As 2008 draws to a close, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection of late. I’ve met presidents, movie stars, and countless others whom I have long admired, but in my 11-year career in journalism, it’s still my favorite story to tell. My guess is it will always be.
Back in 2000, I was working for a local newspaper in Westchester County, and assigned a special task of writing the cover story of a program for the first ever Stamford, CT-based Director’s View Film Festival. The newspaper was somehow affiliated with the Fest (I don’t recall why or how but it doesn’t matter), and I was asked to write the biographies of legendary filmmakers Robert Benton and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. For the two biographies, I interviewed Benton himself, Mankiewicz’s filmmaker son, and many others. I had been given several phone numbers of high-profile actors who had appeared in both filmmakers’ films, but only one actor replied. It was the greatest one of all time: Paul Newman. The story begins there.
For roughly a week, I had been informed by his representatives that Mr. Newman would be calling to discuss both Benton, for whom he’d appeared in a number of films for (notably Nobody’s Fool, which remains one of my favorite films ever), and Mankiewicz, a filmmaker he had long admired. For me, I remember doubting he’d ever bother to call. One night, however, I was sitting at my wife (then girlfriend’s) dinner table with her, her sister, and mother and my cell phone rang. It was a blocked number so I had thought it was a wrong number or something so I let it go. Roughly ten minutes later, my mom called shrieking. “Paul Newman called!” Yes, Paul Newman had tried me first on my cell, and then tried me at home. At the time, I was living with my parents and I never told either one that arguably the most famous actor ever would be calling. Sure enough, he called, and the dialogue between Mr. Blue Eyes and my mom went something like this:
“Hello is Jon Chattman there?”
“The Paul Newman?”
“Wow! This is his mother. I love you.”
OK, it didn’t exactly go like that but it was close. Needless to say, I was horrified. I lashed out at my mother instantly calling her a “cheerleader” and saying he’d never call back despite saying he’d try phoning me later that evening because he thought I or my mom was some crazy fan. Anyway, I raced home after hurting my mother’s feelings, and the phone didn’t ring all night. At roughly 10:30 p.m., however, he called back. I told him how much I admired him (I actually had a Nobody’s Fool poster staring me in the face as I spoke to him over the phone), and after about 15 minutes of Newman talking about the filmmaking process and Benton and Mankiewicz’s different approaches to their craft, I heard a voice coming in on the other end. It was Joanne Woodward, his longtime loving wife. At that point, Newman told me “the lady’s calling” or something to that effect. We both laughed, and I thanked him for his time. I told him again what a pleasure it was, and yes, apologized for my mother. “I’m sorry my mom acted like a cheerleader before,” I remember saying to him. He laughed and quickly replied, “That’s quite alright.”
Newman was my first real movie star interview, but it was so much more than that. For me, it made me realize just how far I had come at the time. (Substitute teaching just a year prior to credible journalist interviewing an Oscar winner — not too shabby). The exchange of Newman and my mom, my subsequent lashing of my mother, and ultimately his conversation with me is etched in my mind forever.
The news of his passing still saddens me deeply. The actor/sometimes filmmaker brought so much to cinema. His performances are etched into history just like that conversation is in mine. I personally thank him for his body of work, his bottomless dedication to charity and above all else, calling me and my mom.