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In Memoriam

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Interviewers always ask about the people he's worked with over the years, and it's a pretty huge number at this point. By now, the question's expected; by now, it's inevitable; he always has an easy answer close at hand.

He tells them about Brad Pitt, because when is Brad not at the top of the list? He tells them about directing Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep, Matt Damon and Will Smith. He compliments Dustin Hoffman's acting mind, like he's done ten times, twenty, a hundred times before. He talks about all the fun he had making movies with Sydney Pollack over the years. It's all true but it's automatic. It's true but these days it feels almost scripted, like he's forgotten what it's like for a question to genuinely take him by surprise. He guesses he's been in the business long enough that he's heard it all already. He's learned not to take it personally. He knows the game better than most; you can't give yourself away.

It's like that when he's asked about Paul. It's one of those questions that turn up over and over: What was Paul Newman like? Did you enjoy working with Paul Newman? You were friends with Paul Newman - do you miss him? It's maybe surprising that he's still asked about him these days since hip young Hollywood has such a short memory where actors are concerned. Sometimes it's like the interviewer was sent away with a collection of Redford's Greatest Hits to watch before forming questions and armed with The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, maybe a quick trip through Wikipedia, they come to the conclusion that they've got an original question on their hands. Six years is a long time in Hollywood. He guesses he should be glad they still remember.

And so, he dutifully answers their question. He tells them that Paul was generous and loyal with a great sense of humour and that particular way of taking him back down each time his ego over-inflated that he'll miss for the rest of his life. He tells them Paul was a great actor and a true philanthropist and an even better friend. He tells them how sick he got of hearing about race cars, and about the time they pranked each other in a crazy series with a crushed-up Porsche turned into a garden sculpture and because the first rule of Prank Club was Don't Talk About Prank Club, they never breathed a word. He told the story after Paul was already gone.

It's all true, but what he's thinking is something totally different. What he's thinking he's never going to say.

They met in the sixties. He's not sure if he misses the sixties or not, but he definitely does not miss the fashion, and Paul was wearing a truly hideous suit that day, a few days after the first day; it was a grim powder blue that more or less matched his eyes and he guesses that was the point even though he was wearing sunglasses sitting there at a poolside hotel table, drinking a coffee. Robert had already thanked him for the way he'd fought for him to get the part and keep it. He was stepping into Steve McQueen's shoes as a relative unknown just ‘cause Paul lobbied for it, but they were past that by then. When he sat down and joined him, Robert knew him well enough already to know he was hung over .

They talked for a while before the others arrived and Robert guesses it was then that he knew they were going to get along. He was still in his 30s, early 30s at that, and the idea that he'd know this guy for even longer than he'd been alive right then just never occurred to him, because who thinks that far ahead when they're maybe 32 years old? But the way he politely brushed off the procession of girls who approached them, the enthusiasm he had when he talked about the picture they were going to make together, the respect he had for William Goldman who'd written that amazing script, everything rolled together to say he was going to like Paul Newman.

Filming Bolivia in Mexico was an odd time, hot and fuelled by alcohol while the rest of the cast and crew came down with diarrhoea like he couldn't believe and tried hard to pretend wasn't happening around them. Paul drank and laughed and there was the whole godforsaken thing with Nancy Bacon that no one could leave well enough alone. Robert's always felt at least a little guilty for his part in that, acting like helping them keep it quiet was A-OK even though he'd met Joanne and genuinely liked her even then. Sometimes he wishes he could set the record straight ‘cause it wasn't ever the way Nancy said it was, not really. She made him sound like such a disappointment. He was never a disappointment, unless you were looking for celebrity and got the man instead.

The thing was, Paul wasn't cool when you got him off the set and he acknowledged that pretty darn freely; he was a regular guy who drank too much and told bad jokes but that, Robert guesses, was the appeal, at least for him. They stretched out by the pool one afternoon, a rare day off, and when he looked at Paul, he realised this was the kind of star he wanted to be. He wanted to be himself off-screen. Acting he'd save for his movies.

