Ethics Hero Emeritus: Paul Newman (1925-2008)
(September 2008)

Paul Newman was an ethical actor. There are few things rarer.

The very nature of their profession makes actors prone to embrace non-ethical goals with such all-engulfing verve that ethical values get left far, far behind. Show business is capricious, unpredictable and unfair, which encourages a cynical dog-eat-dog, “get them before they get you” attitude that will rationalize extreme utilitarian trade-offs. “Get the part” is likely to trump every other value, seemingly justifying lying, cheating, bribery, personal betrayals and trading sexual favors for employment opportunities. In an environment where success is measured in fame, celebrity, income and possessions, and virtue is calibrated in terms of beauty, youth, breast size, and rippling abs, ethics is lucky to survive as an afterthought.

Like all successful film actors, Paul Newman probably muddied his hands and his principles on the way to the top, but once he got there, few have handled fame and stardom with more principled grace. Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, were renowned for being genuinely friendly and modest in casual encounters with fans and strangers, and preferred tossing down beers at the local bar to parading on the red carpet. As public figures, Newman’s conduct as a role model was exemplary. He had a long and loving marriage and children who had married parents on their birth certificates. Newman didn’t get arrested, and though he was politically active in the Democratic Party and in various liberal and humanitarian causes, he never attempted to use his prominence as a performer to assert expertise in national policy.

Newman was one of those actors, like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart, who consciously constructed a screen persona over his career that embodied certain ethical values. The Newman Character, best personified in such films as “Cool Hand Luke,” “Hud,” and “The Verdict,” was a flawed loner who discovered his own moral core and decided to commit everything to the course of action he now knew was right. But Newman, with an unusually wide range, could also play different, less admirable characters with equal skill. The problem for audiences was that it was hard to accept anyone with such crystal blue eyes, such a puckish smile and such a well-chiseled jaw as anything but a hero.

And Newman was a hero. When he bottled and sold his own salad dressing as a lark and it became a surprise supermarket favorite, Newman turned commerce into charity. The product line of his company, Newman’s Own, Inc., grew to include popcorn, salsa, pasta sauce, and more. He contributed all the profits (after taxes) to charity, using his personal foundation to distribute almost 200 million dollars to projects benefiting children, medical research, and many other worthy causes. Shortly before his death, Newman turned the company itself over to his foundation, ensuring that his philanthropy would continue.

Many famous Hollywood actors spend their lives gazing at the mirror, counting wrinkles, settling scores, and living lives of insecure self-absorption, all while confusing box-office success with intrinsic human worth. Paul Newman was one of the very few who used his fame to benefit others, preferring to use a spare $200 million to support good works rather than to enrich himself and his family. The obituaries being written today will be full of references to his many memorable film roles, but most of them will also include a phrase that we seldom have seen in print. Even before he retired from performing, Paul Newman was regularly described as an “actor-philanthropist,” a hyphenated word seen approximately as often as “insult comic-nun” or “vigilante-accountant.” But it was and is an accurate description of Paul Newman.

So is “Ethics Hero.”

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