One of the basic issues of older age is whether to go quietly into the night, or keep fighting the fight. There's no easy answer, of course, and it's probably not a conscious choice. But is there any doubt what this man's inclination is?
The point is: If he's not ready to quit the on-the-edge insanity of racing, why believe, for a moment, that he's ready to slip quietly from films--or anything?
He confesses immediately. There's plenty of wiggle room in that one-more-and-out pledge.
"I think I've retired a lot," he says with a laugh. "I shouldn't have said that. I'd just like to do one more memorable film of some kind, a film that aspires to something. Some new way of telling a story. Some way of dramatizing the human condition. I don't mean significant with quotes around it, but something that would be memorable in some way."
He gets six or seven scripts a month, some offering leading roles, some supporting. Few excite him. He'd love to do one with his wife, and he and Robert Redford have said that they'd be open to doing one more together, as well--except how do you encore "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting"?
It's not that he needs to fill time. In addition to his own driving under the Newman Sharp banner, he's co-owner of Newman-Hass Racing, which fields the CART-circuit Indy cars driven by Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. Although one of his five daughters helps run the for-charity food business, he plays an active role--just as competitive about the sauce sales as racing. There are his summer camps--five now--and a committee encouraging corporate philanthropy. He still opens his living room for fund-raisers, and while Newman supports Al Gore for president, he recently gave Ralph Nader "a platform" to share his views. When a British firm took over a regional water company not long ago, there he was urging his Connecticut neighbors to protect 18,000 acres of watershed, to be "loud and disagreeable" if that's what it took, to "jump up and down and pound on car roofs."
"I'm not worried about not having anything to do," he sums it up. "I just want one of these films you could devote your time to and say, 'Yeah, I can swan song with this.'
"And then if another one came along that is just as memorable, you'd say, 'Jesus, dummy!' "
It's time to head back to Westport. He's come with several young buddies, 30-ish, he met through another competitive passion, badminton. He lobbied to have it included in the Olympics and took a group to the Games in Atlanta to watch what is, at top levels, an exhausting sport, nothing like the backyard variety. Players can rocket the shuttlecock at the speed of these race cars.
That's why a visitor suggests that Newman's young friends must ease up a bit in their matches with Grandpa. Big mistake to say that.
Newman retorts, "Five dollars."
When Freud once was asked what a normal person should be able to do well, he replied with unexpected briefness, "Lieben und arbeiten," to love and to work. But he might have added a third type of engagement with the world beyond ourselves--play.
It's often been told how Redford once discovered hundreds of live chickens stuffed in his on-the-set motor home. When Redford sent the perpetrator a wrecked Porsche with a red bow around it, it came right back to him--compacted.
On the Trans-Am circuit, Newman's foils were young drivers Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Chris Kneifel. That pair once recruited two dozen very gray women from a Chicago senior citizens club to show up at a race in "Paul Newman Fan Club" T-shirts. Newman retaliated by hiring a plane to fly over a Detroit track with a banner saying, "Chris and Wally, call Mommy."
Let's not forget Richard Nixon, back in 1968. Newman was campaigning in the New Hampshire primary for antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy when he learned that the car taking him around would next chauffeur a certain Republican candidate. The soon-to-be president found a note waiting: "Welcome. You should have no trouble driving this car at all because it has a very tricky clutch."
To this day, Newman counts among his great accomplishments winding up on Nixon's infamous Enemies List, No. 19.
It is not entirely a surprise, then, when taunting faxes begin arriving in the days before our badminton match. The first demands "heavy odds" based on "reliable sources," who claim I am engaging in a "chicken----" tactic, "receiving badminton instruction." Another reports that the referee will "not allow you to wear your hair net." No lame excuses, either, about "surgery related to your knees and brain." Another--from his assistant--warns that "Mr. Newman is carrying a concealed weapon, so one way or the other, he is going to win."
What can you say? I am lame, from three knee operations--none to the brain, thank you. As for that badminton instruction . . . well, one little session with Chibing Wu, the former Chinese national team member, seems reasonable.