A Different kind of post this week:
For those of you who somehow missed it in the news this weekend, actor and activist Paul Newman died on Friday at the age of eighty-three. Newman has always been one of my favorite actors, and even knowing that he had been sick, I was saddened by the news of his death. Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to think of what made him so good at what he did, what it was I loved about his work and admired about him as an artist.
The realization I’ve come to is both simply and profound: Paul Newman was the kind of artist I’d like to be.
My favorite Paul Newman movies include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Verdict, Absence of Malice, The Hustler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Color of Money, The Road to Perdition. I could go on — I’ve enjoyed so much of his work. But that’s probably a good enough list for now. So, what do these movies have in common aside from Newman’s involvement? Well, all of them were great movies, but all of them were also accessible. Newman didn’t do high cinema; he didn’t do movies that were longer on symbolism and art than they were on plot and character.
What else do we know about Newman? He was a humanitarian who donated in the neighborhood of a $100 million from the sales of his organic food products to various charities, without taking a penny for himself. He sponsored a camp designed for child cancer patients. He was also deeply political, and made no effort to hide his progressive leanings from the public. Indeed, he was proud of his political work. He was a devoted family man, who remained married to Joanne Woodward for fifty years despite living and working in Hollywood, a place not known for being kind to celebrity marriages. And finally, he liked to have fun — his idea of having fun happened to involve racing cars, but hey, he enjoyed it and that’s what mattered.
From an artistic perspective, I also strive for that balance between excellence and accessibility. Every time I begin a new project I set out to write the best book I can. I want it to be as great as possible in every way, naturally. I also look to address important issues — race, ethnic identity, prejudice, environmental degradation, among others. But mostly I try to remember that what I write is entertainment. I want people to think when they read my books, but first and foremost, I want them to have fun.
I try to give back to my community and my country through volunteer work and charitable contributions (though I don’t have the resources at my disposal to do very much). And no one who has read my personal blog will be surprised to learn that I’m an active progressive.
Finally, I have always tried to find a balance in my life between my work on the one hand and my family and happiness on the other. I love what I do, but I love my wife and daughters more. And I have many hobbies — photography and birdwatching, to name just two — that I enjoy and pursue whenever I have the chance.
Look, I’m not trying to compare myself to Paul Newman. Far from it. Nancy will be the first person to tell you that I’m not nearly that good-looking. I haven’t been nearly as successful, the quality of my work can’t compare to the quality of his, and my impact on the world is tiny by comparison. But I think that Newman set a terrific example for artists everywhere, and as I contemplate his life and his achievements, I see that he gave those of us who are pursuing our passions as he pursued his, much for which to strive. This isn’t to say that an artist has to emulate Newman. Not at all. But for me he was, and will continue to be, a wonderful role model.