Rebel with a cause

In movies as in real life, Steve McQueen was cool — but even he wanted to be Paul Newman.

The quinessential leading man, then auto racing enthusiast, and ultimately — and maybe most importantly — humanitarian died Friday at 83.

Newman was not a great actor lke Brando and Olivier in their prime — but he always made it look easy and comfortable — in the tradition of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

Newman was a contemporary of the immortal screen legend James Dean. He actually got his big break after Dean’s untimely death. Dean was set to star in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the biopic about boxer Rocky Graziano. Newman stepped in and delivered a K.O. performance. The rest, like they say, is movie history.

Newman became the screen rebel — the anti-hero in movies from the 1960s like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” In”The Hustler,”he was the pool shark whose integrity is behind the 8 ball. The hot shot gets what’s coming to him and faces some tough lessons in life along the way. The ending isn’t satisfying as they make them nowadays. But that’s the way they were done back then — gritty and realistic. In “Hud,” Newman was a boozing womanizer who has disdain for his father and a younger brother who idolizes him.If this movie hinted at the anti-establishment, generation gap themes from that period, then 1967′s “Cool Hand Luke” was thedefinitive centerpiece. Newman is terrific as the prisoner on a chain gang who becomes almost a Christ-like figure with his fellow convicts. Best scene: Luke bets he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in a certain amount of time — and does it. Once again, “Luke” doesn’t have a happy ending, but it serves tonot only make him sympathetic, but legendary.

Newman finished the anti-hero worship 1960s with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in which he teamed for the first time with RobertRedford. The buddy picture still holds up becauseit’s a great deal of fun andis saddled with a screenplay that’s as sharp and accurate as Sundance’s draw. Newman has the best lines: “Hell, the fall will probably kill ya,” and “I got 20-20 vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Make no mistake, Newmade has had his fair share of turkeys — no one can have a career as long as his andescape them. His best work in the 1970s was in “The Sting” with Redford again, anda memorable comic turn in the abrasive “Slapshot.” About that time he took up auto racing and scored just as many wins in that profession as he did in the movies.

By the 1980s, Newman turned businessman and started hocking his salad dressing products. But that successeventually defined Paul Newman.Through it he became a philanthropist — and up until his death,the money from the sale of his products raised more than $250 million for charities — includingone that works with children suffering from terminal illnesses.

The rebel with a cause.

As Newman aged, so did the rebel roles — and the anti-hero roles have become superhero roles anyway. His last great performance may have been in 1982′s “The Verdict,” where for one last time he played an integrity-deprived character who finds redemption by the movie’s end. Newman finally won a best actor Oscar in 1987, when he reprised his Fast Eddie Felson role from “The Hustler” in “The Color of Money.”

Paul Newman always said he was lucky –his career being based on it. Had James Dean lived, would Newman have ever had the chance at that breakthrough performance? Doesn’t matter. He did. Maybe what can be best said about this lion of the cinema is taken from what may be my favorite Paul Newman movie — that breakthrough performance in “Somebody Up ThereLikes Me.” At the end, Rocky Graziano tells his wife, “You know, I been lucky. Somebody up there likes me.” To which his wifereplies, “Somebody down here, too.”

Fade out.

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