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  Resident, September 9-15, 1997

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Newman’s Own


It's noon on August 26 and a late-summer heat wave has descended on the city, sapping the vigor from the crowds that normally bustle along the "museum mile." People drag themselves down Fifth Avenue looking rumpled and fatigued.

But inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tourists and native New Yorkers appear animated as they move through the marble interior. The air-conditioning and the prospect of beautiful art has restored their energy. Something else, however, is responsible for their behavior. Paul Newman is in the house, making a public service commercial for something he feels passionate about, public support for the arts.

Newman's back is to the balcony that overlooks the Great Hall of the Met. He leans on his elbows, which rest on a balustrade, and mouths his lines. His legendary blue eyes penetrate the middle distance, their focus unwavering. He seems undisturbed by stares from fans that circle the perimeter of the set. The skin around his jawline and neck is still taut, revealing those great bones. His frame is wiry-strong, not an ounce of fat in sight. He's wearing a close-cropped mustache, lending him a stately air, and he's dressed casually in olive-drab pants, a beige long-sleeved cotton shirt, and tan boating shoes--he makes 72 look good.

Waiting for his cue from the director, who looms above the actor on a crane, Newman takes pause to marvel at the 17th Century marble sculpture before him, Perseus With The Head of Medusa. As Perseus used guile and cunning to achieve his goal, so is Newman about to use his acumen in pursuit of his mission.

"Amazing!" Newman says, looking into the lens of the rolling camera. "Five million, three hundred thousand people came in the last year to this one museum. That's more than went to see the Mets, the Jets, Giants, Yankees. The Knicks, Nets, Rangers. More people came here than went to see all of them combined."

As it booms up, the camera reframes to include the nude statue--being careful to avoid Perseus’s private parts. Newman’s eyes track up the statue. He then acknowledges the lens, taking his final adjustment with a trademark wink. "Public funding for the arts!" he says, setting up his money line. "It’s a small price to pay for beauty"—it’s a line that worked for him 28 years ago as Butch Cassidy, it still works for him today.

This is one of three public service announcements Newman shot at the Met and will begin running the week of September 15. The commercials are sponsored by the American Arts Alliance, a nationwide consortium of nonprofit arts organizations.

Offstage, a production assistant hands Newman a bottle of water. "What's this?" he asks. The PA responds, "Water." The star says, "God, I haven't touched this stuff since '58." He laughs, as does the PA and all the crew within earshot, but it seems his allusion goes over the heads of the youthful crew. In the distant past, Newman's beverage of choice was beer--you hardly ever saw him without one. Now he has traded in his can of beer for a Sprite, and a healthy salad for his midday meal.

Between takes Newman talks shop with his friend and business associate Steve Nevas, who contributed to the writing of the ads. Newman is pantomiming a race car driving maneuver, shifting gears and holding an imaginary steering wheel. "You know, some of the great NASCAR drivers, ones that have been around a long time like Dale Earnhart, are getting knocked off by young hard-chargers. It's the same in the film business," he says, looking down at the crowd as if he just spotted Brad Pitt. "Every time you look over your shoulder you get a new crop of guys breathing down your neck," he says with mock concern.

Newman does a few more takes, trying to make it perfect. He walks over to the viewing monitor to see how it looks and to confer with the producer. Some of the crew still seem a little uptight around him, a little in awe of the icon. He gently grabs the arm of the script supervisor passing by, pulls her over to the monitor, saying, "I think I should say something to the effect: 'Today, I am wearing my museum shoes.' What do you think?" he asks pointing to his slightly grandpa-like shoes. He likes to keep the mood light.

Having nailed the spot, Newman checks his watch, eager to move on to the next two commercials. He has already used up thirty minutes of the two hours he has available to do the PSAs. He has just spent his vacation at Hole In The Wall, his camp for children with terminal illnesses; and this morning, he has driven down from Williamstown, MA, where his wife, Joanne Woodward, is directing a play. After the shoot, he has a recording session, and, then, dinner with friends.

As Newman and the crew move away to the next location in the American Wing of the museum, they leave Perseus alone to welcome the next 5,300,000 visitors.

 

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