Melissa Newman on why her father, screen star Paul Newman, would have hated social media

‘I used to cry about him a lot, even when he was still alive,’ she recalls.
Melissa Newman on why her father, screen star Paul Newman, would have hated social media

By Hannah Stephenson, PA

Melissa Newman looks uncannily like her mother, the late actress Joanne Woodward, the blonde hair, striking features and innate confidence shining through.

Her white T-shirt is etched with the face of her father, screen legend Paul Newman, although the signature underneath the face is nothing like his, she says, laughing.

On a whistle-stop tour to promote his posthumous memoir, Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life Of An Ordinary Man, Melissa, known as Lissy, the middle daughter of Newman and Woodward, explains that more than 10 years after he died from lung cancer aged 83 in 2008, the family discovered unpublished interviews and transcripts in his basement spanning three decades.

The book is based on interviews and oral histories between 1986-91 conducted by the actor’s close friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, whose works included Rebel Without A Cause, but Newman’s own transcripts were later found in a family storage unit.

The book is a mixture of the actor’s own narrative and Stern’s interviews with contributors on their recollections of the Hollywood icon who starred in such cinematic gems as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid,  Cool Hand Luke, The Color Of Money (for which he won an Oscar), The Sting and The Verdict, and their take on specific events in his life.

Today, Melissa, 61, an artist, singer and former actress, still lives in the family home in Connecticut.

“The thing I’m saddest about is that he didn’t share it with us sooner. We all knew he had this project but mostly for me as an artist, the hardest thing was listening to him struggle finding his identity as an artist under incredibly weird circumstances.

“He had a beautiful face. He wanted to be an actor – my mum wanted to be a star – and for a lot of people who just want to be actors, especially if you’re cast in this role as the quintessential leading man, it’s very frustrating.”

The book is not a red carpet Hollywood kiss and tell, but Newman’s often tortured self-analysis, as he harboured great doubts and insecurities about his self-worth, fears that he wasn’t good enough for the success he achieved, and the parenting mistakes he made.

One of the reasons the family completed the book was the fear that their parents would be forgotten.

The actor, film director and race car driver was also a philanthropist, giving millions of dollars to good causes.

“I hope the book encourages people to watch the films,” Melissa explains.

Entertainment – Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – London
Hollywood actress Joanne Woodward and her actor-director husband Paul Newman in London.

The book charts his strained relationships with his mother and his father, along with his nine-year marriage to actress Jackie Witte, with whom he had three children, and his long-time affair and subsequent 50-year-marriage to Oscar-winning actress Joanne Woodward, with whom he also had three children.

What comes out is how shy he was, how he feared that his looks had opened doors, but that his talent wasn’t truly explored, his dislike of the press and interviews, and his imposter syndrome.

In her foreword to the book, Melissa recalls: “Here was someone who suspected himself an imposter, an ordinary man with an extraordinary face and luck on his side, achieving far beyond what he’d set out to do.”

At the height of his fame, going out was horrible, she recalls.

“You reach the pinnacle and have all this disturbing paparazzi activity. We went to places where we couldn’t leave the hotel and as a small child, people are looking over you and through you. For me, it was strange for ego development; for him, the continuing objectification which started with his mother became a nightmare. At a certain point it becomes abusive.

“I remember once a woman came up and lifted up her skirt and put it on the table in front of him and asked him to sign it. He was out with his family.”

Paul Newman during filming for Friday night with Jonathan Ross, Thursday 2 September 2004. PA Photo: Ellis O’Brien/BBC. STANDALONE

“My father was really a shy person. When he was doing interviews, he would sit down and his jacket would ride up to his neck and you’d think, fix it! Everything about him in those situations was pretty uncomfortable,” she continues.

“Being a star throws everything out of whack with your kids,” he reflects in the book – and his daughter agrees.

“Being a movie star is not a good blueprint for being an adult,” she says.

Melissa Newman (Alamy/PA)

His first child Scott, with Witte, died from a drugs overdose in 1978.

Paul writes:  “There was a time, long before he died, that I thought the only way I could free Scott to go his own way would be to shoot myself. Then that pressure would be off his chest, and he could go someplace and maybe get rid of the affliction that was me and become a whole person.”

“It’s increasingly relevant given the drug epidemic in our country,” Melissa observes of the decision to include this deeply personal episode in the book.

“Isn’t the real story more relevant to all of the people who struggle with marriage, with drug addiction and with children who have drug addiction?”

Paul also recalls the family’s peripatetic lifestyle and how he feared it wasn’t good for them.

Today, Melissa says: “I went to a new school practically every year. Every time I’d get the hang of one space, we’d be moving again. I always say I had no friends, only dogs. But you know what? It made me who I am.”

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in 1958 (Alamy/PA)
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman in 1958 (Alamy/PA)

When he was on location, Joanne and the kids would go too and Melissa recalls growing up on movie lots unaware they were among big stars.

“I always have a vision of him standing by a giant billboard of himself going, ‘I’m down here!’ There was something fragile about him and I used to cry about him a lot, even when he was still alive. I imagined what it would be like when he was gone.”

During his career, Newman’s drinking escalated to alcoholism with him recalling that booze unlocked a lot of things he couldn’t have done without it.

How did the alcoholism affect family life?

“Well, he was super functioning,” Melissa recalls. “He was famous for always being on time, being ready to work. He was incredibly employable and was able to develop his talent over time. The Verdict is the pinnacle.

“At the time men drank a lot. His idea of a martini was a beer mug full of gin with a couple of olives in it and some ice cubes. By the time I became an adult, he had moderated it a lot.

When he died, Melissa recalls, “The world stopped. There was the inevitable confusion and chaos to be dealt with, and the fog of grief”.

Even today she finds it difficult to watch him on screen, although the family have all his work, some on DVD or even VHS.

Given his shyness and difficult relationship with stardom, he would have hated social media, she muses.

“He didn’t want to be digitised and made into some sort of digital facsimile of himself.”

Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is published by Century. Available now

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