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Like A Good Wine

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Effete Easterners call television the vast wasteland only because they have never seen the Mars-like salt flats of Utah. There, on the Bonneville Speedway, have been blazed a whole book of land-speed records. Last week it was the Ferrari North American Racing Team’s shot at rewriting a few pages. One of the team’s three members, a glint of blue eyes behind his goggles, whirled through a couple of practice runs, then opened up to 170 mph. Suddenly, coming out of a turn too wide on the oval track, he fishtailed wildly, careened and spun out before finally regaining control and rolling to a stop a mile from the turn. Crew and spectators flew to the car as if it had been totaled. At stake was not just an ephemeral world record but one of the world’s most valuable necks. Out climbed Paul Newman, superstar, alive and grinning. It was all part of the game.

Just the morning before, back in Clark Kent duds, Newman was addressing a near full house in the vast ballroom of New York’s Americana Hotel. The draw was not entirely the sponsor, Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Nor the subject: “The State of the Democratic Process: Crisis in the Presidency.” Nor the rest of the dais, which included the front-running Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Henry Jackson. It was Center board member Newman. “That’s him,” a lady whispered to her husband. “See, he is getting gray,” came the reply. “Don’t tell the girls, they’ll be disappointed.”

That is masculine wishful thinking: women are never disappointed at the sight of Paul Newman. He looks at most 39, not 49. The hair may be turning a bit, and the blue, blue eyes are deepened with imported French eye drops, but Newman is still as trim and taut and handsome as when he played Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Newman at the podium that morning, however, more closely resembled the somber young executive in From the Terrace. Newman takes politics seriously, and he told the audience: “When Ford took office, we were at the beginning of what turned out to be the shortest run of euphoria in the history of the American Presidency. You might wonder what an aging juvenile is doing here. Well, I came just like the rest of you, as a citizen.”

Citizen Newman? The celebrity as promoter of the cause célèbre is not exactly an unfamiliar character on the platform these days: Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Ronald Reagan, to name a highly visible few. Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, are surely among the most effective of the lot. “You don’t stop being a citizen just because you have a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card,” argues Newman. “You also don’t immobilize yourself because you’re afraid that you carry more weight than some people think your credentials will allow.” He himself is serving his second term on the Santa Barbara institute board. He is an active member of a new citizens’ group called SEA (Seaside Environmental Alliance), for which he recently plodded through the sands of Santa Monica gathering signatures on petitions to keep oil and other pollutants away from the California coast. He is counting on presenting them to President Ford personally. And Newman has campaigned tirelessly for political candidates from Adlai Stevenson to Pete McCloskey (in his 1972 Republican primary race) to current Democratic Senate candidate in New York, Ramsey Clark.

All of this is not for want of anything else to do. Newman has survived the film revolution of the ’60s as one of the most dexterous, popular and highly paid (around $1 million a picture) actors in the trade. He just finished making a trendy disaster movie with Steve McQueen, Towering Inferno. In October he and Joanne will shoot their sixth film together, a thriller set in New Orleans called Ryan’s the Name. Paul also once directed Joanne in Rachel, Rachel: she got an Oscar nomination, and Paul won the New York Film Critics award as best director. Although he has been nominated four times for the best actor award (Cat, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke), no Newman Oscar graces the mantel of their Connecticut country home. Many think that home is one of the reasons for the Academy’s oversight. Newman is the biggest-name film star ever to reside in the East, and that, coupled with his liberal causes, has not endeared him to Hollywood. Unintimidated, Newman just shrugs, as he did when named to the famous Nixon enemies list. “Send G. Gordon Liddy to pick up my award,” he said.

Though serious, Newman has a roistering side to him. That is one way to explain his latest passion, auto racing, to which he was turned on in 1969 when he made Winning. “Up to then,” he says, “I had never done anything more dangerous than drive into New York. So I took the racing driver’s course, got my license and started on the amateur circuit. I’m not very good at it—at least I’m not as good as the equipment is.”

It may seem unusual for a middle-aged actor with six children (three by a former wife) and strong intellectual yearnings to go haring about race tracks, but it poses no conflicts to Newman’s canny if uncomplicated mind. He really does like to drive. Although he mingles freely with the crowds at the track, there, as elsewhere, autographs are out. “There’s no reason,” he explains, “why I should have to be stopped every 20 or 30 feet every day of my life. Somewhere way back they decided that signing autographs was the thing to do, but I wasn’t around to vote on it.”

Newman’s other concerns include the quality of film scripts these days. “Most young writers have no craft. There’s a visceral rather than an intellectual process. What do these kids know about Aristophanes and Euripides, or Marlowe, Schiller, G. B. Shaw or even James Agee?” He is more worried about the state of the nation, though, than the state of film. “One wonders just how scrambled Nixon’s brains were.”

He was also troubled by smaller but more immediate wrongs—such as Ferrari’s seeming exploitation of him. The company had made a deal with CBS-TV for a half hour on Sports Spectacular last week when Paul had thought it was only a brief film clip. He reluctantly agreed to a two-minute interview. Each night before the trials he downed his beloved Coors beer by the pack. (Congressman McCloskey clocks him at “one every eight minutes, at least.”) Next morning Newman climbed into a roaring, combustible racing car and put that million-dollar face and more on the line—just for the hell of it. Or is it because he reaches the mid-century mark in January? Fifty? Newman gives that celebrated smile full throttle. “I am lurching toward 50,” says the aging juvenile, “with all the eager anticipation of a kid having a woman for the first time.”