories of their time together, some funny, some inspirational, all moving. Read on for the full transcript.

He was 76 when I worked with him on Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall was the cinematographer. He was about Paul’s age, maybe slightly younger, and he’d also shot Harper, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy, so he had seen Paul from the age of 40, and there they were in their seventies, still shooting together. It was very moving. At one point he was shooting a close-up of Paul looking into a fire, and I turned round and Conrad was crying as he lit the shot. I asked him what was the matter, and he just said, “He was so beautiful.” And I said, “Well, he’s beautiful now!” And he said, “Yeah, but he was so beautiful.” I think he was crying for both of them. But whereas Conrad, you see, was sort of not at peace with the idea of death and growing older, Paul said several times, “Yeah, I’ve had some great innings, it’s about time I give all this up. It’s all a bit silly.” There was this real sense of grace and dignity. He had nothing left to prove. He knew what a fortunate and wonderful life he had led, and he was very willing to admit that. That really lent him an aura of a minor deity to me. He had sort of ascended already. He felt at peace, like he’d come to terms with what he’d done in his life and his own mortality. I think some of that must have stemmed — though he never spoke about it — from his son Scott’s premature death. Once you’ve lived through that, I don’t think anything else really gets as bad. Even your own death.

What struck you about Paul were his similarities to other actors, because he demanded to be treated like everyone else. He had no stock at all for any kind of star treatment. I’d try to delay calling him to the set, and he’d come down on his own and be like, “Why don’t you call me earlier? This is where all the fun is! I’m just sitting around in my trailer!” Speaking of which, you can always tell how much work an actor really wants to do by the size and style of their trailers. Some actors have vast trailers full of scented candles and a chef who offers them two choices for lunch. Paul’s trailer, on the other hand, was completely empty! There was literally nothing in it at all. He had absolutely no interest in being in the trailer. He wanted to work. That’s what I remember — he was just there. It was just him and his script. And also he didn’t travel with any assistants. No assistants, no driver or trainer, no entourage at all. You know, when I offered him the part, Sam Kern, his agent, said, “Well, call him, here’s his number.” I expected someone else to pick up the phone — a housekeeper at least — but Paul answered. “Hello, this is Paul.” And it’s like, Oh my God — it’s him! And then I was babbling like a lunatic, of course, because I was talking to Paul Newman. These sound like small things, but in the context of who he is, they’re huge, and he knew that too. He knew that first impressions are very important. And the impression he wanted to give was I am an actor who is meeting with a director and wants to talk to him about a part. He loved rehearsing, he loved the craft of it, he loved talking about it, all the nitty-gritty. His ideal director was someone like Sidney Lumet, who rehearses everything to perfection before turning the cameras on. He asked very warmly after two weeks of rehearsal if we were going to mark out the scenes and get them up on their feet before we started shooting. That was the part of the process he loved the most. And he was open to all ideas. He was always asking me if I’d gotten what I wanted. Was there anything else he could do? He ensured that you quickly forgot that you were working with Paul Newman with a capital P.

When I first met him, I went up to his apartment on the Upper West Side overlooking the park, and he wanted to know all about the script and why I was doing it, whether the violence was going to be gratuitous or not — he was very concerned about that — who I thought the man was, where he’d come from, how long he’d been in America and all that. A lot of very detailed questions. So I answered as best as I could and then right at the end, he said, “So tell me, are you good at holding actor’s hands?” And I said yes, thinking I couldn’t say no. And he said, “All right, let’s do it then!” And that was it. I thought this was a great story and I told a lot of people. I was very proud of it. And then a month later I picked up the book Scorsese on Scorsese and there’s a chapter on The Color of Money where he tells exactly the same story! And I thought, He said that to all the guys!? The exact same exchange. He got me on that one.

He spent most of his life trying to stop people from treating him like Paul Newman. The first day he was on set Daniel Craig and Tom Hanks and Jennifer Jason Leigh were reduced — as was I, by the way — to the status of gawping acting students. I mean, it was impossible to not be aware that Luke and Hud and Harper and Butch Cassidy were all walking onto the set. I don’t think there’s another actor who has created as many iconic movie roles in a career. Particularly for male actors, he’s this sort of extraordinary shadow. I can’t think of anyone — possibly Cary Grant or Brando — who would have the same effect. He’s part of the extraordinary rich history of New York and Method acting and the fifties, and yet he somehow made it through to the end of the twentieth century with his reputation miraculously untarnished. We live in an era where, I’m not naming names, but the fall from grace of a movie star is exactly that. They lose their grace, their dignity, and the moment that happens is often very clear. The transition he managed from actor to icon to philanthropist and great man was absolutely extraordinary. This guy was the biggest box-office [actor] in the world for over a decade. To have that, and still maintain people’s respect for them as an actor, is almost unprecedented. There are very few in our lifetime. As George Clooney said, Paul didn’t just set the bar high for actors. He set the bar high for people. He seems to me to be one of the great twentieth-century lives, and the more I hear others talk about that, the truer it seems.

There was another occasion when we were rehearsing and I offered to hang by and pick him up in my car. So my driver stopped, and I told him we were picking up Paul Newman, and he got nervous — visibly nervous. So then Paul got in the car and suddenly, having driven very normally until this point, my driver takes off like an absolute lunatic at 80 miles an hour through the center of Chicago! Because in his book he’s not only driving Paul Newman the movie star but also Paul Newman the race-car driver. And Paul’s just sitting there calmly reading the front page of the New York Times. He perused the paper very casually as we were ducking and diving through the center of Chicago. And we finally screeched to a halt and Paul put down his paper and looked over his little specs and just said, “Nice driving.” He knew exactly what the driver was doing — showing off. Paul must have gotten that all the time.

He was very passionate about simple food prepared well. On the day of our first rehearsal, he brought in these enormous steak sandwiches that he’d heard about. He wanted everyone to try them. And we were all, “But we’ve just had breakfast…” And he said, “Just try this before you start! It’s great! It’s unbelievable!” So everyone sat there dutifully eating these steak sandwiches right after breakfast. He was quite eccentric in that way. He didn’t play it by the book at all. He was resolutely unconventional to the end. This is a tiny drop in the ocean of stories. I mean, imagine what Redford must have!

You’re used to editing your thoughts about people — even the nicest ones — but there’s no need with Paul. There’s no such thing as a bad memory. He used to walk on his hands, by the way. He was 76 years old, and I walked into the room twice when he was walking on his hands. He was entertaining the kids on set, the two boys in the movie with whom he had sort of an eccentric, fatherly relationship. He was immediately drawn to them. He had to make them laugh.

Exclusive: Sam Mendes Tells His Best Paul Newman Stories