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May 22, 2005 - Paul Newman Asked for My Autograph

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Paul Newman Asked for My Autograph

May 23, 2005

By Bob Patterson


Suppose Paul Newman came up to you and asked for your autograph.


Would you say, "Here ya go, Paul, have a nice day," or would you snap, "Go away y'r botherin' me!"?


No way anybody could turn him down, right?


Maybe it's not that easy.


Back in the day, when disco was king, I had to make that decision.


A local political squabble in the kingdom by the sea known as Hollyweird was being waged over oil drilling in the suburban bedroom community called Pacific Palisades.


An oil company wanted to build a few rigs and make some extra pesos under the guise of preventing the next Arab oil crises, and the locals did not want their 'hood soiled and sullied by oil rig roustabout ruffians, let alone face the horror of any possible spill.


The locals were left to improvise a credible rebuttal.


How on earth does a local political action committee get media coverage under such David-vs.-Goliath conditions?


Bring out the celebrities.


All the small action committees across America that ever called a news conference and got only one reporter to show up will love it.  Turn it around.  Make it something that has to be covered.  Call it overkill, but some celebrities can bring world attention to a neighborhood issue.  Paint word pictures along the lines of derricks pumping away in the middle of Yosemite Valley.  Is that too heavy-handed?  The more stars you have the more coverage you get.




Just like a law of physics.  Not just pictures in the newspapers either.  With enough star power, the TV stations would send their newsreel cameras. (It was a while ago.)  Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Jack Lemon, and Walter Matthau, all citizens in the area in question, could read their grocery store shopping lists and get media coverage, but when they wanted to speak out on the issue, a small news conference suddenly got a lot of attention and began to look like a dress rehearsal for the Oscars.


The news conference was scheduled for the Saturday of the Labor Day Weekend (about 1974 or 75 if memory serves), and even though it was a gray overcast day, the press turnout was substantial.


Armed with a Nikon and a press card, I decided to see if I could, on my day off, come up with something that would please the editor of the weekly Santa Monica tabloid where I worked.  We covered the area in contention.


The stars came out of their trailers and read prepared statements in favor of keeping the area pristine pure while reassuring the fans in fly over country (that's what they call the area with those funny little square patches you see from 30,000 feet up if you fly from coast to coast for an important meeting) that America still had the petroleum necessary to keep the world safe for Democracy.

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Then for the newsreels and the still photographers, they posed with a huge pencil and a gigantic version of the petition to keep the nefarious drillers at bay.


It was a great visual, and it showed that the folks holding the press conference were more than a little media savvy.


The cacophony of shutter noises rose and eventually faded until there was only an occasional click.


The stars looked at the journalists, and the journalists scrambled to come up with a new version of the same questions that had already been asked.  Even the plaintive cry of "Just one more!" melted into silence.


The silence stretched out and became embarrassing.  It was time for some smart-assed reporter to yell "Cut!" or at least lament, "Somebody do something."


Then in a flash of inspiration Newman held out a pen to the nearest scribe. "Sign our petition?"


At that time journalistic integrity was riding high on the coat tails of Woodward (the reporter not Joanne) and Bernstein.


The august members of the press did not take sides in an issue that they were covering, and so principals dictated declining the offer and looking like one of the persnickety stars they often ridiculed.


All they were asking for was an autograph.


"Well, my friend," I thought to myself, "you always wondered what this would feel like, and now it isn't at all what you thought it would be like."


You've heard the warning: be careful what you daydream about, because you just might get it?  That's what was happening.


It wasn't a matter of stroking your own ego while granting wishes to adoring fans.  Nuh-uh.


Your binary choice was: compromise your professional standards or be a pompous ass.  Not that a refusal would reduce the famed race car driver to tears, but the principle was the same.  You'd be a poltroon disappointing someone.  Hadn't you been one of those who cackled, "I'd never be like that."


On the one hand you would never again hear a story about a disappointed fan, without playing the devil's advocate and saying, "Well, maybe there was a good reason we didn't know about.  On the other side of the coin, was a choice that would, once and for all, give you a chance to experience what it felt like to be a star. This wasn't just an anonymous fan; this was Paul Newman asking for your signature."


Come on, pal, people are waiting. What's it gonna be? Whatcha gonna do?


Tough choice.


No problem, Paul.  Have a nice day.


(P.S. To this day there are no oil rigs in Pacific Palisades.)

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Paul Newman, Jack Lemon, and Walter Matthau

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Richard Pryor being interviewed…

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Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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