Newman's exodus to ... what, exactly?

Paul Newman Exodus 01Actor Paul Newman did not need steady film roles to stay in the spotlight. Choose your favorite Newman: unpretentious neighbor in Westport, Conn.; octogenarian race-car driver; entrepreneur and philanthropist; political activist and financial supporter of The Nation. One chapter has proven more difficult to flesh out: When and why did he become interested in Unitarian Universalism, and what did it mean to him? Those questions come our way through reader Robert Johnson, who submitted this story idea to GetReligion:

The death 26 Sept of actor Paul Newman has not received much coverage overall, but there's a major ghost in the little coverage there is: Newman was a Unitarian Universalist. No one is exploring the role that his faith plays in the Newman's Own practice of distributing all profits to charity.

This is another important story about Unitarian Universalism following on the shooting in the Knoxville church in August (which has also slipped from the public radar).

I realize the theology and politics of Get Religion are conservative, but if you mean what you say about covering ghosts, the ghost in the Paul Newman's obituary is a pretty major one to address.

There's little in the Web-accessible record to establish that Newman's interest in Unitarian Universalism was the subject of any reporting. It did not turn up in this passage from a Time cover story, published in 1982 when Newman starred in The Verdict:

He was the second son of Arthur S. Newman, a prosperous Jewish partner in a sporting-goods store, and Theresa Fetzer, a Hungarian-descended Catholic. By the time Paul and his brother Arthur, now 58, a film production manager living in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., were children, Theresa was a Christian Scientist. Paul's exposure to that faith did not make any lasting impression (he has followed no religion as an adult, but calls himself a Jew, "because it's more of a challenge").

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations lists Newman among several other famous UUs (including Christopher Reeve, Pete Seeger and Kurt Vonnegut). A UUA-distributed songbook, Singing for the Green, includes this verse, set to the tune of "Give Me That Old-Time Religion":

Well, it don't take much acumen to rejoice in being human, Especially when you know Paul Newman is a Unitarian too.

What's surprising is that Newman's beliefs were not mentioned in multiple settings in which it would have been appropriate: John Nichols' witty tribute for The Nation, the official obituary (as it's identified by the Westport News), a public statement by Newman's five daughters, or the fine collection of local tributes published by the Westport News (including this, this, this and especially this story by Brian Lockhart (with contributions from other writers).

Lockhart's story includes this wonderful story about Newman's effort to help Ned Lamont Jr. in his bid for the U.S. Senate:

Newman was one of Lamont's early supporters and made phone calls and commercials for the upstart candidate.

"At first he just wanted to voice his private support," Lamont said. "He had been public on behalf of a number of candidates . . . and he remembered that a Wall Street Journal columnist had been so outraged they suggested boycotting Newman's salad dressing."

Lamont said a week later Newman changed his mind.

"He called back and said, 'What the hell, let's do it,'" Lamont said, recalling how Newman wrote his own robo-call script.

"It was the funniest thing," Lamont said. "He then called around the state just to test it out and pretended he was a 'robo call.' He called me back up a day or so later and said, 'Ned, two people hung up, I got two answering machines, and the fifth person yelled to his wife -- 'It's some quack pretending to be Paul Newman.'"

Here's hoping that Newman's funeral will be open to journalists, and that it will shed further light on what he believed.

Image: From the trailer for Exodus, via Wikimedia Commons.

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