Paul Newman for “Cars”

At 81, Paul Newman may walk more slowly and he responds to questions with greater brevity than in previous years, yet he remains quietly reflective these days. Long since rumoured to be retiring, he had maintained that he had just one last film in him. Perhaps that film is his latest, voicing a car, Doc Hudson, a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past. “I don’t seem to be living up to my timetable,” Newman concedes, smilingly. “I may have one more movie in me. I’m not sure what it’s going to be now. Redford and I are working on something but it’s not by any means a slam dunk, but we’re working on the script right now.”

But a new generation, too young to remember the legendary Oscar winner in the likes of Hud, Butch Cassidy, The Hustler and other venerable classics, will at least get to hear the actor’s unmistakeable voice in Cars, which fuses Newman’s love of acting and his passion for car racing, yet he denies that was the attraction for spending a few years of his life in a recording booth. “I did it mostly because I knew it would be good, because Lasseter was directing and Pixar. That it was about racing was just a bonus.”

And preparing for his latest role was relatively comfortable for this Hollywood method actor. “The nice thing about animation, you don’t even really have to account for yourself. All of the physical stuff that you work on as an actor, you just throw away, so this was, I would say, relatively easy.” He adds that what he appreciates about Pixar, is their “extraordinary sense of detail, both in the creative and the technical and they don’t get rushed, which I think is critical. They have the luxury of control and they have the luxury of time and that gives us a terrific effect, let alone the gifts that they have.”

Paul Newman has been acting now for some 5 decades. Born January 26, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, Newman served in World War II prior to attending Kenyon College on an athletic scholarship; when an injury ended his sports career, he turned to drama, joining a summer stock company in Wisconsin. After relocating to Illinois in 1947, he married actress Jacqueline Witte, and following the death of his father took over the family’s sporting-goods store.

Newman quickly grew restless, however, and after selling his interest in the store to his brother, he enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. During a break from classes he travelled to New York City where he won a role in the CBS television series The Aldrich Family. A number of other TV performances followed, and in 1952 Newman was accepted by the Actors’ Studio, making his Broadway debut a year later in Picnic, where he was spotted by Warner Bros. executives.

Newman recalls that television, live when he started, was the perfect segue into theatre. “Live television in those days was really exciting because you didn’t have a hell of a lot of time to work on things and if there was a mistake made, it was not retrievable by having another take. So I think working under that kind of pressure was a good experience for any actor. And so funny things happened, too. I remember Walter Cronkite in a thing called ‘You Are There’ and Joan of Arc was being burned at the stake. The fire began to crackle and then they cut away to Walter Cronkite in the 20th century sitting and saying, “And you are there.” And little by little the smoke from the set came through into the broadcast room and there was Walter,” he reminisces, laughingly.

Upon Newman’s arrival in Hollywood, media buzz tagged him as “the new Brando.” However, after making his screen debut in the disastrous epic The Silver Chalice, he became the victim of scathing reviews, and remembers that film with appropriate scorn when asked which of his films a child today should see that would define Paul Newman. “Show the kid The Silver Chalice, then he would know what bad really was!” Although Warners added on another two years to his contract after he returned to Broadway to star in The Desperate Hours.

Back in Hollywood, he starred in The Rack. Again reviews were poor, and the picture was quickly pulled from circulation. Newman’s third film, the charming Somebody Up There Likes Me, in which he portrayed boxer Rocky Graziano, was both a commercial and critical success, with rave reviews for his performance. His next film of note was 1958’s The Long Hot Summer, an acclaimed adaptation of a pair of William Faulkner short stories; among his co-stars was Joanne Woodward, who soon became his second wife. After next appearing as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn’s underrated The Left-Handed Gun, Newman starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, scoring his first true box-office smash as well as his first Academy Award nomination.

After appearing with Joanne Woodward in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! — the couple would frequently team onscreen throughout their careers — Newman travelled back to Broadway to star in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. Upon his return to the West Coast, he bought himself out of his Warner Bros. contract before starring in the 1960 smash From the Terrace. Exodus, another major hit, quickly followed. While by now a major star, the true depths of Newman’s acting abilities had yet to be fully explored; that all changed with Robert Rossen’s 1961 classic The Hustler, in which he essayed one of his most memorable performances as pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson, gaining a second Oscar nomination.

His third nod came for 1963’s Hud, which cast him as an amoral Texas rancher. While a handful of creative and financial disappointments followed, including 1964’s The Outrage and 1965’s Lady L, 1966’s Alfred Hitchcock-helmed Torn Curtain marked a return to form, as did the thriller Harper.

For 1967’s superb chain-gang drama Cool Hand Luke, Newman scored a fourth Academy Award nomination, but again went home empty-handed. The following year he made his directorial debut with the Joanne Woodward vehicle Rachel Rachel, scoring Best Director honours from the New York critics as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The couple next appeared onscreen together in 1969’s Winning, which cast Newman as a professional auto racer; the motor sport remained a preoccupation in his real life as well, and he was the most prominent of the many celebrities who began racing as a hobby.

He then starred with Robert Redford in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which went on to become the highest-grossing Western in movie history. It was followed by 1971’s W.U.S.A., a deeply political film reflecting Newman’s strong commitment to social activism; in addition to being among Hollywood’s most vocal supporters of the civil rights movement, in 1968 he and Woodward made headlines by campaigning full time for Democratic Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.

