‘Exodus” was not an easy sell in 1960.
When director Otto Preminger decided to adapt Leon Uris’ best-selling novel about the founding of Israel into a feature-length film, he ran into heavy resistance in Hollywood’s major studios. Too Jewish, too controversial, they said.
Then Paul Newman signed on. With the blue-eyed heartthrob in the title role of Ari Ben Canaan, an underground soldier who helped smuggle a shipful of Holocaust survivors to Palestine — the role was putatively based on Yitzchak Rabin — one obstacle in producing and marketing the epic was removed. Preminger said he wanted a Jewish actor who “didn’t look Jewish.”
“It was much easier to sell the movie by having Paul Newman as a major character,” says Rabbi Azriel Fellner of Livingston, N.J., a former pulpit rabbi who has lectured about Jews and the cinema for 20 years.
Rabbi Fellner says Newman, who died of cancer last week at 83, changed the image of Jews with his portrayal of a confident, assertive, sexy Sabra. In the public mind, the rabbi says, “he changed the view of Jews forever. Suddenly, in Congress, officers from the Israeli Air Force were being treated in ways they were never treated before. It was a major contribution.”
For the generation after “Exodus” and Israel’s swift military victory in 1967, Jews were seen as powerful warriors, not the impotent victims who emerged from the Holocaust.
Newman as Ari Ben Canaan “showed that the Jew was not the bent-back weakling,” Rabbi Fellner says. The “New Jew … did not necessarily identify with the Talmud,” with a world of scholarship, “but did identify with the Bible,” with figures like Samson and David.
Newman “played the role with a certain amount of integrity and strength,” the rabbi says. And the romance between Ari Ben Canaan and Eve Marie Saint’s non-Jewish volunteer nurse was also a breakthrough in American film, Rabbi Fellner says. “When he fell in love … he came to her as an equal,” not as an inferior trying to improve his social status.
Newman, a native of Cleveland whose father was Jewish, did not receive a Jewish education, but would later identify with his Jewish roots. “He identified with the values of Judaism,” Rabbi Fellner says.
As far as is known, Newman, a generous philanthropist, was not a major contributor to Jewish or Israeli causes.
But he showed a familiarity with Jewish concepts, often speaking about tzedakah, Hebrew for charity or justice. And he would speak about tikkun olam, repairing the world, Rabbi Fellner says. “He used that word a lot.”