Paul Newman: Rugged, Individualistic, Schemer?

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman, and a ride home.  Ponyboy, The Outsiders (1983) Recently a picture of Paul Newman on a dirt bike has been surfacing on various motorcycle-related blogs and websites across the internet.

 The Photo! – Newman on his dirt bike on the set of Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)

I have noted several such sightings and asked myself multiple questions.  Has the motorcycle community run out of photos of Steve McQueen to associate with what they are selling? Is this community now looking elsewhere for inspiration? Did those posting the photo knew where the photo came from and why the 44-year old Newman was atop a dirt-bike?  Was it legitimate to view Newman as an inspiration in ways that are both similar and different than Steve McQueen?

Early on, we see multiple press and fashion photos of Newman on a bike.  Was Newman a poser as it pertains to motorcycle culture for the media’s benefit in his day or was this a legitimate interest?

‍‍Paul Newman on his Triumph motorcycle on a set.

The following discussion of Newman as juxtaposed to McQueen might offer us some insight into the off-camera commitment to theschemer lifestyle (Source: Shawn Levy’s biography of Newman entitled “Paul Neman:  A Life”, pg. 151):

Like Brando and Dean and Steve McQueen, he was a rebel who dressed like a slob, but with taste, hung out in déclassé joints, got around on motor scooters or in sports cars, stayed out of L.A. as much as he could, played brassy scoundrels and real heels and the occasionally arty part, and seemed the whole while to be having a blast. Young audiences loved all that about him, even though he was in his thirties. At the same time, he was a pragmatic business man’s son, a war veteran, attended two prestigious colleges, and had children to support, and he took all that seriously enough to win the approval of a generation that grew up with Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Clark Gable.  He was easy on the eye’s and a man’s man. He was charming, if never exactly comic, and determined, if never quite heroic. He always got the girl, but you sensed he might have been just as content not to. His victories were satisfying, sometimes only he and the audience knew the truth of them. And oddly, even his defeats somehow pleased; in failing in their quests, his characters seemed to find greater personal victories than those they’d intentionally pursued—the archetype of the modern antihero.

‍‍Paul Newman on his Triumph motorcycle at home, 1965. photo © David Sutton

So, what about that mystery picture?  It turns out that it was taken on the set of a film that fans and critics alike now agree may have been significantly undervalued in its time. The 1971 film “Sometimes a Great Notion” (or sometimes known as “Never Give an Inch”) was truly a Paul Newman vehicle.  The film was based on Ken Kensey’s complex novel set in the Oregon towns of Newport and Lincoln City (Ken Kensey was also the  writer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which premiered a few years later winning multiple Oscars and awards.).  “Sometimes a Great Nation” tells a very complex story, probably too complex to have been adapted to screen, about a family of loggers who were rugged individualists and struggling with the death of the matriarch, competing interests in the family that is pulling it apart, and fulfilling timber contracts in the midst of a logging community labor union strike.  The film is best known for an incredible and fearless scene in which Joe Ben Stamper (Note: Richard Jaeckel was nominated for Best Supporting Oscar for this role) is trapped by a log and the incoming tide despite, the best efforts of his cousin Hank (Paul Newman), to rescue him (Please see YouTube video for very moving scene:  Newman produced, starred and ultimately directed the film after firing the original director whose novice approach was not to Newman’s standards.  At the time, the film had one of the best cast and crews one could assemble (Henry Fonda, Lee Remick and Richard Jaekel and others).

‍Paul Newman always got his haircut on a Triumph while on a movie set!


‍‍‍Paul Newman and Richard Jaeckel who played Newman’s brother in Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)


Vincent Canby of the New York Times highlighted that the film opened in just 22 theaters (Trivia Note: It would later be HBO’s first aired movie) and would likely be gone soon, but noted –

 “Sometimes a Great Notion” is an extremely interesting, if impure (happily impure, I might add) example of a genre of action film that flourished in the 1930’s in movies about tuna fishermen, bush pilots, high-wire repairmen and just about any physical pursuit you can think of with the possible exception of tolltaking, which (except on some thruways) lacks the necessary element of danger…As in Howard Hawks’s “Only Angels Have Wings,” these films are, at their best, considerably less simple-minded than they sound—being expressions of lives lived almost entirely in terms of rugged, essentially individualistic professionalism.


While in Oregon shooting the film, Newman rented a waterfront house, adopted a large Irish Wolfhound to keep him company, and received visits from numerous friends (Marlon Brando, John Derek, etc).

