Paul Newman is in a mischievous mood. he arrives at a cast party for Old Wicked Songs, a show at Connecticut’s historic Westport Country Playhouse, shouting the caption to a New Yorker cartoon: "Just because I didn’t tell you to shut up doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening!"
Heads turn and the collective attention, as usual, shifts to Newman. Fully aware of his effect on the room, he slides into character as the consummate entertainer, bantering with cast and crew members and, for a man in his eighties, performing a pretty impressive tap dance before flashing a half smile that prepares everyone for the big finale: a wink.
The Paul Newman charm offensive remains a wonder to behold. These days, however, the actor generally doesn’t waste it on Hollywood. Now he uses much of it on food philanthropy, promoting his wildly successful Newman’s Own brand, which generates millions of charity dollars each year, and launching new projects (Robert Redford once described Newman as having the attention span of a bolt of lightning). One of his latest obsessions is Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant. The new venture, which opened in October 2006, is adjacent to and helps support the Playhouse, a regional fixture since the 1930s.
Dressing Room, like the Playhouse next door, delivers a posh performance in a down-home setting. The folksy decor—reclaimed barn wood walls and white oak flooring, vintage theater posters, a stone fireplace—sets off the menu created by Newman’s partner, chef Michel Nischan, the ponytailed proponent of organic food and sustainable societies who made news in the 1990s at Drew Nieporent’s Heartbeat restaurant in New York City and recently opened Pure in the Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai, India. Nischan crafted his Dressing Room menu around what he calls "American heirloom recipes" (Newman simply refers to them as "chow"), which include regional classics like pot roast and meat loaf that he elevates with modern techniques and meticulously sourced ingredients.
Nischan chose some of his favorite "chow" for tonight’s cast party: baby back ribs made extra tender and intensely porky from slow cooking and frequent basting with ham stock; sweet potato gnocchi with chestnuts and shaved country ham; and one of Newman’s special requests, a crunchy chopped salad sweetened with an apple vinaigrette. For dessert: sticky toffee pudding, a take on the classic English date-filled cake.
As the cast and crew of Old Wicked Songs fill up their plates, Newman, sporting a beige jacket like the one he wore in the movie Nobody’s Fool, explains how the restaurant subsidizes the theater, which raises only 65 percent of its annual budget through ticket sales. Newman and his wife, the actress Joanne Woodward, have long supported the Playhouse, which has staged works by George Bernard Shaw, the world premiere of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba and a recent revival of Our Town, starring Newman himself. Woodward recently retired as artistic director after spearheading an $18 million campaign to modernize the theater, which is housed in a red barn that was previously a tannery. Under new artistic director Tazewell Thompson, the 2007 season will include All About Us, a new musical from John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team behind Chicago and Cabaret, and Sedition, a world premiere from the Playhouse’s resident playwright, David Wiltse.
Newman wants Dressing Room to do more than support the Playhouse. He imagines it as a hub of community activity. He and Nischan have started a weekly farmers’ market in the parking lot and they plan to add fashion shows and go-cart races (inspired by another of Newman’s passions: racing). "Main Street used to be filled with small, individually owned, resident-owned businesses," Newman says. "The haberdashery, the hardware stores, the liquor stores, jewelry stores—all of that was local people. Now it’s Cartier and the Gap and they have no hook into this community. We’re going to try and make this place a Main Street again."
Nischan was a natural choice to help Newman realize his vision. Like Newman, he lives only a few miles from the Playhouse. Newman’s daughter, Nell, who runs Newman’s Own Organics, recommended the chef to her father. "Nell called me and said, ’Could you either talk him out of it or be a consultant?’" Nischan says. It’s hard to say no to Butch Cassidy, so Nischan agreed to the meeting. He warmed Newman up with a few ideas for the menu before arguing that the restaurant should be more than just a satellite of the theater. Newman’s response surprised him. "After I talked, he got up and hugged me and said, ’That’s what I want. Can you help us?’ " Nischan says. "He’s a normal guy, but then all of a sudden I got weak in the knees. Paul Newman hugged me!"
Newman and Nischan are something of an odd couple. "Nischan is a chef and my dad basically likes home cooking," Nell Newman says. "I knew they were going to disagree, so I told my dad to give Michel some room." Nischan said he explained to Newman that they couldn’t serve tomatoes out of season. Nischan’s decision to ban steak from the menu was also a concern. "There is this ’Eat steak every day’ mentality in America that started after World War II," Nischan says. "It created the cattle confinement operations that are a real big problem today." Do customers mind that there’s no steak on the menu? "So far, we’ve had no complaints," Nischan states.
Newman was unwavering with a few of his demands, however: He wanted casual and efficient service, a comfortable dining room and a hamburger with 22 percent fat. "I think the hamburger is the great American dish," Newman says. He and Nischan taste-tested 15 variations before settling on a custom ground-beef blend of Niman Ranch brisket and chuck round. "The burger is Paul’s gold standard," Nischan says. "It makes a statement that the restaurant is accessible. And a burger and a bottle of wine is a great combination."
"Paul has this connection to the public and the things he feels most strongly about are the things that really resonate with customers," Nischan adds. "That’s why Newman’s Own is so successful."
There’s no arguing with that. Newman’s Own began as a hobby in the early 1980s and quickly grew into a multimillion-dollar brand that includes dozens of products, from salad dressing to salsa. Newman donates the profits to charities such as the Hole in the Wall Camps, which help children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. So far, Newman and the Newman’s Own Foundation have given away more than $200 million to charity.
Newman would be the first to tell you that he’s always known how to turn his celebrity into money and that he doesn’t mind using his fame to benefit a good cause. When a photographer sets up to take Newman’s picture at the end of the party, he adopts a jaunty pose and starts to play, balancing a plate of ribs on his head like a finishing-school student perfecting her posture. He’s having a great time. The crowd offers a round of applause. He grabs a cloth napkin and wraps it around his face like a bank robber, a look that evokes Butch Cassidy. One of the actors laughs before asking a question: "But how will people know who he is?" No one responds, because the answer is obvious. Really, who else could it be?
Jason Zinoman is a theater critic for the New York Times and writes regularly for the Times’s Play Magazine and the Guardian newspaper.