The Extraordinary Life of An Ordinary Man – by Paul Newman – independent book review – Memoir

This is as close we will ever get to an autobiography of the legendary actor-director-race car driver and humanitarian, Paul Newman (1925-2008). He of the spectacular blue eyes. Awarded four stars on Goodreads, but that might be a bit generous. I’m a lifelong fan too.

But THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN isn’t exactly an autobiography. It’s close. Here’s how it came about. 

About 20 years before he died at the age of 83, Paul Newman partnered up with friend and screenwriter Stewart Stern (writer of Rebel Without A Cause), intending to write an autobiography. Newman was extensively interviewed by Stern and those interviews were transcribed. Stern also interviewed many friends, colleagues, and family members. Altogether, this research phase lasted five years. Then both Newman and Stern stopped. 

Were they overwhelmed by the amount of material? Did Newman lose his urge to publish? Did someone close to him object? Who knows? But the project was not finished. 

Then, about ten years AFTER Newman died in 2008, in an old family storage unit, producer Emily Wachtel (who was then working on a six-part TV miniseries The Last Movie Stars) found the transcripts, all fourteen thousand pages. She suggested that something be done with them.

Though the original tapes were long gone, Newman’s family, now past the initial pain of their grief, agreed that Newman’s original project should be completed, with editing help from David Rosenthal. One of Newman’s three daughters with Joanne Woodward, Melissa, wrote an Introduction. Another daughter Clea wrote an Afterword. 

This isn’t your typical Hollywood memoir. There’s much more introspection. Which is partly why I found most of the book quite interesting. Because it focuses on Newman’s own interest in figuring himself out. Many will be surprised to discover he was actually a deeply insecure, often self-loathing, remote man who yearned for intimacy and, at the same time, did everything in his power to run from it. It’s quite a frank book where Newman is open about the advantages and disadvantages of his exceptional looks. And also examines deeply personal issues — his distant and sometimes cruel parents, his own infidelity and alcoholism, and the early death of his eldest child, Scott.

At the end I do feel I understand more of who he was. Particularly with the interspersed insights from family, friends, and colleagues. The feeling I am left with is that Newman was a deeply sad human being– despite his looks, professional success, wealth, loving family, and extensive philanthropic work. Despite appearances, nobody really does have it all. 

More about Paul Newman.

You may be interested in my review of a related book, a biography PAUL NEWMAN, A LIFE by Shawn Levy.


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