Paul Newman Has Died, and I Have Regrets
By Glenda C. Beall
Barry and I sat in a booth across from Gay and Stu, my sister and brother-in-law, in a small restaurant outside Suwannee, Georgia. The four of us had been on vacation and were driving home, heading south. We had almost finished our meal when some men entered and sat next to us at one of the tables in the crowded room. We could hear them as they ordered hamburgers. All four dressed casually like the other customers, mostly working people and travelers.
My three companions, caught up in their conversation, paid no attention to the new arrivals. I’ve always been a “people-watcher” and my eyes fastened on the handsome face of one of those men as he pulled out a chair and sat down near enough I could have touched him. He removed his ball cap covering his short brown hair. The jeans on his slender frame and the denim jacket could have been the working clothes of any man eating there. But he was not like everyone else. His cornflower-colored eyes crinkled at the corners as he laughed and talked in that distinctive voice I can still hear in my head after thirty years.
“I think that’s Paul Newman,” I whispered to my sister. I wanted her confirmation although I knew I had to be mistaken. How could a movie star of his caliber be sitting in a non-descript diner in Georgia?
“What?” she asked. She couldn’t hear my low comment. I didn’t want to appear to be gawking at my favorite movie star who just happened to be sitting right next to me. I didn’t point at him, but spoke a little louder.
Our husbands tuned in this time.
“That’s Paul Newman right there at that table.” I threw a furtive glance toward the man who stole my heart the first time I saw him in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Like everyone who ever saw him on screen, I could never forget his perfect face, especially his eyes, but it was his smile, that gave me peculiar feelings in the pit of my stomach.
“I think you’re right. That IS Paul Newman.” Gay was as surprised as I was.
“Nah,” Barry said. “That’s somebody that looks like him.”
Stu stared for a minute, then he corroborated my statement, “Yep, that’s him.”
“What is he doing here? This is crazy. Why would a big movie star be in Suwannee, Georgia, in THIS restaurant?” I still would not believe my own eyes.
Barry was the first to figure it out. “He’s here for the race. There’s a racetrack in this area. He races sports cars.”
Newman had fallen in love with auto racing after making the movie Winning in 1969.
Nobody in his group at the table looked like part of an entourage for a movie star. Barry said they were likely part of his pit crew. I read that he enjoyed hanging out with his race-car team and tried to be as inconspicuous as he could at the track, wearing glasses to cover his familiar peepers.
He became a winning driver and participated in racing into his seventies. A couple of weeks before he died, the race track near his home in Connecticut opened during the day so that he could drive a final lap in his favorite car.
I’ll never forget my sweet jealous husband’s reaction to this giant icon of celebrity sitting within arm’s reach of us. “You like that guy? Look how short he is. He’s a little bitty guy. I thought he was tall.”
Of course, Barry got the rise out of me he wanted. “He’s beautiful and he is NOT short. Besides, I don’t care if he is short or tall, he’s gorgeous,” I whispered, so afraid Paul Newman would hear Barry saying uncomplimentary things about him.
If I had not been terribly shy and afraid of appearing silly, I would have spoken to him and told him how much I enjoyed his movies. But since no one else seemed to even notice he was there, I was not about to interrupt his lunch just to hear him speak to me and look at me with those crystal blue eyes and maybe give me one of his endearing smiles.
But, gosh, I wish now that I had.