Barry Newman is best known as the star of the cult classic VANISHING POINT (1971) and the legal drama THE LAWYER (1970). He was also the lead in the successful spin-off TV series from THE LAWYER - 'Petrocelli' (1974-76). Newman is also an accomplished and respected theater actor and has extensive credits on TV and in film. His other film work includes lead roles in the thrillers FEAR IS THE KEY (1972) and THE SALZBURG CONNECTION (1972), the disaster movie CITY ON FIRE (1979) and the drama AMY (1979), and supporting roles in DAYLIGHT (1996), THE LIMEY (1999), BOWFINGER (1999), and 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS (2002). Newman is one of the most interesting film and TV actors to have emerged since the 70s, boasting an ability to be a magnetic lead actor as well as a captivating supporting actor. Rolling Stone fittingly described him as being ''like producers fused Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen into one actor. " In the first part of a three-part interview, I spoke with Newman about how he got into acting; his musical background and how music compares to acting; and his early experiences in theater and TV before his success in the movie THE LAWYER.

You fell in love with acting after sitting in on a Lee Strasberg acting class. What was remarkable about that class? How did the class inspire you? 
It was interesting because I had come to New York and I was going to get my Masters in Anthropology from Columbia University. A buddy of mine was studying acting and he asked me to sit in on an acting class with him because it was a teacher named Lee Strasberg who was teaching down at the Carnegie Hall Studios in Manhattan. I said to him ''Actors? Aaaah … okay'' and I went down to the class, and when I came in they were doing what I thought was a strange exercise. There was a kid up there singing Three Blind Mice extremely slowly and doing some kind of physical activity. I said ''What is all that about?'' I was actually quite mesmerized by it. It was really strange but it was interesting. It was so amazing that a little while after, I called my mother in Boston and said ''I'm going to leave Columbia and start acting classes''. After she took her head out of the oven, she said ''Oh, My God!'' 

Did you have any experience or interest in acting before you sat in on that class? 
Well, when I was a senior at Brandeis University, we had had a student there who had died of cancer and to raise money, our particular dorm decided to put on a show, kind of like the Harvard Hasty Pudding Club. We put on some sketches and I wrote and directed some of them. It was all very high school-ish. Brandeis was putting on a production of Our Town and the teacher of the Drama course asked me to be the stage manager. His name was Elliot Silverstein, who was teaching at Yale at the time and came over to Brandeis to teach a course. He later went on to do CAT BALLOU (1965), and some other good things in his career. So, I had done some things to do with acting, but it wasn't what I was thinking about doing at the time.

What were you thinking of doing? 
I was thinking of being a jazz musician, a saxophonist, although I wasn't that great. I made a lot of money playing in Boston, and after I was drafted following Brandeis, I made more money doing civilian jobs in Atlanta, Georgia, than I did during my first five years as an actor! 

Do you feel there's a similarity between being a musician and an actor? 
In one respect, of course, there are similarities because they're both improvisational. But with acting it's much more about interpreting. I always call an actor an 'interpreter'. I never call him or her a creative artist. In music, you're much more creative, even though you're working with melodies that have come before, and improvising upon them. Music is very helpful to an actor. I have always used music when I am studying scripts. For example, I would write in the margins of scripts 'In terms of a musical instrument this section would be woodwinds, and here's a little brass over here' and so on. 

You had great success on stage on and off-Broadway before breaking through in films with THE LAWYER. What was it like breaking into the theater? 
I was very fortunate that the first job I had on the stage was playing the part of a jazz musician! I was studying with Lee Strasberg and I was doing all sorts of odd jobs. I was working at the 21 Club, checking hats and coats, when I was 24-25 years old.

 I remember the audition well. I had just come out of the Army, and was walking along and I saw a group of people outside the Yenta Theater on 52nd Street. They all had instruments in their hands – there were trombones, saxophones, clarinets. I asked one of them ''What's going on?'' and they said ''Well, there's a part in this Herman Wouk play, 'Nature's Way' ''. It was an open call, actually, for anybody that could play an instrument, or for musicians that could act. I ran home and got my saxophone, stayed in the line and did an audition. Interestingly, Herman Wouk had written the character as kind of a 'hot' guy, and I played him as kind of 'cool' in the audition. I tried to explain to the director that 'hot' wasn't what was in at that time. I told him ''You don't say 'hep', you say hip''. I got the part, and in the play I came on in the third act and had five or six lines. 

What were some of the most valuable lessons you learned during your time as a theater actor?
The biggest lesson I learned was discipline, in terms of myself and the physicality of being on the stage. I learned all about working in front of an audience, which is different from being on television or making a film. I really enjoyed my time in the theater. The second show that I did was a comedy called Maybe Tuesday, from the writers of the Sid Caesar Show - Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kell, who was Imogene Coca's head writer. We opened I think on a Monday and we closed Saturday! I thought it was a very funny show, but they didn't like TV writers doing things in the theater. My musical background helped me in terms of improvisation as an actor. I enjoyed that - being able to improvise on stage, when the director would allow it. Sometimes of course, the writer wanted their lines followed to the letter. 
It must have been grueling filming the TV show Edge of Night in the daytime while you were appearing on Broadway in What Makes Sammy Run? at night. 
That was my first bit of TV. Procter and Gamble had hired very buttoned-down actors as the young guys in the show and then I came onto it playing one of the young lawyers. I broke the mold a bit. There was no tape at the time, and everything was live. You had to memorize 25 pages a day. It was hilarious.

I was the second lead in the show, but I was fired in my second year. The director and I had an altercation about something. I'd never had one before. I don't remember exactly what it was about, but I thought he was being a little rude and mean and I told him to go and fuck himself. We were filming a courtroom scene, and when we came back after lunch, the director (who was in a booth like they were in those days) came over the loudspeaker and said, in front of about fifty actors and extras, ''Barry, are you going to apologize for telling me to go and fuck myself?''I just looked at him and said ''No, I'm not going to apologize. '' And at that moment, actors' union people came down, and the next day my character was sent to a sanitarium, after taking a fall to his head or something unbelievable like that. 

Was it much of a transition moving from theater to TV? 
Not really, because the soap stuff was kind of very natural and real. I didn't think of it being anything else but being just acting. When I did my first film it was different. There were close-ups and everything, and you had to act differently. After speaking to a few pros though, they said ''Just act, kid. Don't think about it too much. '' 

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2019. All rights reserved.

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