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PAUL NEWMAN: ON THE SET OF ""BLAZE""

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Paul Newman refers to Walter Bridge as "an emotional Republican, in the Stone Age, set in cement."

Bridge is, of course, the uptight, buttoned-down, inflexible example of Midwestern bourgeois values whom Newman portrays in "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," a $7 million Merchant Ivory film that completed principal photography in early December in Kansas City. (The movie opened at many theaters Dec. 15.)At first Newman would seem un unlikely choice for the role. Mr. Bridge is a conservative; Newman a liberal. Mr. Bridge is withdrawn, undemonstrative; Newman makes his living by carefully containing and releasing his emotions for the movie camera. Mr. Bridge demands a sense of order; Newman obviously relishes new challenges.

A recent visit with the 64-year-old actor on the set of "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" revealed a man completely at ease with his co-workers and his work. What one so often hears of Newman - "He's just a regular guy" - certainly seemed to be true in that environment.

One of the world's biggest movie stars moved almost unnoticed through the tangle of equipment and crew members that had inundated the lobby of the Oppenheimer Building, where the set for Mr. Bridge's law office had been constructed.

After nearly eight weeks of filming, an unwritten code had been accepted by all involved. When Newman was at work - memorizing lines, pantomiming a coming scene, familiarizing himself with the set or new camera positions - his colleagues kept their distance. This was the actor's opportunity to slip into his role, a private moment that should not be interrupted.

But away from the lights - in the wardrobe or makeup department, around the buffet table filled with chips and cold cuts - Newman was approachable enough.

"He's just real down-to-earth," said Stephen Goldblatt, whose local design firm built and painted scenery and props for the movie. Gold-blatt recalled that while he was working in the basement of the "Bridge" house on West 54th Street, he and his co-workers occasionally would be visited by Newman, who was seeking a reprieve from the bustle on the set upstairs.

"He honestly doesn't understand why anyone would make a fuss over him," Goldblatt said.

At a press conference a few weeks before to discuss his film "Fat Man and Little Boy," Newman had seemed nervous when facing a small army of reporters with pens poised. He was obviously much more at ease in a one-on-one situation.

In fact, he was practically crowing, having just obtained a copy of that day's New York Times, which featured a photograph of Germans dancing atop the now-obsolete Berlin Wall.

"I was thinking of all the statistics and commissions and think tanks on issues like acid rain, auto emissions and all the information they've produced and it's still not enough to galvanize our government into action," Newman said.

"And what are these guys going to do about Europe? It's all happening so fast, it'll go right by these guys before they know what's going on." He grinned and shook his head in amazement at what he clearly regarded as the flatfootedness of the Bush administration. "By the time these guys sit down and study it, history will have gone right by them.

"That's my definition of an `emotional Republican.' It's somebody who can't respond to change or think on their feet. The only risk-taking they're willing to take is with the savings and loans."

Newman paused for a moment.

"The point of this diatribe is that Mr. Bridge is a classic example of this personality. Two massive social upheavals occur during the years covered in `Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.' There's the Depression and World War II. And yet in the Bridge household the Depression is almost never mentioned. And there's only a glancing mention of the war when their son, Douglas, comes home in a uniform. This is not a family that talks about major events."

Was Newman saying that "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" would make a political statement?

"In a way, the film makes a political statement by omission," Newman said. "This was a family insulated from the realities of the world. It was a family that had the serenity of definition. You knew who you were in the order of things. It's the same serenity religion gives some people.

"But what do you sacrifice for that serenity?"

Newman noted that one of the most telling bits of dialogue in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay came in a conversation between Mr. Bridge and one of his friends, a physician played by Simon Callow. Callow's character, described by Newman as "a Bohemian of visible appetites," asks whether Mr. Bridge has ever known joy or passion.

"Mr. Bridge answers, `No. I've known contentment,' " Newman said.

One oddity of this particular film, he said, was that although "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" was the story of a marriage, he and Woodward shared relatively few scenes together. Mr. Bridge took care of making money; Mrs. Bridge took care of the home and children.

"We haven't had a lot of concentrated togetherness," Newman said. "These people lived their lives apart. But it's funny - when you read the Connell books the tone seems so removed - and yet the emotional force of some of these scenes is surprising . . ."