Rogue, Hero, Icon: On Paul Newman’s Taste for Literary Adaptations

1960s: Days of Rage


“Watching Ethan Hawke’s HBO docuseries The Last Movie Stars, I was struck by an early scene where Gore Vidal, voiced by actor Brooks Ashmanskas, recounts how he became friends with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It was around 1954, and Newman was cast in one of Vidal’s plays written for television, The Death of Billy the Kid. At the time, New York television studios were broadcasting weekly live dramas written or adapted from works by Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, William Faulkner. … The scene is remarkable for the way it captures the confluence of an aging Hollywood studio system, the emergent medium of television, and contemporary literary imaginations. Newman and Woodward—the last movie stars, as Vidal puts it—built careers underwritten by Hollywood but indebted to American literature. In fact, most of Newman’s films were literary adaptations. Bringing Westerns, crime novels, and bestselling thrillers to the screen, as well…

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