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Paul Newman: His Most Memorable Career Film Roles

Updated on October 21, 2008

"How should I play that one, Bert? Play it safe? That's the way you always told me to play it: safe... play the percentage. Well, here we go: fast and loose. One ball, corner pocket. Yeah, percentage players die broke, too, don't they, Bert? How can I lose?" Fast Eddie Felson (the late Paul Newman) stated in 1961's The Hustler. That statement symbolized Newman's life and career until he died on September 26th.

Newman once described his motivations for choosing a film script based on a sensory reaction to the material. "Every time I get a script it's a matter of trying to know what I could do with it. I see colors, imagery. It has to have a smell. It's like falling in love. You can't give a reason why." No matter what film or subject matter, Newman's interest in his work never left the screen. His infamous blue eyes sparkled regardless of the type of trouble any of his characters were in such as being chased by the law in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He played a mixture of moral and amoral characters with the same zeal no matter what.

Let's take a look back on the career of a prolific and talented actor who lived as if everyday was an adventure. Here are listing of twelve of Newman's most memorable film roles and three additional films worth mentioning based on Newman‘s performance. Take some time to watch each one of these films and enjoy some samples from Newman's illustrious career.

The Best:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)- Newman's first film collaboration with Robert Redford. His idea filled Butch Cassidy played with Redford's nicely with a shoot first ask questions later Sundance. The film's infamous cliff jumping scene was unforgettable because the audience laughed with Newman over the ridiculousness of Sundance's cliff jumping fear. Another great film moment was when Newman's character took a bike ride with Katharine Ross' Etta Place set to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." Newman entertained Ross, and the audience, with some bicycle tricks. Every element of that film was perfect and cemented it as an instant classic for all time.

The Sting (1973)- Newman and Redford's second bite at the film collaboration apple, which was a resounding success. Both played con artists with revenge and a big score on their minds. Every moment of the movie was a perfectly tuned machine that set up for the film's biggest score of pleasing the audience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)- Newman played a young man named Brick plagued by demons of the past. His character's struggle to move on from his former football glory days were always ruined by a desire for alcohol and his father's plans for him. Newman's chemistry with Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie was undeniable every time the two of them fought another marital battle in the Tennessee Williams' classic. An enjoyable film despite the dark dramatic undertones of a family struggling for happiness.

The Hustler (1961)- Newman's first time as legendary hustler Fast Eddie Felson was one of Newman's best roles as a talented loser always near the bottom of the drain. Felson battled Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats for the title of pool shark glory. His character's arrogance was sharply undercut when Fats schooled him in the art of humility. The audience sympathized with Newman as he grew up after his devastating losses at pool, and life. No one had gotten to see if Felson learned anything from his mistakes until 1986s The Color of Money.

The Towering Inferno (1974)- Inferno functioned in a time where star filled disaster films reigned supreme. This film was a who's who of celebrities from various film periods such as Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway and William Holden. Despite the numerous special effects, the crux of the story revolved around Newman and Steve McQueen's fire chief as both characters dealt with a fire above and below ground. The film's length ran a little longer than it should've but the actors made up for it with panicked performances about whether they'll live to see tomorrow.

The Verdict (1982)- Verdict was a film Newman should've won an Oscar for as down on his luck attorney Frank Galvin. He took a medical malpractice case to trial in an effort to get justice for his client and revive his long dormant law career. Every courtroom scene illustrated Galvin's tenacity for success even when the odds were already stacked against him. The audience couldn't help but root for Newman no matter what the outcome was for the trial and for his character.

Road to Perdition (2002)- Perdition was more a Tom Hanks vehicle, but Newman stole the show as an aging gangster waging a war between his family and old age. Unfortunately, Newman's character never got what he wanted out of his business or his family. He only won the battle for power and ended up losing the war with his family. What a tragedy indeed.

