By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—The world knows Paul Newman as an Academy Award winning actor, who entertained moviegoers for more than a half century. He also was well known for his philanthropy, founding Newman’s Own, which has donated more than $430 million to charities around the world, including his beloved Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children and their families.
Yet few know the gasoline-fueled passion that became so important to this complex, multifaceted and deeply private man, and how his deep-seated love of racing was so intense it nearly sidelined his acting career.
Newman’s racing career began shortly after he starred as a racecar driver alongside his wife Joanne Woodward in 1969’s “Winning.” That experience ignited a passion in the actor that would span the next 35 years, as Newman ventured from amateur racecar driver to professional champion. He won four national championships as a driver and eight championships as a team owner. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start racing until he was 47. Fittingly, his last film was Pixar’s “Cars,” in which he voiced the character of wise old Doc Hudson. Director John Lasseter says of Newman’s performance that his knowledge and love of cars made the role “a deeper and more complex character” than what was originally on the page. Newman died in 2008, at 83, from lung cancer.
The famously blue-eyed handsome actor’s passion for racing is now documented in a fascinating new feature documentary called “Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman,” directed by radio personality Adam Carolla. Though he never met Newman, Carolla, who also buys and races cars, fell into collecting some of the late actor’s cars. Through the cars, he discovered the heart and soul of a racecar driver, who also happened to be a world-famous actor.
The documentary, Carolla’s second outing as a director after the feature comedy “Road Hard,” released in March, includes interviews with Newman’s racing colleagues including Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Sam Posey, John Morton, Willy T. Ribbs, Dick Barbour and Lyn St. James as well as fellow actors Robert Redford, Patrick Dempsey and Robert Wagner, fellow car enthusiast Jay Leno and his older brother Arthur Newman. Newman’s wife Joanne, who is now 85, is seen in file footage.
The film is in theaters and on select VOD and will be on all On Demand outlets on Friday, May 22. A charity screening will be held in Indianapolis that night with the proceeds going to Racing for Cancer and the Indy Family Foundation.
The multitasking Carolla, who co-directed the film with veteran producer/director Nate Adams, recently spoke by phone about how he came to make a documentary about Newman, his share passion for cars and what’s ahead.
Q: Can you talk about getting into the project? Did you meet him?
Carolla: I never met him; I just have his cars. I started buying his cars and restoring his cars and racing his cars. That started me going. I knew Bob Sharp, his team owner, co-owner. I started getting into these old cars. But I never met Paul.
Q: What was the first Newman car you acquired?
Carolla: First, I got a Bob Sharp Datsun 610 racecar. I bought it on eBay. I knew the team was always Newman-Sharp. But this was before Newman; this was just Bob Sharp. I contacted Bob, who lives in Connecticut, and I talked to him a little bit about the car and the history. Then we started talking about Newman a little bit. And then, at a certain point, a Newman car became available. I bought that car and it was a mess but I remember sort of thinking at the time, “This guy’s a legend and this is his racecar that he won the GT-1 Championship in 1985.” And I remember sort of thinking, “This is going to be worth something one day.” Like a painting or something, one day when the artist is long gone, it’ll be worth something. I’ll give it to my kids and they’ll be able to pay for college.
Then, I started investigating more, and another car would come up for sale, and I’d buy it. I finally bought a car of his that actually ran and could be raced. So, I started racing that car, and I started putting the other cars together, and I started getting more and more into (the restoration). And then it sort of struck me that nobody really knew (Newman’s) story. Nobody knew how passionate he was about racing. What happened is that these other car geeks would sneak me these bootlegged videos from the ‘80s. They’d say, “Here’s Paul Newman driving your car in Atlanta at the ’85 runoffs,” or something like that. So it struck me that there was probably a lot of footage out there and interviews and stuff like that. Then, I just thought I’d make this movie. And that was about it.
Q: How many of his cars do you own now?
Carolla: Six and a half, basically. One is just a bunch of parts from a car he crashed so it’s kind of half a car.
Q: One of the things you discover in this film about Paul Newman in this is that he was quite the practical joker. As an example you show Robert Redford telling the story about how he sent Paul a smashed up car and then he sent it back to Redford, and they kept this up for quite a while.
Carolla: Yeah, he was a private guy, but he also had this sense of humor, and he was a practical joker. He was a pretty interesting dude, and he was very complex.
