His mother wanted him to do something artistic: In his youth, Paul Newman and his mother went to the Cleveland Play House. Newman’s mother wanted her son to get in touch with show business. The theatre’s artistic director was an acquaintance of his Uncle Joe.
His father, on the other hand, who ran a successful sporting goods shop, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps one day – but after studying economics for a while, Newman realised that he wanted to do something else in his life other than sitting behind a desk or a sales counter all day.
Paul Newman made his first appearance on a school stage at the young age of nine. When he attended Kenyon College after his time in the Navy during World War II, he continued to pursue his passion: There were eight to ten performances a year. His acting teacher and friend Jim Michael gave him encouragement and helped him take his first steps as a professional actor. But Newman was not satisfied with his acting at that time: At that time, his skills were merely sufficient for an average college performance, he later emphasised again and again.
A different kind of company
Paul Newman’s first stage roles included a part in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone: Newman insists in his memoirs that he did not pursue acting at college for the glamour or for the sake of his celebrity.
Rather, he had success during his college years with a special kind of enterprise: he collected laundry from the entire student body to have it washed at a large laundry, and gave each student who dropped off their laundry a free beer as a thank you for the order. When there were no washing machines for private use, washing was a serious problem for many students.
Co-students predicted that he would fail with this idea: The opposite was the case. The business turned out to be a huge success and later Newman was even able to sell his laundry service. Looking back on this time, Newman later said that the laundry service had been the real triumph of his time at college, not acting.
Free spirit without a mentor
On the afternoon of the day Paul Newman received his college degree, he was already on the train to Chicago. He was on his way to Williams Bay in Wisconsin, where he had received a summer scholarship from a local theatre.
When Paul Newman was at the beginning of his professional acting career, things went anything but according to plan: He even had to clean out the sheep pen on a farm for a few weeks in the late 1940s to earn a living.
In his memoirs, Newman wrote that he had never had anything like a mentor in his life. He could remember neither a parent, nor a teacher, nor anyone else who had significantly shaped his ideas.
Newman himself saw this as a problem, since he had no one to give him spiritual support. On the other hand, he probably found out more quickly who he really was: throughout his life, he did not follow any other personality, no fixed ideology and was, in a sense, a free spirit.
Paul Newman did not have a mentor, but the reason wasn’t that he did not have talent and potential, but because he simply did not need one to be successful.
Acting: His passion
After Paul Newman completed his education at Kenyon College, he first continued to run his family’s sporting goods business for some time. Although he already knew that acting was his passion, he initially decided to follow this seemingly easier path to earn a living.
But Paul Newman did not find any fulfilment in this profession: he decided in 1951 to start studying at the Yale School of Drama in New York. There he studied directing – Newman was still not sure if he had a future as an actor. Newman chose directing so that he could also work as a director if he never had his breakthrough as an actor. He did appear in a few commercials in his hometown of Cleveland and presented the weather report. Nevertheless, his doubts prevailed at first as to whether his idea of one day becoming a sought-after actor would come to fruition.
After Paul Newman was discovered by a talent agency during a production of the play Beethoven at Yale University, his acting career gradually took off: Paul Newman looked into the world of acting agencies for the first time at this point and was horrified by the impressions he gathered.
After only eight months, he stopped his studies at Yale University again and attended the New York Actors Studio, where he was introduced to Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting: Since he already had a family at the time, Newman was a real exotic among the students, who were all still relatively young and fit the typical stereotype of the acting student.
Like countless other US actors, Paul Newman celebrated his debut on Broadway in New York: there he played in the 1953 Broadway play Picnic, which was sensationally received by critics and audiences. The play’s director, Josh Logan, was initially sceptical about casting Newman in the play. But the play’s success proved him wrong: Logan even won the Pulitzer Prize for his directing in 1953.
Hollywood or theatre?
Without question, it was the Broadway play Picnic that catapulted Paul Newman’s name to the front of the acting world: Newman was now considered for various television productions and Broadway plays. Various agents from Hollywood had already contacted him at this time, he writes in his memoirs: he had been advised by Josh Logan, his director in Picnic, not to go to Hollywood. His agent, however, told him that Hollywood might knock on his door a few more times during his career – but his experience told him that one never knows when it will be the last time.
Paul Newman wasn’t sure whether he should go to Hollywood or continue his theatre career….
Main source: Newman, Paul: “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man – A Memoir”, 2022 Knopf Doubleday
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig