Redford and Newman:
The death of Paul Newman was a loss on the level of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Sure, there was none of the tragic circumstances or consequences for Newman. Paul got to live much more of his life than the great civil rights leader. But the vacuum that remains, to this day, from both of their exits, speaks volumes about their respective impacts while they were alive. Both their legacies carry on well after their deaths.
The fact that Paul Newman and Robert Redford never did a third movie together should go down as perhaps Hollywood’s blackest hour. These two icons, which both rejected the silliness, vapidity and ethically-challenged life of Los Angeles for Connecticut and Utah, respectively, were as close to symbiotic on screen as any two actors in the history of film. And this was established in only two films, albeit two great films. Theirs was more than simple chemistry. You could know nothing about the men off-screen, yet after watching The Sting or Butch Cassidy, you would know these actors were good friends once the director yelled “Cut!”.
Newman’s death at the age of 83 four years ago was not unexpected. He’d been suffering from lung cancer and for his final five months, was confined to a wheel chair, occasionally sporting a thin clear tube tethered to an oxygen tank. Though he’d quit his heavy smoking habit almost thirty years prior to his death, he obviously never escaped the ultimate fate of most smokers.
Nonetheless, his absence creates in film the same aching chasm of regret created by the assassination of former Beatle John Lennon.
There will never be another original Beatles concert, and there will never be another Newman – Redford film.
If Paul and Robert had been given the gift of clairvoyance and been able to schedule a final Happy Hour session together, what would have been the mood? Maudlin? Caustic barbs offhandedly lobbed, grenade-like, to deflect the pain? Sentimental? All of the above?
Let’s find out. Movie dialogue is in italics.
(some of what follows is true)
September 27, 2007…Tavern on Main, Downtown Westport, CT.
When Robert Redford walked into the bar, he was apprehensive. Though Paul Newman had assured him no one would bother him, Redford was skeptical. But he walked straight to the long oak bar with its backdrop of tiered bottles in front of a mirror, the reflection like the skyline of a beautiful city.
The bartender was a brunette, fortyish and stylishly clad in a tuxedo. The muted music slipping from unseen speakers was Tony Bennett, and his mind was quickly put at ease by the woman behind the bar as she placed an ice-filled rocks glass in front of him, produced his favorite, and hard to find, gin from somewhere behind her, and poured him a drink with an understated flourish.
Paul had told him he would call ahead to alert the bar.
“Thank you. Are you Aubrey?” Redford asked, reaching for and sliding a gnarled cardboard coaster over and placing the drink on it.
She grinned broadly and nodded at him and said, “Paul called earlier. Told us you liked Boodles. The manager went out and bought a couple of bottles.”
He nodded, grinning. That was Paul, he thought.
“We spoke earlier, I’m Bob. Did you get what I asked for?”
“I know who you are, Mr. Redford. And yes, they’re shelled and in a big bowl in the walk-in.”
“And the other stuff?”
“All taken care of, Mr. Redford.”
“Please call me Bob. And would you bring them out and put them right here in front of his stool?”
“Of course.” She went down the bar, turned left at the end and disappeared, reappearing a moment later with a foil covered bowl. She brought it back down the bar and placed it where he had asked, removing the foil. In the bowl were 50 hard boiled eggs.
“I’ll do my best to stay out of your way this evening. There is a bar menu, and a regular dinner menu. Both are available right here at the bar. If any customers get intrusive, we’ve made arrangements to subtly intervene. Paul has told us how important this is to him.”
“Oh really.” Redford sipped his drink. “Good. It means a lot to me, too.”
She extended her hand. They shook. “I’m a huge fan of yours, but here we love Paul like he’s family. We’re all saddened by what’s happened.”
Redford nodded. This was not the direction he wanted things to go.
“Well, tonight is about old friends and new laughs. Old stories and creating new memories.” Jesus, he thought, I sound like a fucking Hallmark card.
“What I mean is, Aubrey, I don’t think Paul or I want to focus on his illness.”
”Of course,” she answered, duly chastened. “Please, Mr. Redford, uh, Bob, let me know if you need anything. Paul is always on time. He should be here shortly.”
“Thank you.” She nodded and moved down the bar where a young couple sat on the two corner stools. Both looked down at the famous blonde actor, wide-eyed. Bob felt safe knowing Aubrey would be running interference.
At exactly 5pm, in through the double window-paned doors came America’s greatest living actor. He paused as the doors hissed quietly closed behind him, letting his eyes adjust to the dim lighting.
He was gaunt and pale, but his eyes contained the life of ten men. The baby blues that made female heart rates double were still what people saw first. Here was Butch Cassidy, Fast Eddie Felson, Henry Gondorf, Frank Galvin and Luke no- last-name-necessary all rolled into one man, with the character of Churchill and the humility of Christ.
And he was dying.
Bob got up and walked over to Paul and they embraced wordlessly.
They walked slowly with arms around each others waist to the bar. Bob helped him up onto the stool facing the bowl of eggs.
From the other end, Aubrey watched with a wide grin on her face. She began making Paul’s drink.
Once seated, Paul stared for a couple of seconds at the bowl in front of him. A grin appeared, and then he began to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Bob joined in.
Aubrey slid Paul’s tall Johnnie Walker Black and soda in front of him and moved the bowl of eggs off to the side and watched, bemused, as both men continued to laugh.
Finally, Bob nodded at Aubrey and she removed the bowl of eggs.
Newman raised his glass toward his friend.
“Here’s to tonight, and why the hell haven’t we done this more often?”
They touched glasses and drank.
Paul stared at him for a moment. “You look different.”
“Nope. Same me. Older, maybe. How long’s it been? Four years?”
Paul nodded. “You mind if I get a couple things off my chest before we get started?”
“Sure, but we’ve already started. You’re one practical joke behind, my friend.”
Paul smiled. “Yeah, sure. The night is young, blonde boy. You think I showed up here, on my home court, with an unloaded gun? Without a plan? Anyway, I got some things I need to say. First, thanks for the eggs. I haven’t laughed like that in over a year. I needed it. Second, today was a doctor visit day. Assessment time. He tells me, with a straight face, I got six months to live, maybe a year at the outside.”
Bob takes a long pull on his drink and slides the empty glass toward the attentive Aubrey.
“Ok,” he says, evenly. They eye each other. Paul sips his scotch and soda.
“So I say to my doc, I say, how come, after I quit smoking thirty years ago, I’m still gonna die from lung cancer?”
Bob picks up his fresh drink and sips it.
“My doc just shrugs his shoulders, says ‘If you hadn’t a quit then, you’d a died 20 years ago’. Smug fucker.”
“How are you feeling, now?”
“To be honest, other than some days it being hard to catch my breath, I’m alright. Today is a good day. Thank god, cause laughing at those fucking eggs might have been the death of me.”
“Can think of worse ways to go.”
”Indeed. Confession time.” His words suddenly rushed out, as if regurgitating them. “I love my wife. I’ve always loved my wife. But I haven’t always been faithful. You’re the only person besides Hotch I ever told this to.”
“It’ll be our secret. Don’t worry. Why are you telling me this now?”
“Death bed confession?”
“Shit, hardly. Why?”
“Because I just told Joanne about an hour ago. And she took it without a hitch. She was fine about it, said she knew about it all these years.”
“Again, then why are you telling me, now?”
“Open your eyes, Brubaker. She let me off the hook. I need you to make me feel bad. Otherwise all this guilt goes to waste.”
“You’re barking up the wrong tree. I didn’t come 2000 miles to make you feel bad. How is that irascible SOB, Hotchner, anyway?”
Paul sighed and shrugged his shoulders. So much for confessions.
“The same. Still thinks he’s going down in history as the best friend of all time. First Hemingway, now me.”
Redford laughed. “It is an impressive resume.”
“SOB does everything in moderation. Probably live to be 150. I hate him.”
“Yeah, I know the type. Got any more confessions?”
“None of any import. What, my dying and infidelity aren’t substantive enough?”
“I can speak well, dickhead. I just sometimes choose to sound a little rough around the edges. I’ve earned that.”
“Yes you have. You hungry?”
”Nah, not yet. But thirsty.” Paul took a swallow of his drink.
“Do you mind if we talk some ‘shop’, then?” Bob could think of no smooth subtle way to ease into discussing their craft, something they rarely if ever did.
“Usually yes, but with you, not at all.”
Redford pointed to Paul’s now empty glass and nodded at Aubrey. She sprung into action. She was positioned just far enough away to hear most of the discussion but not appear invasive. She was not going to pass up this historic opportunity.
Once plied with a fresh drink, Paul raised it toward his friend.
“Do more than exist, live.
Do more than touch, feel.
Do more than look, observe.
Do more than read, absorb.
Do more than hear, listen.
Do more than think, ponder.
Do more than talk, say something.
May you live as long as you want,
but never want as long as you live.”
With a simultaneous nod of acknowledgment, both men drank.
Bob had lip synched the final verse along with Paul. “God love the Irish. That toast is one of my favorites. Do you know, Paul, you told me that back during The Sting?”
“Really? I don’t remember that.”
“Yup. Never forgot it. Even looked up who said it, hoping it was someone I knew or liked or had read.”
“I don’t even know who said it. So?” Paul’s eyebrows rose, revealing the most famous blue eyes in the history of Hollywood.
“Sheila Murray Bethel.”
Paul shifted gears quickly. “Hey Hooker, you care about leaving a legacy?”
“My kids are a legacy. But you don’t mean that, do you?”
“No. I mean on film.”
“I didn’t use to. In fact, I scoffed at the idea. But, yeah. I’m in my 70s now. It’s no longer cool to pretend I don’t give a shit about something I’ve given most of my adult life to.”
“We were once considered rebels, weren’t we?” Paul asked wistfully.
”I think so. Truth be told, we became more rebellious once we changed our focus from making movies to things like the environment and politics. And in your case, charity.”
Paul nodded, staring into his glass.
Bob continued. “But, I no longer consider my film legacy a yoke of mediocrity that I’ll be forced to wear into my coffin. I’ve done some real good work.”
“You have, haven’t you?”
“Yes, and some of my best was done with, and because of, you.”
“You scared of dyin’, Bob?”
”Right down to my socks, buster.”
“Nice pull. Doyle Lonnegan. He did represent death in a way, didn’t he?”
“That’s as good an analogy as any. Shaw sure played that part to the hilt. Just great stuff.”
”Yeah he did.”
Paul leaned back in his stool and looked at the ceiling. A fan twirled slowly. The Sting seemed three lifetimes ago, and just may have been. He’d noticed both he and Redford had dressed similarly. Jeans, loafers, dress shirt and knee-length black overcoats. Both wool coats were slung over the backs of their stools, the hems dragging on the ground. Preppy never looked so distinguished.
“After we did The Sting, did you think we’d work together again?” Paul was going over the expansive list in his mind of all the questions, over all the years and beers, that
he’d failed to ask his best friend.
“Of course. I think we should have pooled all our resources to get back on screen together. Somehow. Somewhere. Why the fuck didn’t we?”
Paul shook his head sadly.
“We had too much shit going on outside of L.A. You in Utah, me in Connecticut. My racing, your politics. Sundance Film Festival, Hole in the Wall Camps. The environment for you, salad dressing for me. Good causes, all. But they may have kept us apart.”
“Those are shitty excuses, if you ask me. Paul, we still made movies. Lots of ‘em. Hell, I got one coming out this year, for christ sake.”
“Never saw a script that would do us justice. Did you?”
“No. So why didn’t we write one ourselves?”
“Good fucking question. Why didn’t we?”
It was Bob’s turn to lean back in his stool. This was a sensitive subject for him. His biggest regret professionally was not working with Paul after The Sting. He’d never told his friend this. He got down from the stool and stood leaning on the bar, sliding the stool back out of the way with his loafer so there was nothing between them.
“Paul, do you think we were ambivalent about working together again?”
”God no. I wasn’t. Were you?”
“I didn’t use to think so but damn, if you and I couldn’t make it happen…I mean it’s been 34 years.”
“Remember that Duvall flick, ‘Wrestling With Ernest Hemingway’?”
“Yeah. I never saw it, but I’ve always loved Bob’s work.”
Paul sighed. “I was given that script. It needed some work, sure, but it was the closest I’d seen to a vehicle that might sustain us both. Remember the synopsis?”
“I know it verbatim: ‘Two lonely, retired septuagenarians; an unkempt, hard-drinking Irish sea captain, and a fussy, well-mannered Cuban barber form an uneasy friendship’.”
Bob turned and looked at him as he slid his stool back to the bar and sat down. There eyes met for a full minute. Aubrey was mesmerized as the two legends exchanged dialogue with nary a word uttered. Something both of them could do as well as anyone.
It was Bob who broke the silence. “I can’t see you as Cuban. Or well-mannered. Fussy, yes.”
“And I can’t see you as Irish, or unkempt. Hard drinking, yes.”
“What, Jeremiah Johnson had manicures and pedicures given to him by wolves?” Bob always hated the neat, fastidious reputation he’d attained.
Paul grinned. “We could have done that film. I saw it. It stunk. Duvall did his best, but he had no one to play off of. Richard Harris was miscast. It could have been the best bitter buddy flick of all time. Maybe ‘Grumpiest Old Men’. And think about it, ‘two lonely septuagenarians’? That’s hardly a stretch for either of us. Practically typecasting.”
“When was that film?”
Paul shook his head sadly. “1993. We could have done it. Aren’t you curious why I didn’t make it happen?”
“I asked for freedom to change the script. Randa Haines, the Director, said no.”
“I know her. She was a member of the jury at Sundance one year. Maybe ’87.”
“So, if I’d have brought you in on it, think we could have made it happen?”
“Randa would have been crazy to turn it down. And she was not crazy. Do you know she directed “Children of a Lesser God”?”
Paul nodded. “Yes. But Bob, I never even dropped your name. If I had, it might have changed everything.”
“Are you looking for regrets? That’s water way under the bridge. Let it go.”
”I can’t let regrets go. In fact, the closer I get to the ground, the more they seem to crop up out of the soil.”
“I would imagine that’s inevitable. But wouldn’t it be fair to go through this assessment you seem to be going through by acknowledging that your life, if weighed by the scales of justice, would come out far ahead on the good side?”
“That’s not as easy as you think.”
“Doesn’t make it impossible.”
“Let’s move on. Or back. Your favorite flick of all time?”
“You mean one of my own?”
”No, one that you weren’t in, in fact. Egomaniac.”
Bob laughed and thought, sipped his drink, and thought some more.
“What if it IS one that I was in?”
“Well, then that might be the very definition of ‘pompous’.”
They both grinned.
From behind them, and unknown to both men, the double doors were pushed silently inward and in walked a slight woman, auburn haired, who immediately shed a long white leather rain coat and handed it to the hostess. She paused and scanned the bar. Upon closer inspection, she looked almost exactly like Barbra Streisand’s character in ‘The Way We Were’; Katie Morosky, the fearless activist who stole Hubbell Gardiner’s heart.
Paul turned and caught her eye and winked. She immediately strode toward the two icons.
“Bob, I’ve invited a friend of yours. You may remember her.”
As Bob turned around, the young woman placed both her hands on his shoulders and kissed him on the mouth. She leaned back and said, “Wouldn't it be lovely if we were old? We'd have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated; the way it was when we were young.”
Paul had decided on the line from the movie. It was a test.
Bob was stunned. The woman looked eerily like Barbra. Paul had found her at the Center Stage Theatre Company in town. Once he saw her, he knew what he had to do.
“Katie,” Bob replied, “it was never uncomplicated.”
The woman stepped back, no longer touching him. She put her hands on her hips, her tight red dress hugging curves that, even in his prime, Paul’s driving couldn’t navigate.
She tilted her head and pushed her heavily sprayed hair in slightly on the left side with the palm of her hand. “I was too easy, wasn’t I?”
Bob replied in perfect synch, “You think you're easy? Compared to what, the ‘Hundred Years' War’? “
Paul burst out laughing. “Excellent. Cut!”
The woman fell out of character and gave Bob a lingering hug.
“Thanks sweetheart. You were fabulous,” Paul said, handing her a thick envelope. She curtsied to the two men and went and retrieved her coat and left the restaurant.
Fatuously, Paul picked up his glass and emptied it, turning to Bob, “That would make us even, Hubbell.”
Bob, still grinning from ear to ear, could only nod his head and gesture to Aubrey.
“Another round, please.” Turning to Paul, he continued, “Not bad for an octogenarian Match Box driver.”
“Shit, you may have adjusted well on the fly there, but initially you needed a double helping of Depends.”
Aubrey placed the new drinks in front of them. “That was hilarious guys.”
“Tip of the ice berg, Miss Aubrey. Can we buy you one?”
“Of course. I’m a vodka girl.” She poured herself a Ketel One on the rocks and silently toasted with the two legends. This was an evening she would never forget. “Thanks for the drink, guys.” She moved on up the bar, sipping her drink and grinning like a lottery winner.
“You hungry yet?”
”What are you, on commission?” Paul snapped. But he thought for a moment and nodded. “Lets’ get a couple of appetizers.”
The smaller of the two leather bound menus contained an almost exhaustive list of small dishes. There were Tapas and some stalwarts one might find anywhere in the country.
Paul finished his brief once-over and handed it to Bob.
“Aubrey,” Bob called out to the pretty bartender. She looked up from slicing lemons. He mouthed the word ‘music’ to her, and she grinned, nodded and went back around the corner.
To distract Paul, he asked him what was good from the menu.
“All the apps are first rate. I like the braised fennel sausage on skewers with onions and peppers.”
“That sounds good. What about the filet mignon stuffed cabbage rolls?”
”Excellent as well. That should hold us for a while.”
Just as Aubrey reappeared, Paul gestured to her with the menu. She approached. Before Paul could speak, B.J. Thomas crooned soothingly over the sound system. There was a speaker directly above them.
“Raindrops keep fallin’ on your head…”
Paul looked at Bob and smiled, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He ordered the two appetizers and watched as Aubrey hurried off toward the kitchen.
“You were riding that damn bike with Katherine in this scene, remember? I hated this song. There was NO RAIN in the scene. It made no sense.” In spite of the incongruousness of the song, that scene was Bob’s favorite.
“It worked though, didn’t it?” And Paul gave him the same one-eyed wink he made famous as Butch Cassidy, before quoting, “You can see I’m right, can’t ya?”
Bob nodded. This was fun.
“So why are you mixing the good stuff, the Black Label, with soda?”
“What, you want me to get drunk so you can make me look bad?”
“Shit, too late for that. Already happened in both our movies.”
“Which, drunk or looking bad?”
“Hey, blondie, we both know Butch faced his fears. Sundance was a pussy and a neurotic.”
“Butch got over his fear about killing people by shooting the Bolivian bandits. You were so scared, you couldn’t shoot anybody unless you were prancing around like a fairy.”
“Bailed your ass out more than once. That card player was gonna put more holes in you than a colander.”
“Like I said, over the hill”. They both laughed.
Paul put his hand on Bob’s shoulder. “So, your favorite movie that isn’t one of yours?”
Bob thought about it. Ironically, he hadn’t been asked that question for years. Thankfully.
“You know these types of questions are subjective as hell, Paul. What I feel now might be different tomorrow.”
“Yeah, yeah. I may not be here tomorrow. Answer the damn question.”
“The English Patient.”
“VERY interesting. Why?”
“Because it’s the best depiction of a love-hate relationship between a man and a woman that I have ever seen.”
“Wow. That’s almost sagacious. You shoulda been in films. Wanna know mine?”
They both guffawed so loudly and abruptly that it alarmed Aubrey. Bob put his hand up, palm out, to reassure her.
Finally, Bob caught his breath and said, “That bomb should have been SET ablaze.”
Paul couldn’t stop laughing, but spoke anyway, haltingly. “My worst film, hands down. What the fuck was I thinking?”
Bob could only nod his head. “I’ve had more than my share of clunkers.”
“Oh, I know you have, Bagger Vance. Talk about a double bogey.”
Again, they both laughed.
“But,” Paul said, “your directing efforts have been incredible, and I’m not one prone to hyperbole. You don’t have even a mediocre one in the bunch. Starting with your first one, Ordinary People, which you won your only fucking Oscar for. And then River Runs Through It, Quiz Show, Horse Whisperer. Damn, you kick my ass right there.”
“Come on Paul. First of all, I directed Bagger Vance. And Milagro Beanfield. Both of those aspire to be mediocre.”
