But one of his most important roles getting little notice in those obituaries was his 1977 portrayal of Charlestown Chiefs player/coach Reg Dunlop in the classic hockey film, Slap Shot.
Yes, most non-hockey fans will undoubtedly remember him for a multitude of more substantial film roles (The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Verdict, etc.), but his contribution to Slap Shot not only commercially legitimized what might otherwise have been an overlooked ‘B’ movie, it created its own enduring hockey culture.
Even ESPN, in its own remembrance of Newman the other night, cited his other sports involvements such as his race-car driving and ownership of an Indy racing team, but never mentioned Slap Shot. And for an actor who was nominated nine times for a best actor Oscar (eight for a leading role) - winning once, for 1986’s Color of Money, the Martin Scorsese-directed sequel to The Hustler - it says something that Newman himself stated on several occasions that he enjoyed making Slap Shot more than any other film. Clearly, he recognized its cult-like appeal to the hockey community.
The fact that virtually every person who’s ever played hockey or loved the sport has watched that film multiple times - and can quote many of its hysterical one-liners on command - demonstrates the impact it has had on the hockey community.
As evidenced by the nightly clips on the ProStar scoreboard at American Airlines Center (“Come on guys, show us what you got!”), and the fact that the Hanson Brothers are still revered celebrities over 30 years after the film’s release (remember the loud ovation they received during their appearance at their appearance at a Stars game last season?), Slap Shot is still considered the greatest hockey movie ever.
The ironic thing about that is that, from a filmmaking perspective, it’s really not a very good film. It’s nowhere near Miracle in its character complexity, cinematography, attention to detail or authenticity of the hockey sequences, yet it remains far more impactful.
The plotline itself, while touching on timeless topics like the difficulty of the wives dealing with being alone and moving around and how a downturn in the local economy will affect the team at the box office, it still has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. (For example, how can no one, not even the press, know who ‘own’ the Chiefs? Wouldn’t that info be in the team’s media guide?)
And despite the fact that many of the hockey aspects of the movie are quite outdated, from the extensive bench-clearing brawls and players not wearing helmets to Dunlop’s role as player/coach, not to mention the presence of an actual organ player in the arena, it continues to introduce new generations of hockey fans every year to Eddie Shore, Old Time hockey and puttin’ on the foil.
Besides the movie’s timeless humor, which admittedly borders on juvenile at times but still works in any locker room in North America, part of its appeal comes from Newman himself. Having such a recognizable star, the only real ‘name’ actor in the film, helps give the film staying power while his nuanced character stabilizes the story.
With Reggie Dunlop in charge, you just knew the Chiefs would come out on top, even if it took brawling to do it .
Rest in peace, Reg. You will be missed.