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Paul Newman, in Philadelphia in August 2005 after meeting with city officials to discuss bringing a Champ Car series to the city, was as passionate about the race-car world as he was about his entertainment projects. ((Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press))

Paul Newman, the blue-eyed leading man who starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and gained prominence for his philanthropic work and love of racing, died Friday at 83 after a long battle with cancer.

He died at his farmhouse in Westport, Conn., surrounded by friends and family, publicist Jeff Sanderson said.

Newman was nominated 10 times for an Academy Award, taking home the best-actor honour for The Color of Money (1986) and two honorary Oscars.

Part of a new breed of leading men who took Hollywood by storm in the late 1950s and '60s, his striking blue eyes made him a fan favourite, but he often chose roles that were far from conventional.

He played the anti-hero — most notably, in Cool Hand Luke (1967), where he starred as a man who refuses to conform to life in a rural prison, in Butch Cassidy (1969), in which he played an outlaw, and in The Sting (1973), playing a con man.

His reputation for portraying troubled masculinity was ensconced with The Hustler in 1961. He played Fast Eddie Felson, the same real-life con man he played in The Color of Money 25 years later.

Many Canadians will remember Newman for his role as player-coach Reggie Dunlop in the 1977 comedy-drama Slap Shot, in which a beleaguered hockey team resorts to relentless fighting and violence during games to make a comeback.

As he aged, Newman said he tried for roles with more edge, such as the alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict (1982) and the shyster promoter in Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

"I was probably more of a character actor than people were willing to cast me," he told Interview magazine in 1998.

"But a portrayal is one thing, and whether or not audiences are prepared to accept me as anything other than the blue-eyed boy is another question. By and large, I don't think they are. They liked me while I was the cocky hero, and the smartass and the rake. I don't think they liked me as Mr. Bridge [in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, 1990]."

He also directed films such as Rachel Rachel (1968) and The Shadow Box (1980) and produced several projects, including They Might Be Giants (1971) and the HBO television miniseries Empire Falls (2005).

The film star also founded his Newman's Own line of salad dressings, pasta sauces and salsa in 1982, when almost as a joke, he and a group of friends came up with the idea.

Also known as a philanthropist, Newman gave the profits from the business to charities, including his Hole in the Wall Gang summer camps for children.

"We don't take ourselves very seriously as business people, but considering this was something that started off as a joke in 1982, we have had a lot of fun giving away … I think it's 90 million bucks, to various charities," he told Interview film critic Graham Fuller in 1998.

Born into wealth

Born Paul Leonard Newman in Shaker Heights, Ohio — a wealthy suburb of Cleveland — in 1925, his Jewish father ran a sporting goods store, and his Catholic mother encouraged her son's interest in theatre.

After briefly attending Ohio University, Newman served in the navy and was stationed in the Pacific during the Second World War. In 1949, he completed a BA in English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio., and also married Jackie Witte. The couple had a son, Scott, shortly after their union.

A year later, Newman's father, Arthur, died and left the running of his successful business to his sons Paul and Arthur. That's when the wannabe entertainer made a decision that set the course of his life: he sold his share of the business to his brother and moved his young family to New Haven, Conn., to study acting at Yale University.

"I didn't have anything to run for that really grabbed me, except what I happened to be doing, which was the theatre," he said in the 1998 interview. "It wasn't as though I really made a commitment to it; there wasn't anything else around. So I wasn't driven to become an actor — it just seemed to be the thing that I managed to do best."

A method to his acting

He later honed his craft at the legendary Actors Studio in New York City under Lee Strasberg, considered by many to be the patriarch of American "method acting."

'I was lucky to survive my first film, The Silver Chalice. God, what a dog, the worst film of the '50s.'—Paul Newman, 2004 interview

Newman debuted on Broadway in the original production of William Inge's Picnic in 1952 and later had a role in Sweet Bird of Youth with Geraldine Page. Both he and Page would reprise their roles for the film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play in 1962.

Warner Brothers executives spotted Newman's talent and signed him to a contract. He made several TV appearances and then made his first film, The Silver Chalice, in 1954.

"I was lucky to survive my first film, The Silver Chalice. God, what a dog, the worst film of the '50s," he said in a 2004 interview with the Sunday Times.

His second film, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), in which he played Rocky Graziano, brought him to the attention of critics, and he went on to make The Long Hot Summer (1958) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

On the set of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he met Joanne Woodward. He divorced his first wife, with whom he had three children, in 1958, and married Woodward.

'It's like falling in love'

Newman became a reliable leading man, starring in 1959's The Young Philadelphians, with Robert Vaughn, in Hud (1963) and in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (1966).

"Every time I get a script, it's a matter of trying to know what I could do with it," he said of his profession. "I see colours, imagery. It has to have a smell. It's like falling in love. You can't give a reason why."

He paired with Robert Redford twice — for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and for The Sting in 1973.

He appeared with his wife in The Long Hot Summer (1958), From the Terrace (1960), Paris Blues (1961), WUSA (1970) and lastly, in 1990's Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, parts of which were filmed in Ottawa.

Newman also directed various feature films starring Woodward, including:

  • Rachel, Rachel, based on Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God.
  • A television version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Shadow Box.
  • A screen version of the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie (1987).

"Working together has its ups and downs, but working with the person you know best can only be an advantage," Woodward said in a 1991 interview.

"I've heard so many people say they couldn't work with their husband or wife. And I think, 'Why are you married to him then? If you can't work with him, how do you live with him?'"

A real-life lover of auto racing

While his last screen appearance was as a mob boss in the 2002 film Road to Perdition opposite Tom Hanks, Newman continued to do voice work, most notably as the retired race-car  Doc Hudson in the Disney/Pixar animated film Cars.

The actor, a longtime auto-racing enthusiast, also drove for the Bob Sharp Racing team in the 1970s, and was part of a winning racing team at Daytona in 1995, becoming the oldest driver ever to clock a win.

"I like racing, but food and pictures are more thrilling," he told the Guardian newspaper in 2001. "In racing, you can be certain, to the last thousandth of a second, that someone is the best, but with a film or a recipe, there is no way of knowing how all the ingredients will work out in the end. The best can turn out to be awful, and the worst can be fantastic. Cooking is like performing and performing like cooking."

Newman's life has been marked by one major tragedy: his son from his first marriage, Scott Newman, died in November 1978 from an accidental drug overdose, spurring the actor to launch the Scott Newman Center for drug abuse prevention. 

Newman's long relationship with Woodward produced three daughters, Elinor, Melissa and Claire, and eight grandchildren.

With files from the Associated Press