It was this week in 1969 when a media frenzy erupted on campus for the Sept. 23 premiere of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman DRA ’54 at the Roger Sherman Theater.
College Street was blocked off, said Jerrold Ganzfried ’70, a former News reporter who attended the event; there were “high-pitched adolescent girls” lining the streets, the News reported at the time.
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The premiere was a truly Yale event. The press reception was held at Mory’s. The event was proposed by the film’s director, George Roy Hill ’43, to help make film a bigger part of Yale culture. President of the Yale Film Associates Spencer Berger welcomed guests featuring Newman and co-stars Robert Redford and Katherine Ross.
Yale belonged to Newman and his famous blue eyes that night, even though he had dropped out of the School of Drama more than a decade earlier.
Almost 40 years later, former Yale students and administrators interviewed by the News remembered Newman — who died of cancer Friday at his home near Westport, Conn., at the age of 83 — as an artistic and humanitarian force who nevertheless remained dedicated to his Yale roots throughout his star-studded career.
“Paul Newman was a great actor and a great philanthropist, the model of the artist as citizen,” School of Drama Dean James Bundy said Sunday. “He did so much for the world through his imagination, and for our nation as someone who was committed to living a useful life in many ways.”
Newman, who in 1988 received an honorary diploma from Yale and was named a Calhoun College Fellow, was best known for his roles in movies such as “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “The Sting” and “The Color of Money,” for which he won an Academy Award in 1986. He was also the founder of “Newman’s Own,” a food-product manufacturer that donated money from the profits from items such as salad dressing, pasta sauce and lemonade, to a range of humanitarian causes.
Newman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925. After attending Kenyon College on a football scholarship, he performed at a summer stock festival in Wisconsin. He returned home to care for his family’s business in 1950; 18 months later he came to New Haven as a student at the School of Drama to study directing. He left without graduating in 1952 to work in New York, where he became a member of the Actors Studio.
While at the School of Drama, Newman was a student of Constance Welch, a longtime drama school teacher who retired in 1967, according to a News article from that same year. Welch, the News reported, “taught Paul Newman how to act.”
Newman maintained ties with Yale after leaving the Drama School. In addition to the 1969 premiere, another Newman and Hill collaboration, “Slap Shot,” premiered at Yale in February 1977 at the York Square Cinema. Ganzfried also attended that premiere — which featured a champagne reception in the Woolsey Rotunda — but said he does not remember it as well as the event for “Butch Cassidy.” After “Butch Cassidy” premiered, he said, the stars and the directors of the movie lingered on campus to engage in a number of discussions with students. He remembers Newman speaking outdoors, possibly on Old Campus.
“They kidded around,” Stephen Mendillo DRA ’71 said of one talk he attended at which Newman and Redord spoke about “Butch Cassidy” to as many as 30 School of Drama students. At the event, Mendillo said, Newman joked about how people would often get him confused with Redford.
Mendillo worked with Newman on the 2005 television movie “Empire Falls” and the 2002 production of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” at the Wesport Country Playhouse, where Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward is artistic director. “Our Town” later transferred to Broadway and was filmed for television in 2003. Mendillo also worked on “Slap Shot.”
“He always liked to have a get-together and have some fun,” Mendillo said, “and to work with him as an actor, he’s just always available and there and helpful.” He described Newman as “a kid at heart.”
In 1967, Newman gave a “substantial grant” to the drama school, according to a “usually reliable source” in the News. He gave a talk to School of Drama students earlier that year. The News article cited a member of the Dramat saying students were disappointed that he gave money instead of teaching a class.
Newman was also a presence on campus for reasons unrelated to his acting career — he also weighed in on the early days of coeducation. A News article from 1970 paraphrased Newman as saying “it was a tragedy that coeducation was not here when he was.”
After he was named a college fellow, he gave a Master’s Tea at Calhoun College in the late 1990s. Calhoun College Fellow and novelist Robert Stone arranged for Newman to come, said psychiatry professor William Sledge, then the Calhoun master.
Newman, a racecar enthusiast, drove to New Haven in a Volvo station wagon outfitted with a racecar engine, Sledge said. The early part of the tea was “awkward,” Sledge said.
“He was very shy,” Sledge said. “Remarkably so.”
Sledge said Stone had to help the conversation along.
“He didn’t say much about Yale drama,” Sledge said. “He seemed to have a good feeling.”
Sledge said the students were “tuned into his awkwardness and his reluctance to say much about himself.” They started to ask Newman about his charity work.
“He became animated,” Sledge said. “He was much more expressive and much more talkative, and that was the rest of the tea.”
After the talk Sledge said Newman came up to him and said: “‘You know, Doc, this is the best fun I’ve had in a long time.’ ”
Newman was nominated for eight Academy Awards. His only win came for Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money,” in which he reprised his Academy Award-nominated role as pool shark Fast Eddie Felson from the 1961 film “The Hustler.”
Newman also had a long stage career, returning most recently to Broadway in “Our Town.” Newman was scheduled to direct the production of “Of Mice and Men” opening Oct. 7 at the Westport Country Playhouse, but dropped out for health reasons, according to a May 23 article on www.Broadwayworld.com.
Newman was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1994. In addition to the proceeds donated by his food company to nonprofits such as groups supporting Kosovo refugees and global corporate philanthropy, Newman’s philanthropy included creating the Hole-in-the-Wall Camps for children with life-threatening illnesses. Newman also founded the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy to support corporations’ work with charity and helped form the Safe Water Network to bring water to the impoverished in third-world countries.
Actress Jayne Atkinson DRA ’85, who met Newman while working on the 2000 production of “Triangles for Two” at the Westport Country Playhouse, said Newman never talked to her about Yale. She said she got to know Newman on the set of “Our Town” and lives in Weston, Conn., near Newman and Woodward.
Atkinson said there was a young girl in “Our Town” who was afraid to ride a scooter across the stage as the direction ordered.
“Paul took it and he went across the stage on it,” Atkinson said. “And he said, ‘Don’t ever be afraid to try something new.’ And that’s Paul.”
Newman is survived by Woodward, his five children, two grandchildren and his brother Arthur Newman.