Q: It was interesting that you were able to get interviews with all these people that knew him, from other drivers to his brother to some of his actor friends. How challenging was that for you?
Carolla: Some folks were easier than others. (Jay) Leno and (Patrick) Dempsey were very easy because they were at a race that I was participating in and they were there, so I knew I could corral them into coming into this room we set up off to the side. Bob Bondurant (who taught Newman how to race) was going to be at a certain event. (Racecar driver Lyn) St. James I knew was going to be at a certain event. So we were able to contact them and corral them into doing this. They’re friends so they were pretty easy to get. Guys like Robert Redford were out of the country so we had to wait until they were back in (the U.S.). Some of them were on the East Coast, so we had to send a crew there. These guys have pretty busy schedules. Then there were guys like (David) Letterman and (Tom) Cruise, who just couldn’t do it.
Q: Did you contact his wife, Joanne Woodward? You used older interview footage of her, right?
Carolla: You have to remember too, that when you call up and say, “Hey, I’m making this documentary on…” most people take a look at me and go, “Uh, yeah. I don’t think I need to be a part of that piece of crap.”
Q: They don’t take you seriously?
Carolla: They think they’re going to be part of something that’s not very good, that goes nowhere, and they’re going to be part of this crappy documentary that no one will ever see. Look, when Ken Burns gives you a call and says, “Hey, man, I need you for my documentary,” you go, “Oh yeah!” Or when Francis Ford Coppola gives you a call, you go, “Hey, alright.” But when Adam Carolla gives you a call, a lot of people’s answer is, “What?”
Q: A lot of people may be surprised at how interesting and informative this documentary is. Did you see this as a labor of love that took some time to put together? What kept you going?
Carolla: Once I start something I want to finish it. It’s the number one quality in a human being that I’m looking for, and it’s the number one thing that I want my kids to do in life. So once I started, I knew I had to finish it and I knew I had to make it the best I could make it. It took a lot of time and money. It took a lot of patience and there was a lot of frustration. I knew I was going to be part of something that was really good but I also knew that the people who weren’t returning my emails don’t know that and don’t think it’s going to be any good, so that part was frustrating. So I had to put my head down and keep moving forward.
Q: When did you start this project?
Carolla: About two years ago.
Q: That’s pretty fast.
Carolla: I did the other film, TV show, a book and 1,000 podcasts too. But that’s how I get things done. I’m busy and I just do it. We started this around the middle of July in 2013.
Q: Did “Road Hard” help you in putting together “Winning?”
Carolla: No, we made “Road Hard” in the middle of this. Part of it was watching Newman, and seeing how much we could get done when you put your mind to it.
Q: Do you see him as an inspiration?
Carolla: Yeah, I see him as an inspiration in the sense that it’s more of a way to approach life, which is “Go get some. Don’t be rude. Don’t be loud. Don’t be offensive. But also don’t cut in line. Just go out there and get some. Just go, man.” People tell me all the time, “How do you make a documentary?” and the answer is, “By making a documentary.” That’s how you do it. I didn’t know how to make a documentary. I just went out and made it. Making a documentary sounds cool, glamorous, whatever. It’s just a bunch of work. It can be laborious and boring and spending day after day just getting things cleared. That doesn’t sound exciting, glamorous or fun. You’re dealing with insurance guys and lawyers and paperwork.
It’s fun to sit around and interview Robert Redford, but that’s about two percent of the work involved in making a documentary. The rest is just sitting in an (editing) bay doing color correction for days and days. What people don’t realize is that every job just comes down to 90 percent that. It’s great when it’s done but it’s just a bunch of work.
Q: It’s sounds like you’re not going to do another documentary anytime soon.
Carolla: No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I know it’s work, and I do it. I don’t mind hard work.
Q: Are you planning to make another documentary?
Carolla: Yeah. The next one would be about Ford and Ferrari and their battle at Le Mans. It’s another interesting story and it’s also car-centric, which is what I like anyway. We’ve already started working on that one.
Q: Do you have a favorite Newman film?
Carolla: Yeah, I’ll go with “The Sting.”
Q: What else are you working on besides the next documentary?
Carolla: I’ve got a book coming out May 26. I’m finishing up my Spike TV show called “To Catch a Contractor.” We’re on season 3. That’s coming out in the middle of June. And I’m doing my daily podcast.