‍‍Paul Newman in the river scene after loosing his brother in Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)‍

‍‍Paul Newman and his Irish Wolfhound on the set in Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)

‍Paul Newman buzzing around Oregon towns in his Blazer during the shooting of Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)Type image caption here (optional)

The parties associated with Newman and his cast and crew never ceased during that infamous Oregonian summer of 1970 (Source:  Newman was likely self-medicating due to the stress of the many hats he wore in the picture and admitted “To act and direct is like sticking a gun in your mouth…I don’t ever think I’d ever do it again…I drank whiskey a lot” (source: Shawn Levey, Paul Newman: A Life).

‍‍Paul Newman behind the camera on Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)

‍‍Paul Newman in the river scene after loosing his brother in Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)‍

So, back to the motorcycle picture – why was Paul Newman perched upon a motorbike on the set of “Sometimes a Great Notion”?

His character had a scene where he raced a motorcycle at a loggers’ picnic.  Newman at this time had begun his famous interest in sports cars and auto racing, but had indeed had ridden through the years and generally treated motorcycles as a leisurely pursuit.  Steve McQueen introduced Newman and his brother Art around this time to more serious desert riding, but he did not ride professionally or in amateur races like McQueen.  Likely referred to Newman by McQueen, J.N. Roberts, a champion desert motorcycle racer, was on the set working with Newman and teaching him the technical aspects of dirt and sand motorcycle riding (Source: Shawn Levy, Paul Newman: A Life).  While rehearsing for the “grab-ass motorcycle race” sequence, he sprained his ankle and filming had to be postponed for a few weeks (source: A novelist, Susan Bronson, was visiting on the set after the mishap while she was doing research for a book and noticed Newman was riding a motorcycle with a cast on his foot on the beach.  Newman ended up dumping the bike in the sand and came up laughing and unhurt but asked the writer via a “shushing gesture to keep what she had seen to herself” (Source: Shawn Levy, Paul Newman: A Life; pg. 248).

So, can (and should) the motorcycle community (or community at-large) draw from this particular film and its story any insight or inspiration into Newman’s broader legacy of work and his life? Is he a worthy addition to the motorcycle inspiration canon alongside the likes of Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, and James Dean? Is he a Schemer?

I think we can look to Newman’s work ethic, a desire to tell stories that are uniquely American, and in the words of the film critic Vincent Camby, we can easily associate with Newman’s work in particular and his life broadly as examples of “expressions of lives lived almost entirely in terms of rugged, essentially individualistic professionalism.”

Newman was in fifty moves over thirty years whereas many other actors such as Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart each starred in well over 100 films.  But Newman did things on his own terms and in his own way evolving to meet new challenges, taking risks and pushing toward excellence as he evolved as a person and performer.  As a result of this work ethic, he was nominated for 10 academy awards for acting over this shorter reel of celluloid. He won an Oscar, received two honorary awards, one for his humanitarian and philanthropic work and another for his contribution over his career. He also won a multiple film critics’ awards, acting and producing guild awards, a Golden Globe, British Film Award, German Silver Bear award, Cannes award and the Kennedy Center Honor for both his creative and philanthropic work. He also was a veteran of WWII, endured flops and successes, survived significant hardships such as the death of his son Scott due to addiction, was a competitive and successful race car driver and team owner after the age of 50, a savvy businessman, and progressive philanthropist.  He spoke out and worked on issues related to nuclear proliferation, civil rights, drug addiction prevention, sustainable agriculture and organic farming, and pediatric cancer to name just a few.  Finally, he was a regular guy who had serious style, understood quality, appreciated the technology of his day, enjoyed finely tuned machines on two or four wheels, and was loyal to his family, friends, and favorite beer.

So, Scramblers and Schemers is founded on the premise that “you are not stuck, but can create for yourself the opportunities to experience new things, taking risks that move you beyond your old limits, and take a new path.” It is the individuals and/or groups that “hold a common commitment to originality, quality, sustainability, community engagement, adventure and fun” that function as the inspirations for us as we embark on such endeavors (  Newman embodied the “schemer” mentality in his work and play and seemed to get away with it.  He was “lucky” Paul Newman.  He said prior to his passing his own view on his “luck.  He said, “I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others.” (Source: Shawn Levy: Paul Newman: A Life, pg. 445). I believe this sense of his own “luck” infused his approach to life and the desire to not waste it but seize those opportunities where they “fit” with his values, sense of adventure, commitment to broader community, and desire to push himself out of his comfort zone in meaningful ways to the very end of his life. I think we can say that Newman is an apt source of inspiration for this community in particular and humanity writ-large! He was a schemer that talked the talk and walked the walk.

Once you’re gone, you’re gone for good

Once you’re gone, you’re gone for good

Let me ease you back to health

(Once you’re gone, you’re gone for good)

Lyrics excerpt from the song entitled Paul Newman and a Ride Home from The Motorcycle Industry, The Only Friends Worth Having (2008)


‍‍Paul Newman on the set of Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)


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