Great teacher, friend, mentor and theatre historian, Dr. Howard Stein, shared a story with his Columbia University in the City of New York MFA Playwriting students at the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre studies. The topic was eminent actor Paul Newman who was visiting the Yale School of Drama at Howard’s request and he was speaking to the theatre students in a question and answer format. I will share that story with you now.
Paul Newman was at the height of his movie star popularity, but he always believed in — and supported the live theatre — and so he was willing to donate his time to visit Yale and share the things he felt he knew that might be beneficial to young actors starting out on a new career.
Since Paul was such a big star — and he was surrounded by wannabe Yale stars — you certainly can guess tension was high with some of the students who saw their chance to “equalize” Paul Newman’s career by asking stupid questions about his failed movies, bad career choices and what “might have been” if other choices had been made across the long arc of his career.
Paul was never one to gladly suffer fools, and he was always quite direct — and he immediately knew where this line of questioning was going — to bring him down, to make him defend bad choices, and to humiliate him in front of an entire theatre filled with drama students.
After one particular round of aggressive accusation, Paul lost his temper and shouted into the audience from his spotlight on stage, “Hey!”
The theatre grew quiet.
Paul continued, shouting, “Which one of you here would not want to swap careers with me right now? A straight up trade. What I’ve done for what you’ve done. No questions asked.”
Paul carried on, “I thought so! You sit out there, brave in the dark, trying to tear me down and belittle my career — yet every single one of you would jump at the chance to be me.”
Paul quickly ended his talk and left the stage. The stunned students weren’t sure how to behave or what to say in the aftermath of that counter-attack.
The lesson in Paul Newman at Yale University is that we all live the lives we have to the best of our ability — and while some people soar and others sink — it isn’t our duty as people sharing the human condition to condemn or question the choices others make in order to succeed and survive in the world.
Just because you may think someone has more than you do, and you’re jealous or envious and you want to knock that person down a notch — don’t do it — because you can’t know the message in the meme of a lifetime, you can only evaluate the results after that life has been fully resolved and meted.
I am often reminded of that Paul Newman experience when others try to tear something down instead of building something up — and I know that the greatest among us have had to deal with naysayers and knownothings to get beyond the day.