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Paul Newman's Amazing Legacy

Oscar-winning actor Paul Newman, who passed away last night at age 83 after a long and hard battle with cancer, left quite a legacy.

"What can I tell you?" sighed his business partner and friend A.E. Hotchner when we spoke this morning. "He was my co-adventurer for 52 years."

The two men met in 1956 when Hotchner, who was Ernest Hemingway’s biographer, adapted his short story, "The Battler," for television.

"James Dean was supposed to be the lead but he died in the car crash," Hotchner said. "So Arthur Penn, the director, moved Paul up to that part."

Newman and Hotchner became fast friends, especially after making a movie of "The Battler" together in 1958. Eventually, they each moved from New York up to Westport, Conn., with their families.

"We owned couple a couple of boats together, and didn’t catch any fish," Hotchner told me.

In 1982, Newman and Hotchner started Newman’s Own, a salad dressing company that eventually became a multimillion-dollar business. I reported in June that Newman had quietly turned over the entire value of his ownership in Newman’s Own — the company that makes salad dressing and cookies — to charity.

Completed over a two-year period in 2005 and 2006, the amount of his donations to Newman’s Own Foundation Inc. comes to an astounding $120 million.

It was unprecedented for any movie star or anyone from what we call Hollywood. Of course Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, have never been Hollywood types. They’ve lived their lives quietly in Connecticut for the last 50 years. (They were married in January 1958. And people said it wouldn’t last!)

This columnist learned about Newman's extraordinary gift to charity as news started coming out about his battle with cancer. Newman — who has five grown daughters — was seeing an oncologist and had been in and out of Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital. Like everything else, the Newmans tried to keep Paul’s illness a private matter.

But a tip-off that he was maybe not doing so well came in late May. Newman announced that he would not direct a production of "Of Mice and Men" later this summer at the Westport Country Playhouse, where Woodward is the artistic director.

News of his illness was exacerbated by none other than neighbor Martha Stewart. In early June, she published pictures of Paul on her Web site from a party she hosted. He looked gaunt but nevertheless flashing his trademark smile.

"He’s a fighter," Hotchner told me back then. "And he’s going to keep fighting."

Hotchner was right: Newman fought to the end.

I told you that in Botswana, the Newman name is known not for being a movie star. It’s known for his famous Hole in the Wall Gang camps. The camps go to Africa every summer to run programs for impoverished and ill children. It’s the same program they run in dozens of similar camps all over the United States.

The Hole in the Wall camps are just a few of the places to receive some of the hundreds of millions of dollars Newman had raised since he got the idea to bottle salad dressing for charity.

According to Newman’s Own's federal tax filing for 2006, the actor personally gave away $8,746,500 to a variety of groups that support children, hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast, education and the arts.

Some of Newman’s recipients were well-known: He gave Rosie O’Donnell’s children's program $5,000 and even donated $25,000 to his pal Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. But most of the donatinos were for the kinds of programs that we never hear about, the kind that simply keep people alive.

But don’t think that Newman — who received his Kennedy Center honor in 1992 and deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom — did this because he suddenly thought he was dying. When he set up the new foundation, doctors had yet to diagnose his cancer. It was just in honor of his 80th birthday, and an acknowledgment that he wanted to make sure his charities would continue receiving his largesse.

Hotchner told me he visited with Newman a few times in recent weeks. The actor was quite frail.

"The cancer had taken a terrible toll on him," Hotchner said.

Mostly they discussed the Hole in the Wall camps.

The timing of Newman’s death is particularly hard, Hotchner said, because October is when he and Newman chose recipients for their charity.

"We did it every October. This year we’re giving away $26 million."

And that is Paul Newman’s amazing legacy.