The death of actor Paul Newman on Friday at age 83 is being mourned worldwide, but it hits hockey particularly hard because Newman was the star of the best hockey movie ever made, “Slap Shot,” released in 1977.
Newman gained stardom in the 1950s and never lost the movie-star aura, appearing in such classic films as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Exodus," "The Hustler," "Cool Hand Luke," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting" and "The Verdict."
He finally won an Oscar in 1986 -- on his eighth try -- for "The Color of Money," a sequel to "The Hustler." He later received two more Oscar nominations. Among his other awards was the Motion Picture Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. But Newman was renowned in hockey circles for his portrayal of Reg Dunlop.
Steve Carlson, who played Steve Hanson in the film, knew for a long time that Newman was ill.
"We had a tribute to Slap Shot in Boston last year with the Bruins Alumni," Carlson said. "We had 'Dr. Hook,' Paul D'Amato; 'Hanrahan,' Christopher Murney; goalie Denis Lemieux,' Yvon Barrette; and 'Johnny Upton,' Allan F. Nichols. We tried to get Paul Newman to come up, but he wasn't feeling well even then and had to decline. It was great to see the boys again. What a cast that movie had."
Carlson was one of several real hockey players used in the movie. He grew up in Minnesota's Iron Range and played for the Johnstown Jets from 1974-76. He was the leading scorer in 1975-76. He then played two seasons for the Minnesota Fighting Saints in the WHA and then the New England Whalers and Edmonton Oilers of the WHA. Carlson broke into the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings in 1979-80 and played 52 games. He ended his playing career in 1987 after playing four seasons with the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks.
Carlson took advantage of his “Slap Shot” role and appeared with the other "Hanson Brothers," his brother, Jeff Carlson and Dave Hanson, in charity fundraisers over the years. He's got his shtick down pat:
"I made Newman what he is," Carlson exclaimed. "He was just a young pup trying to make his way in the movie business and we put him over the top. Remember, he won his first Academy Award after Slap Shot.
"Truthfully, I'm very saddened. Paul Newman was a great, great man. A great man. You know, we weren't actors. We were hockey players and he took us under his wing and guided us to what we had to do. With him there, we had a fabulous time doing it. He was one of the world's best actors but with us, he was just one of the boys. We laughed and had fun and worked when we had to work. We had a really good time doing that movie."
Carlson had some difficulty with the memories, so he retreated again to the safety and comfort of humor.
"After all we did for him, he goes and steals our family recipes for salad dressing and popcorn," Carlson cracked. "Then he got into race-car driving because he knew we were after him and couldn't catch him in those cars of his.
"I always thought it was the main characters, Paul Newman and Strother Martin, that made that movie. We were a big part of it but they really made that movie a classic. What a cast.”
Carlson's humor touched on a sore point. Newman was one of the greatest actors of his era, if not the best. He was nominated six times for Best Actor In A Leading Role Oscar for “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Absence of Malice” and “The Verdict” before winning in 1986 with “The Color of Money.” He was nominated again in 1995 for “Nobody's Fool,” but again didn't win.
Carlson said he has stayed in touch with a lot of the characters in Slap Shot but hadn't seen Brad Sullivan in a long time. Sullivan, "Mo" in “Slap Shot,” was in two movies with Newman. He was also the sleazy, incompetent hit man, "Cole," in “The Sting,” another movie directed by the late George Roy Hill.
"This is terrible news, what, he must be about 81 now," Sullivan said. "I've had so many friends getting very sick in recent months. We were in ‘The Sting’ together, but I didn't get to know him then as well as when we did ‘Slap Shot.’ He was a good person and this upsets me."
"My first recollection of Paul Newman is the day he knocked on my door in Johnstown," said Hanson, who played three seasons with the Jets. "This was prior to making the movie and I was taking a nap. I open the door and there's Paul Newman! Put his hand out and said, 'I'm Paul Newman, sorry to bother you. Can I bring these guys in and show them what a hockey player's apartment looks like?' I'm like, ‘No way, it's a dump,’ but he asks if I have a beer, grabs one from the fridge and sits down and starts watching a race on the television.
"That's the kind of guy he was. Our relationship just grew from that, and believe me, my stories about that time with him can go on and on. He was a terrific guy and a man's man, the kind of guy you wanted to be buddies with.
"For the three months that we were filming, he'd pull us into his RV, crack open beers, listen to classical music and tell dirty jokes. He would sneak off with us to find quiet bars until the word got out and people started recognizing him. He didn't like doing autographs because he didn't need the ego boost and it made him feel uncomfortable to be on a pedestal.
"We were young hockey players then and Steve and his brothers pulled a lot of pranks on people," Hanson continued. "Paul joined in and wound up giving as good as he got. That made everyone feel at ease. I was fortunate to be able to keep in touch with him over the years and went to a few races with him.
"He was just a great guy and his legacy will be that you look at the millions and millions of dollars he generated and what he did with it, all the philanthropy. He was a guy who could put on a tux, but he'd rather be in loafers, jeans and a T-shirt and be with regular guys. It said a lot about him.
"As far as his talent, he took to heart the acting lessons we gave him and went on to fame while we toiled for another 25 years before getting a best supporting actor award for a DVD premiere, Slap Shot II. Tell the truth, I don't know if anyone's acting ability rubbed off onto anyone else.
"Paul canceled a couple of things a while back, saying he had back problems, but I guess things were getting worse. I've got a book coming out in November and Paul was going to write the forward but I got a call recently that he was going to be laid up for awhile."v
“Slap Shot” was based on a book written by Nancy Dowd, whose brother, Ned, was a member of the 1975-76 Johnstown Jets. He told his sister the team was for sale and when she asked who owned it, Ned Dowd replied he didn't know. That and stories her brother told her convinced Nancy Dowd to move to Johnstown and write her fictional account of a desperate hockey season. Jets' players were used in the movie, which was released in 1977.
Newman played Reg Dunlop, a washed-up player who hangs on by accepting the job of player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal League. The team is playing poorly when General Manager Joe McGrath, played by Strother Martin, signs the immature but brutally physical Hanson Brothers, a trio of muscular, long-haired, turtle-shell-glasses wearing nose breakers who play with a train set they brought with them. Dunlop turns the team around by adopting the Hanson Brothers "Old Time Hockey" approach and by lying to his players that there's a buyer in Florida for the team.
Newman was married to actress Joanne Woodward for 50 years and they had three daughters. He had two children from a previous marriage to Jackie Witte.