Not long after Ken Kesey
died in 2001, I found myself drinking beer in the Bayhaven, an ancient tavern on Newport's Bayfront. There, I noticed hanging on a wall a framed poster of promotional stills from Sometimes a Great Notion
the movie. It was filmed in and around Lincoln County in 1970 and includes scenes shot in the Bayhaven, which stood in for The Snag saloon from the novel.
On sheer journalistic whim, I asked the Bayhaven's bartender if she had seen the movie. I asked a few other patrons the same question. They all had. In fact, several had also read the novel, which bulges over 600 pages in the most recent paperback edition. We talked about that book, about Kesey's first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the movie adaptations of each, one a classic, the other not.
As I drank in the Bayhaven, asking patrons their opinions on Sometimes a Great Notion, the novel and movie, a thickly bearded man wearing a red baseball cap emerged from an alcove sheltering the video poker machines. He moved toward me slowly holding a Hamm's can and then sat next to me at the bar. He said he had a story about the movie. A story about Paul Newman. Would I like to hear it? Yes, I would. I ordered him another Hamm's. He appeared anywhere from 40-70 years old, or what I call OTA, Oregon tavern Age.
The story went: One night in 1970, the man was drinking in a tavern in Toledo, eight miles east of Newport. In walked an unaccompanied Paul Newman carrying a chainsaw. "He was wearing a fake chest," said the man. The man explained that Newman wore some kind of padding under his shirt, evidently to appear bulkier. That Newman still wore the padding and carried the chainsaw meant he might have come right off location in and around Toledo where some scenes were filmed.
Newman didn't say anything. The patrons recognized him, because, well, at the time he was the biggest movie star in the world. He fired up the chainsaw, sawed the legs off a pool table, and sent the slate crashing to the floor. Newman left without saying a word. Perhaps later he sent a check to cover the damage. Perhaps not. The whole incident unfolded in less than three minutes.
"C'mon, you're bullshitting me?" I said. I then reminded him of a scene from the movie where Newman's character enters an office with a chainsaw and cuts up the place.
"I know that scene," he said. "That was acting in Newport. I was in a bar in Toledo. Newman was there. He was drunk out of his mind. I have no reason to lie. I don't even know you."
A few minutes later, the man disappeared and I never got his name.
A week later I drove to Toledo and hit every bar and tavern in town and asked around for confirmation of the story. I met a lot of OTA men and a couple of them told me that they hadn't heard anything about it, but felt that the Newman incident might be true since anything's pretty much possible if men are drinking in Toledo.
Did Paul Newman walk drunk into a Toledo bar some 40 years ago and cut the legs off a pool table? It seems highly improbable until you start researching his life, as I did in 2001 when I first heard this incredible story — which, if true, is certainly the Greatest Drinking Story in Oregon History. (Whenever long distance running god Steve Prefontaine drank late into the night before setting an American record is a close second.)
In all the Newman biographies, including the most recent and best one, Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy, the pages are replete with crazy Newman drinking and practical joke stories. Practical joke stories like the time Newman used a chainsaw a year before the Sometimes a Great Notion shoot, to cut up the desk of the director of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill. Or the time that Newman used an arc welder to slice apart a producer's sports car.
Then in my research, I came across this Newman quote in a 1983 interview in Playboy magazine:
It doesn't make any difference whether it's LSD or angel dust or cocaine or booze. People are just looking around for a sledge hammer somewhere along the line. I gave up hard liquor because I simply couldn't handle it. That was my sledge hammer. We were finishing shooting Sometimes a Great Notion. I don't know if it was the pressure of the picture, but I really was out of line.
Just how out of line? Inexplicably, the interviewer never followed up!
So I am thinking it could be true. I admit I want it to be true. I want to know the truth.
To that end, I have started writing a book with the working title of Sometimes a Great Party: When Paul Newman and Hollywood Visited the Oregon Coast and I hope to release the book next summer. The alleged Newman drinking tale is just a small part of a larger crazy story of when Newman, Henry Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Lee Remick, and Richard Jaeckel spent three months in Lincoln County and tried to make a film out of an unfilmable novel. The stories I've collected from locals, including Newman's logger stand-in, are, frankly, incredible. The photographs are pouring in too, and I've even unearthed some home movie footage.
What is interesting to me as a writer is that I have no idea where this book is going. The research has barely started and I'm trying to reach everyone in Lincoln County with a Sometimes a Great Notion movie story. To that end, I'm holding a unique literary/cinematic event in Toledo, at a union hall, on August 8, where I'm giving a talk on the movie and the screening it for the public. For more details, see below. If you're coming to the Newport area, that weekend, show up and join the Oregon fun. It's free.
Event: An Evening with Sometimes a Great Notion (the movie)
When: 6-9:30 pm, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009
Where: Toledo, Oregon, AWPPW Union Hall, 138 NW 1st St.