Paul Newman has always been a fiercely private man, shunning the trappings of fame wrought by his Hollywood career while immersing himself in auto racing, philanthropy and a multimillion-dollar food business.

Addressing reports that he was fighting cancer, Newman certainly stayed in character: "Newman says he's doing nicely," was the extent of a statement issued by the 83-year-old actor's publicist, Jeff Sanderson.

On Wednesday, a longtime neighbor and business partner confirmed to The Associated Press that Newman told him about the disease about 18 months ago.

"It's a form of cancer and he's dealing with it," said A.E. Hotchner, a writer who partnered with Newman to start Newman's Own salad dressing company in the 1980s.

Hotchner did not specify what kind of cancer Newman had, but said the actor is in active treatment.

There were earlier indications that Newman might be struggling with an illness. Recent photos showed the actor appearing gaunt; he dropped plans to direct a play in his Connecticut hometown late last month; and while he attended a practice for the Indianapolis 500 in early May, he wasn't on hand for the Memorial Day weekend race.

Martha Stewart, in an entry dated June 6, posted a photo on her blog of herself with the actor, who looked thin, at a luncheon to benefit the Hole in the Wall Gang camps for critically ill children. (The Hole in the Wall Gang was led by Newman's affable outlaw character, Butch, in the 1969 film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.")

Hotchner said Newman had an operation a few years ago, "somewhere in the area of the lung."

"He's battling," Hotchner said. "He's doing all the right stuff. Paul is a fighter. He seems to be going through a good period right now."

Asked about his prognosis, Hotchner said, "Everybody is hopeful. That's all we know."

Hotchner, a longtime friend of Newman's, wavered in his public statements later Wednesday, telling "Access Hollywood" that he had no knowledge of Newman being treated for any illness. He confirmed the cancer report to the Reuters news agency, however.

Hotchner did not return later phone calls Wednesday from the AP. "We stand by our story," the AP said in a statement.

In 1982, Hotchner and Newman started a company to market Newman's original oil-and-vinegar dressing. Newman's Own, which began as a joke, grew into a multimillion-dollar business selling popcorn, salad dressing, spaghetti sauce and other foods. All the company's profits are donated to charities. By 2007, the company had donated more than $200 million, according to its Web site.

Last month, officials at Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse cited unspecified health issues when they announced that Newman would not direct "Of Mice and Men" this fall.

Newman lives in Westport with his wife, Joanne Woodward.

Newman won an Oscar for his leading role in 1986's "The Color of Money." His screen credits also include "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke," "The Verdict" and "Road to Perdition."

Two friends said Tuesday that Newman appeared to be doing well.

"I think he's feeling quite well," said actor James Naughton, who spoke to Newman on Monday night. "As far as I can tell he's doing very well."

Newman had an infection over the winter, but seems to have that under control, Naughton said. He was lively at this month's Hole in the Wall Gang camp fundraiser, he said.

Michael Brockman, Newman's racing team partner, said Newman told him recently that he wants to get back into his race car for a test run and possibly another competition. His last race was last fall, he said.

"I think he's doing better than he was," Brockman said, noting that Newman had regained most of the weight he had lost.

"I think he looks great," said Brockman, who saw Newman last weekend. "I wish I looked that good."