My Newman Farewell

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01/27/2008

Westport, CT 06880

Neighborhood: Across the River, Multiple

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I spent a good nine months of my life dedicated to Paul Newman. I wasn’t training to eat eggs, or living a strict Newman’s Own diet. I was developing and writing a screenplay that had roles for not only Paul, but his wife, Joanne Woodward, and long-time cohort, Robert Redford. It was a far-fetched idea with high stakes, but few people struck such a cord with me more than Newman. Once I came up with a decent enough plot to include all three performers, it was an obvious decision to finish the script.

I started with a skeleton of a full story, developed the characters, filled in the blank plot lines, and tried to add as much substance and familiarity as possible. I walked around with a voice-recorder, dictated lines of dialogue, scene settings, and sequences. After a few months, I was ready and started writing the actual script. The next day, Newman retired from acting. Of course it was a huge blow, but I persuaded myself there was still enough glint in his eye to be convinced otherwise. He always said he wanted to do one more film with Redford, and to add his wife to the mix, I felt was the final sell.

I finished the script – the first feature-length I had written – and immediately gave it to friends to read. I was, after all, racing against time. It was a first draft, and, of course, needed re-writes. I worked on that the next few months, and continued to hear reports of Newman possibly being sick – though no one knew for sure.

The film was obviously never realized. I lacked confidence in my script, and the logistics seemed far too daunting for me who had very little experience and pull. Newman’s health also seemed to be deteriorating. I tried not to think of my failed project, but was, of course, reminded when I heard that Newman died. Working with Paul was such a dream of mine, and it’s always terrible to see one become a closed book.

I wanted to honor Paul in some way. My journey started at Grand Central Station where I took the North-Metro rail up to Westport, CT. It was a far-cry from a traditional pilgrimage, like the one Dylan had made for Woody Guthrie. I road on a train to a stop that several thousand people took each day. When I arrived at the station, I took a cab to Newman’s house to get there as soon as I could.

I gave the driver the address and confirmed it was Newman’s home. We started talking about Paul, and the driver revealed he once lived in a homeless shelter that received funding from Newman’s foundation. He told similar stories of seeing Paul around town, and always seeming like a normal guy. The cab driver took me to a florist, where I quickly bought some flowers, and we continued on.

When I arrived at the house, there were two people in plain clothes: a security guard, and a photographer. They appeared to be working together, though seemed like an unlikely pair. The driver pulled up just past the corner, both of us being confused about what exactly to do. I heard people had been dropping off flowers, but the small section of the driveway before the secured wall showed no signs of a memoriam.

The security guard approached the cab, making no effort to hide the gun attached to his side. I told him I had flowers to drop off and wanted pay my respect. He asked me (in a way that was, of course, telling me) if I was going to drop them off and then immediately get back into the cab. I did just that.

I brought my script to leave with the flowers. I wrote a note on it that said: “Written with the hope and intention that Paul could act with Joanne and Robert. A kid can dream. Paul, you will be greatly missed. With admiration and respect, Craig.” I placed them in front of the mailbox, didn’t notice whether or not the photographer took a photo, quickly got into the cab, and left. I told the cab driver that it was a bit awkward, and he said the security guard definitely “wasn’t fucking around.” I told the driver to drop me off at Newman’s restaurant, the Dressing Room.»

I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. It felt like the last thing I should do before leaving town. Like at his home, I didn’t expect much, and just wanted to at least pay my respects somehow. It was an unremarkable homage to an otherwise extraordinary person, but there was a quietude to it that felt right. I dressed up for the occasion, wearing a button down shirt, tie, and sports jacket. I always look awkward in formal attire, and I think the staff at the restaurant knew what I was doing. I didn’t attempt to talk, recall or hear stories about Newman. Maybe it was more pure to have inside you a deep admiration for an individual that could only be muddied by words and explanations.

The restaurant received a call from a Florida woman who wanted to know if the place was still in business now that Paul had died. The maitre d’ kindly responded that it still operated. He told the rest of the staff that she was from Florida, adding to the list of people nationwide who wanted to connect with the spirit Newman spread so well.

I finished my beer and there was nothing left to do but walk to the train station and say farewell. I grabbed the local paper on the way, which had, among several articles about Newman, his official obituary. Westport is like many other affluent Connecticut towns. Everything feels calm and perfect, but there’s bound to be much anxiety behind the utopian appearance. It will continue to flourish without Paul, but I hope it looks to Paul’s humility and humor when dealing with everyday life.

I strolled with the watery eyes of a post-yawn. I made eye-contact with several locals, always being greeted with a pleasant smile. Maybe they knew, and perhaps they didn’t. Either way, I felt encouraged. I was interrupted, while deep in thought, when I heard a honk, and looked up to see my cab driver speeding off in the other direction. It added bookends to my visit, which was now witnessed by another living being.

I thought about what Newman meant to me and why I considered him not only my favorite actor, but my idol. There were the obvious immediate stories of his talent, philanthropy, humor, and dedication. However, like many people who lose their father at a young age, Newman was a man to look up to, and I needed one. He was out there, he was consistent, and he provided the sacred guidance that only a good soul could.

He wasn’t a replacement for my father, but he reminded me of him in several ways. I think Newman was the crucial invisible hand that lead me to my passion for film. It gave me meaning in a time of uncertainty, and Paul’s compassion served as a quiet whisper that assured me it was all right for a country boy to try and work in a difficult industry.

I returned to Grand Central, weaving my way through the thousands going in every direction. I was among them, now continuing on my path, just like we all need to do. My idol had died, and wasn’t soon to be replaced. I felt the normal sentiments of losing a part of your world-view, however unfounded the significance of a person who I never met was. I felt fortunate that my sadness was coupled with an overwhelming fulfillment – at least there was one.

 

Craig Charland lives in Brooklyn and works as a freelance script reader. He is currently writing a screenplay, as well as short stories.

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