The coolest guy on the planet   

Updated: September 30, 2008, 8:36 AM ET

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If the globe seems a little warmer this week I suspect it's because we lost the cool of Paul Newman to cancer Friday. The 83-year-old actor passed away at his home in Westport, Conn., and ever since the news hit the wires, folks have been brimming with fond memories of a man whose magnitude is perhaps as far-reaching as any pop-culture figure.

He accomplished so much. He spread so much good. He stayed so cool. I am often asked to name the coolest person I've ever met on the job. While seekers probably expect a flashy athlete in response, I say without hesitation that the most monumental meeting I've ever had came two years ago in Charlotte, N.C., with an aging Paul Newman.

I flew east for a press junket at Lowe's Motor Speedway pubbing the release of the Disney/Pixar movie "Cars." The actors behind the animated characters' voices were there -- Owen Wilson, Larry The Cable Guy -- plus there were NASCAR guys like the great Richard Petty on-site, but it was no secret: We were all there to meet Paul Newman.

The coordinators of the event had arranged a special afternoon window for press to speak with him. Just him. The reporters filed into a large lecture hall where microphones would be passed around to ask questions. I remember my mother calling my phone while we sat anxiously waiting for Newman to arrive. I sent my mom to voice mail. I had to -- Paul Newman could have walked in at any second. I later listened to her message. "Did you meet him yet? Maybe you're talking to him right now. Paul Newman! Oh my gosh!" her message squealed. "Take a picture, Mary!"

The men in the room around me were eager with anticipation, too. Impersonations and movie quotes were in the air as we waited for our encounter with Cool Hand Luke himself.

In more than 65 movies in some 50 years, Paul Newman played a boxer in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," a veteran hockey player/coach in "Slap Shot," a bank robber in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," a pool shark in "The Hustler," a gangster in "Road to Perdition."

He's Hud, for crying out loud. He was a man's man. But then again, those blue eyes and the charm that was seemingly the only thing more impeccably chiseled than his dashing good looks made him someone ladies have loved for decades, too.

He was not just an actor, but a movie star. He was an activist, a maverick, a liberal, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur. He was handsome and wealthy. He had it all going. He was the kind of guy whom so many people would like nothing more than to tear down or trip up. Think of actors and athletes today with big-time status. The cooler they are -- the more handsome and the more successful -- the more likely we are to pick apart their every move on the job, on the field and in their personal lives.

But we loved Paul Newman and his salad dressing.

He was untouchable, apparently made of Teflon. Everybody liked him -- admired him, even. He maintained a marriage (a Hollywood marriage!). His class was commendable and his generosity famous, but he still managed to stay cool, race cars and punk his good friends with practical jokes.

That's classic cool. When he was finally ushered through the door that day in North Carolina, I remember thinking at first sight how slender and frail he was. He looked like a grandfather. His clothes were those of an old man's. He was an old man. He walked slowly, his back rounded from the years. But then he looked up at us with a smile and a nod and a wave and those trademark blue eyes, and his presence filled the auditorium. He was still so cool. What is it about this guy? I wondered then. Paul Newman answered that question in an instant, right on cue, with a story that still leaves me smiling as I retell it.

On his walk to the chair set out at the head of the auditorium, he took a few paces across the room, then stopped abruptly and turned around. When he spun back to face us in the audience he shrugged and smiled modestly. My tape recorder rolled in my hand. The first quote I have on record from the coolest guy on the planet was "Well, I started off badly by coming in here with my fly open."

Turns out, a grounded sense of humor is really pretty cool.

That's a classic gem that serves everyone from average Joe to megastar athlete. Paul Newman could take a joke. He could take his life and successes lightly while still taking his responsibility to heart. We all put our pants on one leg at a time, and no matter who you are, there will be days when you forget your fly; but if you can be the first to laugh, you're a lot cooler for it.

Thanks for everything, Mr. Newman. In a world full of hotheads, we're missing your cool already.

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.


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