And then Paul jumped into the pool; he swam a leisurely couple of laps to cool off from the sun and then popped back out poolside, dripping wet right in front of him. Robert tossed him a towel and Paul flashed him a smile and he remembers how his stomach flip-flopped as he watched him, and Paul watched him watching him. Paul's smile slowly faded away; he was all blue eyes and slim hips and damp skin in the sunlight and it was like he could read his mind, maybe just because he'd seen that look Robert had on his face a thousand times before.

"Let's go inside and get a drink," Paul said. Robert nodded. They went inside. They didn't drink.

They didn't talk about it after. They went ahead with filming and they worked well together, they had fun, they made a movie they had no idea was going to last like it did or be the hit it was, though they hoped behind closed doors. And when the premiere came around and they went inside the theatre out there in New Haven, Paul pulled him aside. They leaned back against a wall, casual or seeming it, Robert with his hands in his pockets, Paul smoking.

"We can't talk about it," Paul said.

"Yeah," Robert agreed.

He didn't have to ask what he meant, ‘cause he understood the way Paul looked at him then. They'd had a damn strange relationship for months by that point, where one second they'd be joking around and the next, one of them would do something, Paul would tilt back his head to stretch his neck and wind up exposing his throat in a way that made Robert bite his tongue, or Robert would run his fingers through his hair and Paul would look at him sharply, darkly, like he had that first time. It came in flashes. It took them by surprise in an otherwise usual friendship.

"We can't keep doing this," Paul said.

Robert shrugged. "Yeah," he agreed. So they clapped each other on the back and they went in, they moved on. They stayed friends, and that other thing they'd had got sidelined.

They kept in touch after that, ‘cause they were friends now and though they both had other friends, lots of friends, what they had was something different, something almost challenging that made both of them better somehow. They'd see each other pretty often, between jobs, in restaurants with their wives, Paul's house in Connecticut, places he barely remembers out in LA because nightclubs and bars and hotels all came and went in a flash, their replacements nothing he hadn't seen before. He'd been living in Utah on and off and things were picking up there, really did after Butch and Sundance was such a huge hit. The pranks became more elaborate. Lola and Joanne rolled their eyes at them from the background.

But when they spoke on the phone it was practically phone sex. It started out as a joke, like so many things had, like they always did; Robert called and when Paul answered, groggy thanks to the time difference Robert had gleefully ignored, he asked what he was wearing with a faux-sexy little swagger to his voice. Without missing a beat even though it was 3am over there in London, Paul started describing a cute little black negligee and Robert cursed himself for losing that round. It didn't stop him trying again, however. Over the next few weeks the whole thing got more and more elaborate, stockings, a corset, a parade of lingerie that Robert had barely even heard of and had to get him to describe. That was probably the point. Robert was sort of amused that the whole thing had the air of Joanne helping Paul to thwart him.

It went further, of course, because things always escalated. Pretty soon Paul was answering the phone to him as Paula, pretending he was his own long-lost secret twin sister like that made any sense. And it started as a joke, again, because that was how they were, but pretty soon it took a detour into something with less humour and a taste of something else, something behind that, sharper, deeper. It was odd, not just because he was trying to keep in mind that Paul was meant to be a woman as they talked. It was odd because it was veering closer and closer to something they'd already cleared firmly off the table. It was odd because describing what he'd do to Paula got him hotter than he liked to admit to, that Paul talking dirty on the telephone almost got him harder every time. The joke was on him, he guessed. Paul was winning.

They'd been at it for a year and a half by the time Robert had finally had enough. Not that he could really complain because they did have fun, intentionally calling each other at really bad times, one of them in bed in Europe or called away from set, a phone call in a restaurant or at someone else's party, and it was entertaining, trying to rile each other up when arousal was inappropriate for the time or the location, so much that Lola didn't care that he was doing it because, well, after all, it was only Paul. It was only a bit of fun, they'd get bored of it eventually and it'd be back to cuffs sewn shut and shoes set full of Jell-O and sex toy welcome baskets in hotel suites.

