Me, Dad, Paul Newman, & a Few Other Guys

Swannie Says By Steve Dzwonkowski Film Column


I grew up loving movies. This is, in great part, due to my Dad’s love of movies. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Dad and Mom loading the six of us kids in the ol’ Dodge station wagon—more than adequately supplied with popcorn Mom had made at home, our cooler filled with beverages and sandwiches, and red licorice twizzlers–and heading to either the Cloverleaf Drive-in or the Canal Road Drive-in in my native Cleveland, Ohio. My earliest memory of the drive-in was in 1961 when we saw Paul Newman as “Fast Eddie” Felsen in The Hustler.Swannie 1

My Dad liked Paul Newman. They were the same age, they both came from Cleveland–Paul Newman graduated from high school in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland; Dad graduated from Cleveland’s East Technical High School—and there is a good chance that Dad and Paul Newman shared ice time as high school hockey opponents.

But—back to THE film. Now, I had just turned six. I had no idea there was a difference between movies and reality. (Some would say I still don’t.) There is a scene where the over-confident Fast Eddie goes too far with his arrogance and ticks off the wrong guy who did not appreciate getting hustled by THE Hustler, Fast Eddie. So, Fast Eddie’s thumbs get broken as payback. Both thumbs. He screamed in pain.

Again, I was six—I, in my pajamas at the drive-in, did not understand what had happened. I asked my Dad to explain it. He said, “They broke his thumbs.” I said, “His thumbs broke? They fell off?” “No, just watch the movie.” So, I watched The Hustler. We all watched the movie. We memorized some of the great lines from it—

“Charlie, this is my girl.” “Hello, Eddie’s girl.”

And–“How do you feel?” “Fast and loose.” “No, in the gut.” “Tight but good.”

And–“You’re nothing but a small-time Charlie.”

It was that kind of movie for us.

But, I still didn’t understand the broken thumb picture. When I asked my Dad again—more than once or twice—to explain it, his response was probably something like, “The thumbs are broken. They were put in casts. It’s just a movie.” Eventually, I understood.

But, The Hustler is THE film that made me a movie fan–some would say an obsessive movie fan. I suppose it was my fascination with Fast Eddie’s broken thumbs. I suppose it was the dialogue. I suppose it was my Dad’s explanations of what his six-year old son could not understand. And, I suppose it was because Dad liked the film, too.

Regardless, I owe The Hustler, I owe Paul Newman, and I owe Dad for my love of cinema. And, I owe them A LOT.

Now, through the years, Dad and I continued to “hang out” with Paul Newman. We viewed his films—Cool Hand Luke (If you mention the title to Dad, to this day he will say something about 50 eggs.), The Verdict, The Sting (Yes, we were fooled by the end, too.), and Road to Perdition (I recommended this one to Dad. It was one of Mr. Newman’s last memorable roles before he retired. I told Dad I was going to see it, and I thought he and my stepmom would like it. We went to different theaters on the same night. I will always remember the message on my answering machine when I got home that night. “Steve, Dad. We saw Perdition. You were right. Good picture. Newman dies, Hanks dies, everybody dies. But, you were right—good picture.” I was glad I saw it that night—Dad was known to inadvertently give away a movie ending or two.)

Of course, there were other films; there were other actors.

Dad likes Clint Eastwood—as an actor and a director. He enjoyed Eastwood’s westerns and his later films like Trouble with the Curve. And, Dad marvels at octogenarian Eastwood’s ability to continue to direct fine films like Invictus. Dad and I liked that one, but we agreed neither one of us understood rugby very much.

And, Dad likes other directors too. Dad likes to laugh with Mel Brooks. One of my fondest memories of going to the movies with Dad is when we took him to see Blazing Saddles. The infamous campfire scene prompted Dad—uncontrollably laughing to the point of crying—to say (loudly), “Enough,” because he was laughing so much.

Clint Eastwood, sure.  Mel Brooks, sure. But, it always comes back to Paul Newman. It always comes back to Fast Eddie.

Paul Newman is gone. Dad is still here. Dad still likes going to the movies.

Up next for us is Nebraska, a film about an elderly man who takes a road trip with his son. We think that sounds like a winner. I wonder why.

In case Dad and I get inspired, I will buy some gas. My tank will be full. As is my heart.


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