After directing and starring in 1971’s Sometimes a Great Notion, Newman announced the formation of First Artists, a production company co-founded by Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen. Modelled after the success of United Artists, it was created to offer performers the opportunity to produce their own projects. Newman’s first film for First Artists’ was 1972’s Pocket Money, followed by another directorial effort, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

After a pair of back-to-back efforts under director John Huston, 1972’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and the next year’s The Mackintosh Man, Newman reunited with Redford in The Sting, another triumph which won the 1973 Best Picture Oscar. He next appeared in the star-studded disaster epic The Towering Inferno, followed by 1975’s The Drowning Pool, a sequel to Harper. His next major success was the 1977 sports spoof Slap Shot, which went on to become a cult classic.

A string of disappointments followed, including Robert Altman’s self-indulgent 1979 effort Quintet. The 1981 Absence of Malice, however, was a success, and for 1982’s courtroom drama The Verdict Newman notched his fifth Best Actor nomination. He finally won the Oscar on his sixth attempt, reprising the role of Eddie Felson in 1986’s The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese’s sequel to The Hustler. After starring in two 1989 films, Blaze and Fat Man and Little Boy, Newman began appearing onscreen less and less.

In 1991, he and Joanne Woodward starred as the titular Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, and three years later he earned yet another Academy Award nomination for his superb performance in Robert Benton’s slice-of-life tale Nobody’s Fool. His films since then have been fairly sparse and of mixed quality, with Joel Coen’s and Ethan Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) being at the higher end of the spectrum and the Kevin Costner vehicle Message in a Bottle (1999) resting near the bottom. Newman again graced screens in 2000 with Where the Money Is, a comedy that cast him as a famous bank robber who fakes a stroke to get out of prison. For his role as a kindly crime boss in 2002’s Road to Perdition, Newman would become a ten-time Oscar nominee.

Turning 80 last year, Newman nonetheless remained a presence in Hollywood. That year, audiences could see him on the small-screen in the critically-acclaimed HBO miniseries Empire Falls, for which he won a Golden Globe, and this year, he lent his voice to the Pixar animated film Cars. But Newman’s life has been more than movie stardom, as he has remained a prominent public figure through his extensive charitable work. He created the Scott Newman Foundation after the drug-related death of his son and later marketed a series of gourmet foodstuffs under the umbrella name Newman’s Own, with all profits going to support his project for children suffering from cancer, an organisation still going strong worldwide.

Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camps, he said, remain important for obvious reasons. “I’ve always said that luck is the key factor in any of our lives. It goes in our makeup, in where you were fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to be born. And I was just acknowledging how lucky I was and how unlucky children are. It’s doubly brutal on a child, because A, he doesn’t understand, and B, he gets exempted and left out by his schoolmates for the most part and if there were just some place for them to lay back and raise a little hell and not be so different, it might give them some respite. We had no idea what a life-changing experience that would be for these kids, eight or 10 days, the parents would come and say, ‘This is not the same child that I sent there.’ It’s astonishing. And they’re sprouting like mushrooms now. I just came back from Hungary. There’s a youth camp that was built by the Communists, so it doesn’t have a lot of colour or personality to it, but speaking to the woman who takes care of it, the kids are exactly the same. We went to Milan, where there’s a camp starting in Italy and that will be ready in about a year, I think. We took care of 11,000 children last year.”

Newman’s food company continues to thrive [“We may even outgross this movie this year”] and personally, he has remained blissfully married for some 50 years, owing his marriage’s longevity “to just maintaining a sense of humour.”

As for today’s Hollywood, he says he has little time to – or nor enough time – to comment on today’s stars versus those of his own era, but has little time for what contemporary Hollywood offers its audiences. “You have to have enough of an audience who are curious about social issues, personality issues, political issues and if you don’t have a wide enough audience for it, then you’re not likely to be able to get the financing for it. I think Hollywood is in love with sequels. If it’s successful once, just jazz it up and shoot it out there again, which I think it’s unfortunate.”

But always a long-time political activist, Newman is much more candid when discussing today’s political climate. “I think that’s pretty much recorded in the polls, people don’t think we’re going in the right direction and I agree with them, on many, many different levels.” And Newman has advice for those who have become disillusioned with politics. “I was campaigning at the University of Cincinnati and they admitted with a certain amount of shame that only 19% of the eligible students had voted in the 2004 election. But they had taken polls, the polls had looked good but the kids were on cell phones and they weren’t being polled and the figures were going to be staggering because the kids were engaged. Figures came out, 19%. So if people who have the privilege of voting don’t vote, then you have to ask if they’re really getting what they deserve. We have less of a percentage of eligible voters voting than voted in Iraq which I think is shameful. So if people get engaged, they can make the changes, but if they don’t, then we just have a chauffer up there motoring us wherever he wants to go instead of us giving the directions.”

Newman may not be as up to retirement as he has previously suggested. The actor says that while he doesn’t “think I can play a marathoner right now,” getting him back to the cameras “would have to be either a wonderful character in a wonderful film or a character that was acceptable in a film with some social content.” Newman is an actor who remains, it seems, in love with life, and that is further defined by his own wry philosophy by which he says he lives by. “It is useless to put on the brakes when you’re upside down.”