Paul Newman, My Grandfather and the Making of the Movie ‘The Sting’

When I was growing up, my grandfather on my mother’s side used to drop by our apartment all of the time and watch television with us. My mom was a single mother who worked long hours as an assistant bookkeeper, so these moments at night were always a welcome rest from her very long days. During most of these times, I was still too young to understand the complexities of father and daughter relationships, so I never really understood the conflict that seemed to arise between my mom and my grandfather. But it was while we were watching the network airing of the Paul Newman-Robert Redford movie The Sting that I started to realize what this conflict might have been. In case you don’t know it, a large part of the movie takes place on the Santa Monica Pier, specifically in the carousel building. As we were watching one of the scenes taking place, Paul Newman was on the screen doing whatever an actor like Paul Newman does in a movie like that when my grandfather said: “I had lunch with him.”

My mom just rolled her eyes and said: “Sure, Dad. You had lunch with Paul Newman, the actor?”

He was adamant. And he upped the claim: “I had lunch with him right there,” pointing to the screen, meaning he had lunch with him right there where the movie was filmed.

My mom just rolled her eyes again and said nothing. We watched the rest of the movie, and nothing more was said of it.

Over the years, I spent a lot of time at my grandfather’s house. His place was always a welcome refuge from the world. Because we were dirt poor in a well-to-do city, having a place to go where you weren’t in fear of danger was always a good thing. So I spent a lot of hours at my grandfather’s house.

And one thing I remember most about him was that he loved to tell stories. Mostly about his life and the things he’d seen. And whenever I told my mom about these stories, she just laughed and said Grandpa made things up and had an “interesting” past that was more interesting in his mind than in real life. So I always kept that thought in mind whenever I heard one of his stories.

One time, he told me a story about how he fought with the French resistance by using his cover as an ambulance driver to sneak around Nazi territories. My mom laughed when I told her that story and basically had no comment. Another time, he told me he played backup guitar for a famous rock band that was performing at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium because its guitarist was sick one night. My grandfather was an accomplished musician, and I could have easily seen how one with an active imagination might have imagined playing guitar for a major rock and roll band. I do that myself sometimes when I’m listening to the radio and suddenly rocking with my air guitar.

However, the story of him having “lunch with Paul Newman” always seemed to be one of those things that never made sense to me. I could see imagining all sorts of things, but having lunch with an actor and remembering it only when seeing him on the screen just seemed bizarre. So I remember asking him more information about that story. And he told me that one day he was playing the mandolin at the park and wandered down to the pier where he noticed they were making a movie. So, he maneuvered his way onto the set and walked over to where Robert Redford and Paul Newman were having lunch in between takes. He walked over to them and asked them if he could join them. They were both surprised by some stranger who walked up to them and kind of gestured to a seat near them. He then asked them if they’d mind if he played his mandolin. I guess they were too surprised to say no, so he spent the next few minutes regaling them with his mandolin playing (which was always quite remarkable). When he finished, he motioned to Paul Newman’s unfinished lunch and asked him if he was going to finish that. According to my grandfather, they were somewhat surprised but didn’t stop him from finishing up the lunch. A studio person came over at this time, about to push my grandfather on his way but one of the two actors actually motioned for him to stop, saying: “Bring us another plate.” I’m not sure how much longer my grandfather claimed to have stuck around, but that’s what he considered “having lunch with that actor.” Even if it wasn’t true, it was always such an interesting story.

Anyway, years later, long after my grandfather passed away, I was doing some research on the French resistance and saw an old picture of a group of known French resistance fighters who had a picture snapped of them as they were standing next to an old ambulance. Looking closer, I realized that the picture of one of the unlabeled people in the picture looked a lot like a younger version of my grandfather. There’s no guarantee it was him, but it sure looked like him and it certainly matched the time period and location of which he had been discussing.

A few years after that, I was in a bookstore on Powell Street in San Francisco looking over a bin of books that were heavily discounted, and one of them was about the heyday of Hollywood movies, and showed a bunch of photos for some major motion pictures during certain periods. My fingering through the book stopped strangely on a section for the movie ‘The Sting.” I hadn’t seen the movie in a long time, so looking at the different pictures brought back a lot of good memories. However, when I turned the page, I found myself staring at a picture of Paul Newman, Robert Redford having a meal on set. Sitting with them was an old man with a mandolin in his hands. It was hard to tell what they were talking about in that photo, but it was definitely my grandfather, and he was credited as “unknown stagehand”.

Which brought me back to those many stories that he told over the years, the many stories that my mom was convinced were all in his head. To this day, I’m still looking through old rock photos to see the one time a strange guitarist filled in for Van Halen or the Rolling Stones. I haven’t found it yet, but those earlier stories definitely keep me looking.

Who knows what I’ll find?

Author of Innocent Until Proven Guilty and 15 other novels. Writer, college professor and computer game designer.

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