“Oh, I forgot you directed those.”
“I wish I could forget.”
“Bob, what was your personal favorite, of your own movies?”
“That’s easy. There are two of them, actually. ‘Out of Africa’ and ‘An Unfinished Life’. I was fascinated by the Dennis Finch character; he was more like me than anybody I ever played.”
“I loved both of those. Nice choices. You and Meryl chewed up the scenery in Africa. You had one of my favorite lines in that movie. You and Meryl arguing over commitment in her living room. She says, ‘I won’t allow it.’ You reply, ‘You have no idea the effect that language has on me’. Very powerful. And ‘Unfinished’? What a sleeper of a movie. You, J-Lo and Morgan Freeman. It all worked magically. Three people, all with a linked, tragic back story, coming together to battle a bear. Art imitating life.”
“That means a lot to me. That you know so much about my movies.”
“The reason I’m curious about this stuff is, of course we were good in Sting and Butch. But films like that tend to obfuscate some other really good work. Great, defining movies can be a curse.”
“Yes they can. And though neither of those films was close to my best work, they may have been the most fun to make. And the reason for that is right here on his, what, third Scotch and soda?”
“Nobody likes a counter.”
“You’re just pissed because I still can count. Ok, Paul, what’s your personal sleeper?”
“My own film?”
“That’s also easy. ‘Nobody’s Fool’.”
Shockingly, Bob said the title at the same time Paul did.
“I loved that movie, Paul. You brought out the best acting Bruce Willis ever did, before or after.”
“And I got a full two seconds to look at a pair of tits that would’ve startled a moose, when Melanie Griffith raised her sweatshirt.”
“There was that, yes. One of the modern day inspirations for the pause button.”
“That film was easy. Even though he was, ostensibly, my adversary, I felt like Bruce was my son. I channeled Scott through him, which helped create that whole bittersweet thing Bruce and I had going. And it wasn’t a lot of work to play a broken-down, aging lonely guy.”
“What do you think that means, that we both agree on our underrated films?”
Paul shook his head. “Weird. I guess we’ve been following each other more than we realized.”
Bob got up. “Or were willing to admit. Where’s the head in this gin joint?”
Paul pointed and Bob left him sitting at the bar. Paul ordered another round from Aubrey. When she brought the two glasses, she said “I loved you in ‘Message in a Bottle’, Paul. It was similar to ‘Nobody’s Fool’. You in the ‘damaged father’ role.”
He winked and grinned at her. “Probably typecasting. Thanks Aubrey, I think. That was fun to make. Costner is a real pro.”
“Your appetizers will be right up.”
As Bob approached the bar, he stood behind Paul and waited, hands on hips.
Paul finally sensed he was back there and slowly twisted on his stool to face him.
Bob tried to look disgusted. “The great Henry Gondorf.”
Paul chuckled. “You gonna sit and have a snack, ‘or do ya already know how to eat?’”
Just as Bob sat, two plates of still steaming food were put in front of the men. “Careful boys, it’s hot,” Aubrey said unnecessarily.
Bob’s wink got Aubrey’s attention and he turned away from Paul and pantomimed playing the piano. She nodded and went back behind the bar.
Scott Joplin began tickling the ivories in his now famous ragtime composition, The Entertainer, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch for The Sting. Paul and Bob looked at each other and raised glasses.
“Damn that was a fun movie to make, wasn’t it?” Paul asked.
“Maybe the funnest.” They touched glasses and drank.
Each took a filet mignon roll and munched quietly, listening to the music.
“Paul, you still haven’t given me your favorite flick of all time. Blaze got me to laugh, but which is it, really?”
Paul finished his steak roll and picked up a skewer and began gnawing at the sausage. He moaned slightly and lowered the bamboo skewer.
“Hard to say. I can tell you it’s NOT ‘The English Patient’.”
“I’m sure it isn’t. That film’s subtle and nuanced. Must have given you a headache.”
“Wouldn’t know. I never saw it……asshole.”
Bob picked up a skewer from the plate in front of Paul and pulled a piece of sausage off along with a thick slice of onion and red pepper, stacked them, and ate all three.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Literary Fiction
Short Story / Literary Fiction
Short Story / Literary Fiction
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