Columbia's Paul Newman has always wanted to be somebody, like that other guy. Now, with a Guinness Book record to his name, he's written his own ticket to fame.

NAME REGOGNITION

December 08, 1997|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

Paul Newman the writer is about to become famous. After more than 50 years of obscurity, Newman has made a name for himself.

"Finally at this stage of my life," Newman says, "I'm getting recognition."

The 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, just out, showcases the work of Paul Sylvan Newman of Columbia. Call it a lifetime achievement award for the 73-year-old man whose characters and stories are known by generations of readers.

But until now, Paul S. Newman has been the man behind the mask.

For a writer, anonymity is the ego's migraine. If work is the Important Thing, then recognition is the Son of the Important Thing. Either way, the business of writing is a real pounder.

Paul Newman has been a writer ever since he could think of something to write. Ever since his mother, May Newman of Manhattan, told her only child that he was going to be a writer one day. (Newman was born in 1924 -- within a year of that other Paul Newman's birth.)

Newman's father, Joseph Newman, a theater ticket broker, must have agreed. Maybe his son could make a living as a writer. But first, his son made a name for himself as a Boy Scout. Paul collected a bunch of merit badges; at 14, he taught at Scout camp. One badge was awarded for his ornithological mastery. The boy had become a bird man.

Besides merit badges, the boy clung to his Space Commander Pin, as seen in the Buck Rogers comic adventures. Buck Rogers: There was a real hero, the boy thought. Strong, kind, clean-cut, Buck Rogers always did the right thing. Paul loved the unsigned, paneled stories in Buck Rogers comic books. The cliffhanging plots held him tight. He fell for every teasing "Meanwhile "

At school, Paul advertised his literary ambitions. He signed papers and yearbooks, "Paul S. Newman, Poet Laureate." He was kidding, but he was serious. "I was always looking for a title," Newman says. He wanted to write poems, songs, movies, novels. Mainly, he wanted to be a playwright.

"That was his dream," says his wife, Carol Newman.

In college at Dartmouth, Newman discovered Shakespeare, who became his new Buck Rogers. He began reading and later collecting 17th-century English plays, mainly comedies from Etherege to Fielding. He wrote a play, "Dollar Diplomacy," that was produced at his college.

After graduation, Newman went on a writing tear that stopped only for marriage and bird-watching. He has written four film scripts, including "A Tiger Named King" and "Ski Escape." You've never heard of them, because they never were made. He wrote more plays, including "Touch the Sun" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover (adapted specifically for Zsa Zsa Gabor)." They've yet to be produced.

Not that he hasn't had some success. Some 50 years ago, Newman wrote a song called "Just Imagine" that was published. No, it wasn't popular. But today the sheet music remains posted on Newman's piano. He also published 16 children's books and has written articles for New Age and National Enquirer.

Once upon a time, Newman even wrote radio sketches for Henry Morgan -- the actor who later became famous as Col. Potter on "M*A*S*H." The writer, Paul S. Newman, later became famous for being unknown.

Meanwhile, Newman wrote on and wrote often. He knew he was good. His family knew it, too.

But nobody knew his name.

"It would make such a good novel," Carol says of her husband's latest project: a book about bird-watchers called "Sap Suckers and Others." So far, nine publishers have rejected the idea.

"It's a humorous novel," Newman says. "I'm funny -- I know when I'm funny."

Plus, there are 25 million bird-watchers! But Newman knows that's not the point. He knows the life of a writer is rarely the life of Riley. Remember, Newman says, that Babe Ruth may have hit 714 home runs -- but he also struck out 1,330 times. That's some consolation.

Newman is writing a book about the Holocaust called "The Vindicators." His book "book-ends 'Schindler's List,' " he says. He sent 150 pages to his agent, who suggested he re-think one particularly violent scene involving Nazis. Newman vetoed the change. A writer doesn't fudge on his principles, he says.

Newman just doesn't understand the publishing business anymore. They all want "letters of justification" before investing in a writer, he says. "I don't write summaries." He is sitting on two more movie scripts, but it's hard for an East Coast writer to find a West Coast agent, he'll tell you.

In Hollywood

He and Carol once moved to Los Angeles in hopes Hollywood would produce his work. But the Newmans soon soured on Southern California.

"We never could make dinner reservations," Newman says. The restaurants were always full? No, every time they called to make reservations and gave the name "Paul Newman," they'd hear the phone receiver slam down, Carol says. Just another crank caller trying to pass himself off as the famous actor.

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