Cars (2006)- Newman's last film featured him as Doc Hudson, an animated classic car, forced into a self induced exile from the racing world until a young hotshot crossed his path. Doc Hudson was persuaded to relive his racing days through the young upstart and even experienced crowd adulation when he returned to the track to help the young race car. This moment was an unforgettable one because it was a signoff to his fans for both Hudson and for Newman himself. A memorable way to conclude such a long standing career in film.

Slap Shot (1977)- A comedy of hockey rink proportions. This film showcased a funnier side to Newman as he played a coach/player to a losing hockey filled with colorful players such as the Hanson brothers. Enough said. For a while, those Hanson brothers stole a number of the film's scenes, but it was Newman that helped pull the film back to the story's core interest of becoming a winning team once again. Chaos never looked so funny.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)- "What we got here is ... failure to communicate" was a line best associated with this Newman classic where he played a rebellious prisoner who never walked away from a fight. Newman's Luke was a rebel with a cause to find freedom at any cost, especially with his own life. Despite having been defeated by the prison system, Newman's eyes never showed any signs of weakness even when he was being beaten by prison guards.

The Color of Money (1986)- This was the film that earned Newman his only acting Oscar and his second crack at playing Fast Eddie Felson from The Hustler. For the sequel, Newman was no longer the young hustler he once played 25 years prior. He paired up with another hustler played by Tom Cruise with the same type of brass that echoed Newman's character in his youth. Both men bond and spar over pool games, which led to a battle of pool table talent at the end of the film. Money might have only been reheated Hustler, but Newman's performance lifted this film from being straight sequel material.

Nobody's Fool (1994)- Newman played Sully, an older gentleman, with an interest in causing as much havoc he can in the small town he lived in. The film also carried a colorful cast of characters that included Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis and the late Jessica Tandy. Fool was one of Newman's many entertaining forays as an aging smart aleck, which he continued to play well despite having been done before in stronger films.

Honorable Mentions:

The Drowning Pool (1975)- The sequel to 1966's Harper involved a plethora of mystery clichés of murder, suspicion and pretty femme fatales. Newman's Harper was the PI thrust right in the middle of the madness and seemed to enjoy every minute of it, even when the trouble headed his way. The film featured a young Melanie Griffith as a troublemaking rich girl with a fondness for disaster and charming men. Pool was the type of film that got better with each viewing despite the audience already knowing the ending from the start.

Absence of Malice (1981)- Paul Newman. Sally Field. A battle of age, gender and innocence. Newman played a man falsely accused of a crime he didn't commit by a naïve reporter. Field matched Newman with every single look and verbal attack. The battle of the sexes was never so entertaining.

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990)- This film was a memorable one due to his onscreen chemistry with his long time wife Joanne Woodward. The off-screen pair played a long time married couple struggling with their marriage, bonding with their children and keeping up appearances in an ever changing society. The interplay between Newman and Woodward showed much more depth than each scene intended. Despite their protests, the Bridges loved each other regardless of the problems they shared.

In the end, Newman lived and worked on his own terms. He chose to do films that interested him and focused on giving back to the community through various charitable deeds. His death put an end to a great career that will live on for future generations interested in watching Newman's impressive film resume. Run to the local video store and choose which movies resonate the most before viewing. To paraphrase Fast Eddie Felson, never play it safe no matter what.

Newman and Taylor fight the heat between them in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Newman and Taylor fight the heat between them in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
Newman tries to control his team and his laughter in "Slapshot."
Newman tries to control his team and his laughter in "Slapshot."
Redford and Newman run from the law in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Redford and Newman run from the law in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

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      Larry 5 years ago

      Paul Newman, in my opinion, gave a stellar and memorable performance in Nobody's Fool. It was and still is my favorite movie of all time. Thank you for always giving your best and for the wonderful feelings you gave us with the characters you portrayed. To me, it was as though I was there and it all came to life. Thank you, thank you!

    • montecristo profile image

      Angel Caleb Santos 6 years ago from Hampton Roads, Virginia

      Great info. My favorite pic was the Hustler.