The icon’s path to redemption after the day that changed his life forever.
When life gave Paul Newman lemons, he literally made lemonade. Once, at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children he founded near his Connecticut home, “There was one little kid looking at Dad, then looking at the cartons of Newman’s Own lemonade,” Paul’s daughter Clea recalls laughingly of one of the myriad products emblazoned with her father’s face and sold for charity. “The boy said, ‘Are you missing?’ Dad was baffled, then he finally saw the carton and tried to explain. It was very funny.”
Yet it was the tragedy of a lost child that inspired the legendary movie star’s midlife decision to dedicate himself to philanthropy and family, rather than fame and fortune, which were not fulfilling him. On Nov. 20, 1978, Scott Newman — Paul’s oldest of six kids and only son — died of an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol. He was 28. “I think about him often…it hurts,” Paul later told his best friend, writer A.E. Hotchner. “The guilt… all I could have done…and didn’t do.” Devastated by grief, he devoted his life to helping others, starting the Scott Newman Center for Drug Abuse Prevention, which led to Paul’s vast charitable empire. “He learned from painful things that happened in
his life, [like] losing a son,” says Sally Field, his co-star in 1981’s Absence of Malice. “It made him one of the most important people I’ve ever known.”
Paul had a strained relationship with his own father, Arthur, a Shaker Heights, Ohio, sporting goods store owner who disapproved of his son’s decision to forgo the family business in favor of acting. Sadly, Arthur died in 1950, before Paul found fame. “I always thought it was so sad that his dad never got a chance to see him be what he could be,” Jay Leno, a friend and fellow auto enthusiast, tells Closer. Without a healthy father-son bond as a model, Paul wasn’t able to forge a lasting connection with — or ultimately save — his own son. Those demons stayed with him forever.
At 24, Paul had married actress Jackie Witte, and a year lat- er, Scott was born. He was a temperamental child; Paul nicknamed him “Mad Scott” for his tantrums when he was 2. Jackie lost interest in acting and devoted herself to raising Scott and his sisters, Stephanie and Susan, while Paul single-mindedly pursued his career. He also had less honorable pursuits. After the boxing biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me made him a star in 1956, he got drunk, drove over a fire hydrant and led cops on a mile-long chase before being arrested. “I drank whiskey a lot,” he said. “For a while, it really screwed me up.”
When Paul left Jackie to wed Joanne Woodward, his leading lady in The Long, Hot Summer, 8-year-old Scott didn’t like his new stepmom or his sudden lack of access to his father. “Being the son of Paul Newman at the height of his fame was a terrible burden to carry,” Hotchner, 96, tells Closer. As Joanne explained, “When the kids go anywhere with him, they can be pushed aside by fans, as if they don’t count, as if they’re nothing in themselves.”
Hurt and angry, Scott began dabbling with drugs and alcohol as a teenager and was also expelled from several schools. Paul stayed mum, feeling he couldn’t lecture his son on substance abuse, since he, too, often overindulged. After Scott was arrested for drunkenly vandalizing a school bus and kicking a cop in the head, Paul quietly paid his $1,000 fine.
“I’m not taking any acting help from my father. I want my work to stand on its own merit.” — Scott, with Paul’s pal Robert Redford in
1975’s The Great Waldo Pepper
The situation worsened when Scott tried to follow in his father’s path as an actor and found himself stuck in his dad’s shadow. “It’s hell being his son, you know,” Scott told Hotchner. “I don’t have his blue eyes. I don’t have his talent. I don’t have his luck. I don’t have anything.”
For a while, he did have a girlfriend, actress Sally Kirkland, who tried to get him off of drugs and into yoga, to no avail. “Scott told me how tough it was being Paul’s son because he could never live up to him,” Sally shares with Closer. “Paul loved him to death, but Scott was always very insecure.”
In the mid-’70s, Paul helped Scott land a small role as a fireman in his hit disaster movie The Towering Inferno, and opposite his friend Robert Redford in The Great Waldo Pepper. But he didn’t lend his son money, given his belief that all people, including celebs’ kids, should make their
own way in life. Said Scott, “Everyone assumes I have tremendous funds, but I haven’t got a cent.”
Scott developed a serious drug addiction in his 20s, and
Paul hired the best doctors to treat him. But following a motorcycle injury, Scott was prescribed painkillers by one physician, and he mixed the pills with rum, Valium and cocaine. It proved a toxic cocktail. He died in his sleep at a Los Angeles Ramada Inn.
Paul was shocked, but not surprised. Still it was the day that changed his life forever and set him on a course where fame and fortune were not his primary goals. “In a way, I’d been waiting for that call for 10 years,” Paul ruefully admitted. “Scott and I had simply lost the ability to help each other.”
But Paul realized he had the capacity to help others learn from Scott’s tragic loss. “This may sound corny, but we didn’t want Scott to have lived in vain,” Joanne said. “His life didn’t seem to have much point, and we wanted to make it have one now.”
Founded with a $1 million donation from Paul, the Scott Newman Center opened in 1980. “The biggest problem is when the subject [of drugs] is swept under the carpet,” Paul said. “You have to keep the lines of communication open.”
Paul did just that with Clea, Nell and Melissa — his three daughters with Joanne — as well as Scott’s sisters, Stephanie and Susan. “He more than made up for the years when he didn’t have time” for his kids because he was focused on his career, Hotchner says. Remembers Clea, 51, “He had a crazy sense of humor — it was childlike but very funny. And he was a very thoughtful person. The best advice he ever gave me was that I needed to find my own way.”
He also encouraged his children to carry on his philanthropic legacy. Every year, he gifted them a sum and instructed them to donate it to a charity of their choice. “He gave each of us $25,000 to pick causes we feel passionate about,” reveals Clea. “It was a great lesson.” All five of his daughters do charity work to this day.
Mostly, Paul taught by example. “One of my favorite memories of my dad was walking around the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp with him and getting the feeling he got when he played with the kids,” Clea tells Closer. “He really loved it. It really fed him.”
Even after his death from lung cancer at 83 in 2008, Paul continues to feed people through Newman’s Own, which has raised more than $430 million for charity. When asked about Paul’s greatest accomplishment, his brother Arthur, 92, demurs: “He was a man of many achievements.” But as Clea points out, “For my father, acting and making movies was a career, but philanthropy was his life’s work.”
— Reporting by Amanda
Paul played Fast Eddie Felson in ’61’s The Hustler and won an Oscar for the 1986 sequel The Color of Money. His chemistry with Robert Redford fueled 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as the 1973 hit The Sting. After Scott’s death, Paul...
Paul and Scott (at an Ontario, Calif., race in 1972) shared a love of fast cars. “When they were growing up, I wasn’t there much,” said Paul, with Joanne and daughters (clockwise from left) Clea, Nell, Melissa and Stephanie in 1973.
Newman’s Own was founded in 1982 with salad dressing. As a driver, Paul won two pro races and placed second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Paul started the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for sick kids in 1988.