My Pal Paul Newman

The legendary actor loved playing practical jokes on everyone from Robert Redford to Robert Altman. In an exclusive excerpt from his new memoir, A.E. Hotchner shares some hilarious memoirs from his half-century friendship with Newman.

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One of the things that nurtured our friendship was the fact that we didn’t take ourselves seriously. Or each other. We were both in unrealistic make-believe professions. As a fiction writer and playwright, I indulged my memories and my fantasies; the more unbuttoned my imagination, the more successful the fantasy. Paul always maintained that the best actors, including himself, were the ones who preserved the child within them, performing as they do with makeup and costumes and toy guns and all the other make-believes of their childhoods. Certainly his performance as Butch Cassidy doing his giddy acrobatics on that bicycle, over-dynamiting the train’s safe with money raining down on everyone’s head, staging bank hold-ups in Bolivia while struggling with the language; eating all those eggs in Cool Hand Luke; the phony card game in The Sting; handling the puck in Slap Shot; nabbing the bad guys in Fort Apache the Bronx; all examples of Paul’s ability to make juvenile fantasies movie realities.

Paul and Robert Redford had a collegial but prickly relationship as illustrated by their exchange of practical jokes.

To keep himself loose and pliable and imbued with the mischievousness that nourished him, Paul often resorted to practical jokes. George Roy Hill told me about one of several practical jokes that Paul directed at him. During the filming of Slap Shot, George said that Paul staged a fake car crash with himself behind the wheel of one of the wrecked cars, causing George to race to the crash site fearful of what it did to Paul, who emerged with a big smile on his face. It was George’s refusal to stand a round of drinks for the crew (George was a notorious tightwad) that motivated Paul to stage that car crash.

Another joke that Paul pulled on George occurred during the filming of Butch Cassidy. Paul had tried to convince George to make some changes in a particular scene, but George was intractable. To get even, Paul had George’s desk sawed in half— causing it to collapse in George’s lap when he sat down to it. Paul duped George for a third time when he was directing The Sting. This joke was occasioned by George’s refusal to consider an alternate ending Paul had proposed. When photography ended and George left the wrap party to get his car, he found that his new Chevy had been cut in half. George ignored the ruptured Chevy, calmly picked up the phone and called a cab to take him to his hotel. When he got there, Paul was standing at the entrance dangling a set of keys, which he handed to George. A gleaming new sports car stood at the curb.

“Here’s your new car, George,” Paul said. “You needed an upgrade.”

Paul pulled identical practical jokes on two of his directors: John Huston during the making of The MacIntosh Man and Otto Preminger while directing Exodus. In the case of MacIntosh Man, after Huston paid no intention to Paul’s lengthy list of script suggestions, with the cameras turning and Paul performing an active scene 60 feet above ground, Paul hurled a lookalike dummy through a window that landed on the ground below with a thud, causing Huston to yell “Cut!” and race to the scene.

The same joke was even more effective when Paul sprung it on Otto Preminger during a pivotal scene in Exodus. Preminger, a humorless, vindictive man, had not only rejected Paul’s list of script suggestions, he had also lectured Paul on why an actor’s suggestions were never helpful. In a pivotal scene, Paul was engaged in a bloody fight on the top balcony of a high-rise building when a perfect lookalike dummy was adroitly substituted for Paul during the fight. The script called for Paul to knock out the villain. But now Preminger, directing from a unit on the ground, saw the villain knock Paul’s dummy off the balcony, causing it to spin downward, landing with an ominous splat. Preminger was so shaken he collapsed and required first aid.

Paul and Robert Redford had a collegial but prickly relationship as illustrated by their exchange of practical jokes. Redford fired the first salvo when, as a birthday present for Paul, he had a junkyard Porsche, sans wheels and fenders, put in Paul’s driveway with a big blue ribbon around it.

Paul showed me the pathetic Porsche and then described his plan of reprisal. He had engaged a compacting company to pick up the Porsche and turn it into a metal lump. Paul had located the real-estate agent who had brokered Redford’s Westport, Connecticut, house. In exchange for an autographed picture, the broker opened Redford’s front door for the compactors, who deposited the Porsche lump in the middle of Redford’s living room with Redford’s blue ribbon securely around it.

I had dinner one evening with Paul and Robert Altman, who had directed him in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. They reminisced about the good times they had making the film, drinking beer, smoking a little pot and improvising on camera.

Altman also described how one of Paul’s practical jokes had backfired. During filming, Paul had snuck 300 live chickens into Altman’s trailer to greet him when he returned that evening. Altman did not return, however, but spent the night elsewhere. By the time he did return the following day, the 300 chickens had suffocated in the heat, and the clinging putrification of the dead chickens necessitated replacing Altman’s trailer with a new one at Paul’s expense.

There was one practical joke, however, that Paul directed at Altman that did pay off. Altman had hosted a dinner for Paul and other members of the cast and had served a very cheap wine that was barely drinkable.

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The following day, a goat was delivered to Altman on the set of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, interrupting the filming. The goat had this note attached to the collar around his neck, a note that was read aloud: “Dear Bob, Since what you serve at dinner is goat piss you may as well have a goat handy.”

Excerpted from Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner Copyright © 2010 by A.E. Hotchner. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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A. E. Hotchner is the author of the international bestsellers Papa Hemingway, Doris Day: Her Own Story, Sophia, and his own memoir, King of the Hill. He has adapted many of Hemingway's works for the screen.