The Lambs Club Interview: Foster Hirsch and Melissa Newman

Melissa Newman, daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, speaks to us from the unassuming Westport, Connecticut house that’s been in her family since the early 1960s. Memories of tourists driving slowly by, even taking photos on her front lawn, seem nostalgic rather than annoying. She regrets the posh homes and tall gates on either side. “We were like The Beverly Hillbillies with pots and pans under leaks and mice in the walls. It’s probably the last house anyone else would have chosen, the smallest one on the block.”

A glamour photo (above) is difficult to equate with the grounded daughter, wife, mother, and artist we “meet.”

Newman tells us her parents’ legacy “disappeared sooner” than she thought it would. To rectify that, the family is cooperating in a documentary to be directed by Ethan Hawke. “I think your parents’ place in American film is very secure,” interviewer/theater historian Foster Hirsch counters. Newman thinks people only remember images and believe her father and mother had a fairytale relationship. “They were two mercurial artists,” she states unequivocally. “There was always something going on.” Whether for discretion or in anticipation of the film, the subject alas offers next to nothing by way of example.

“Isn’t there some reality to the story?” Hirsch presses. “It was a long lasting relationship.” Against the odds, Newman responds, “they were inexorably tied together… preordained. At the end of the day, she was the woman he wanted in the room.” (Newman’s affairs were well known.)

“How long was it as a youngster until you realized you weren’t living in a usual household?” Hirsch asks. Newman remembers using her last name to manipulate a situation or get attention, then admits, “you grow up thinking what you have to say is important until you’re thrust into the world.” Several leading questions might elicit praise for parenting from someone else. Instead, Joanne and Paul’s daughter reiterates, “They were actors and complicated people.” The closest we get to positive memory is that her mom “got up every morning and made the French toast,” and that they were “great grandparents.”

Did the actors discuss their films while making them? Apparently not. Joanne was more likely to bring a role home with her. Film adaptation of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (play by Paul Zindel, film directed by Paul Newman) manifest a dark, domestic atmosphere while Joanne played Beatrice Hunsdorfer, mother of an extremely dysfunctional family. Nor has Newman seen all her parents’ films. She plans to watch Exodus with her kids at some point. (The 1960 film on the founding of the modern State of Israel was directed by Otto Preminger. Paul Newman played rebel Ari Ben Canaan.)

“Did your parents have favorite films?” Hirsch asks. Newman shares an anecdote. Joanne was offered “A New Kind of Love” in which husband and wife would star opposite one another. When Paul said it was the worst script he ever read, Joanne protested, complaining she never had opportunities to wear clothes and play sexy. They made the film. It was both dreadful and “atrociously sexist.” According to Wikipedia: A womanizing American reporter assigned to Paris (Paul Newman) mistakes a cynical fashion copycat designer (Joanne Woodward) for a high-class prostitute after she receives a makeover. Ouch.

“What about Hud and The Hustler? Your father excelled at anti-heroes,” Hirsch says. “Because he was so beautiful, he struggled against the obvious…I look at pictures of him as a young man and see it, but living with him…” Paul Newman always wanted to be a character actor, something he was finally able to do towards the end of his career. In his daughter’s opinion, The Verdict was his best work. (1982 American legal drama film directed by Sidney Lumet, written by David Mamet from a novel by Barry Reed.)

“Your father looked like a god come to life in 1954’s The Silver Chalice,” Hirsch recalls with admiration, acknowledging the actor’s film debut, “though disdain for the material affected the movie…When it was first released, he took out a full page advertisement apologizing.” Newman says when her dad would run it, the family would bang pots and hurl popcorn.

After class at The Actor’s Studio, everyone would retreat to a bar.  Paul went home to a wife and two children. Joanne was first at The Neighborhood playhouse where, Newman tells us, Sandy Meisner had no faith in her. She then moved on to Actor’s Studio. Newman says her father wanted to be more of a bohemian, something her mother already was. “She had a different relationship to her craft. I think she had more natural talent and he realized that. He loved watching her.”

“When they worked together or directed her, were they respectful?” Hirsch asks. Newman uses Rachel, Rachel as an example. (1968. A shy, 35-year-old unmarried schoolteacher lives with her widowed mother above a funeral parlor, has her first sexual experience, is rejected, and modestly spreads her wings.) The film was a labor of love. There wasn’t a lot of money. Newman’s sister Nell Potts played Rachel as a child, the other kids had small parts. “All of us toyed with acting.” There was a great sense of family her father looked for on other sets. “He regretted people just did their jobs and went home.”

A second anecdote concerns Paul Newman’s last appearance on Broadway as narrator in the 2002 production of Our Town (Thornton Wilder) after it moved from Westport Playhouse. According to Newman, her parents were arguing about Paul’s driving too fast. He accused his wife of not having guts, she retorted, “You haven’t been on stage in 30 years!” They made a deal. He’d do Our Town at the Playhouse if she’d appear in television’s Empire Falls. (A 2005 two-part HBO miniseries based on the novel by Richard Russo.) “He was really proud of the reaction to his stage work and my mother was stuck upstate doing remakes.”

Hirsch saw the Broadway production. “It was staged so that when he (Paul Newman) made his entrance, there was no opportunity for applause. Nor at the end, did he take a star bow. He was part of the ensemble…Did he feel he reached his acting goals?” Newman points to her father’s race car driving; starting as a novice, gradually earning the respect of fellow drivers. “It’s totally quantifiable. Not like acting…I think he wanted to write more.”  

She tells us he was also frustrated about not feeling free to be politically vocal, but had to restrain himself because of the food business. (Newman’s Own founded by Paul Newman and author A. E. Hochner donates 100% of its after-tax profits to a private, nonprofit foundation which supports various educational and charitable organizations.) Woodward went on to teach acting. Dylan McDermott and Allison Janney were two of her students.

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman acted opposite one another in several productions of Love Letters. Melissa Newman tells us there was one missive where the character’s great love dies. Her father choked up every time, even in rehearsal. “He was really out of control.”

Melissa Newman became a singer and a sculptor. She has no regrets about not following in her parents’ footsteps.

Photos Courtesy of The Lambs Club where this interview and others are archived online.

About Alix Cohen (1007 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.