They got together for a drink in the hotel before filming started on The Sting, Paul looking greyer of hair but pretty much the same as he always had. They'd been looking forward to it since they'd finished filming the last one, ‘cause as much fun as Robert had on those other movies, as much energy as he put in, they seemed to lack a certain indefinable something. And so, they'd decided to try it again.

It was maybe twenty minutes of scotch in a booth by the corner, chatting about the script, before Robert leaned in on his elbows over the table.

"We need to talk about Paula," he said.

Paul raised his brows and toyed with his glass, amused. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." Robert shrugged. "I think I've been leading her on."

Paul cocked his head. "Yeah?"

Robert nodded. "Yeah."

"And?"

"Well." Robert paused, maybe for dramatic effect. "I need some advice. I want to let her down easy."

"I don't know, Bob," Paul said. "She seems pretty smitten."

"I don't want to give her the wrong idea," Robert said. His tone turned hushed. "I mean, it's not her I'm interested in."

"So, who is it?"

He didn't answer. They looked at each other. And for a moment, it was like Paul was going to give in, like he was going to brush it off and Robert would win that round of the Prank Wars by conceding the victory. But he leaned in closer over the table and he lowered his voice.

"I've got a room upstairs," he said. "We can talk about Paula later."

They went upstairs and suddenly Robert wasn't sure who was winning but wasn't sure he cared. Paul locked the door behind them and he leaned back against it. Robert moved in closer, one hand either side of Paul's shoulders as he leaned against the door. Paul pulled him in by his hips and there was another moment that Robert guesses was the point of no return, where they could've stopped, could've gone back down to the bar, could've fallen back to normality. Robert kissed him instead, slowly, firm and thorough, and Paul pulled in at his hips, pressing against him. There was no stopping after that. Winning really didn't matter.

They undressed each other. The curtains were open but there were fine nets in place that Robert was fairly sure would keep telephoto lenses at bay, if not the afternoon Californian sunlight. Paul's skin was tanned and there were marked tan lines where his bathing suit had stopped the sun; Robert pushed him down on the bed, knelt between his thighs, traced those tan lines with his fingers, then his tongue. Paul stifled a moan as Robert took him into his mouth and it was just like they'd never stopped.

There wasn't a winner. There was never a winner. And just like everything else, they never talked about who won or lost; somehow they managed to segue into it over and over instead without ever flat-out stating they wanted sex, never admitting there was an attraction there beyond their friendship. And it lasted for decades, past the second movie though they barely came up for air that home time, lasted like their friendship did, lasted as they aged, as they lost their perfect figures, as their famous looks got worn around the edges. They'd speak on the phone and it'd take a left turn now and then, both of them jerking off in their respective bathrooms while they said what they'd do were they in the same room right then at the same time, said what they'd done together so many times before. Sometimes they'd arm wrestle to decide who got to be on top, and sometimes one would let the other win.

Sometimes, they'd play a part. They'd be Butch and Sundance all over again, shucking hats and gun belts and worn old boots to screw like this was their last day on earth. Sometimes they'd be Hooker and Gondorff, triumphant at the end or in another place, a con, together. They played their overhyped media selves sometimes, charming and sexy, the selves women still swooned over even when a new generation was the hot new thing. Robert had a passable impression of Steve McQueen in stock that really got Paul going. Paul did an amusing take on Brad Pitt, still did even when he made it to his seventies. It was an extensive repertoire.

It would've been scandalous if anyone else had known, he guesses, but no one ever really knew except maybe their wives and he's not about to tell. And so he answers the question the way he always does, speaks about Paul's kindness, about Paul the humanitarian, about the loss of his good friend. He tells them about how Butch and Sundance changed his life, and became part of it.

Perhaps one day he'll say what he's thinking: what he had with Paul Newman was the most meaningful relationship he's had in his whole life. Perhaps he'll say his life can't be the same without him. That wouldn't give too much away, he thinks. It would be the truth.

But what they were will stay their secret. Paul's private life was always private; Robert will keep it that way. He'll keep it for himself.