Newman has a bouncy intensity, like a Doberman puppy. He has a balding head and a slightly maniacal grin that make him resemble John Malkovich’s younger, geekier brother. Once, at a movie premiere in Los Angeles, someone mistook him for Malkovich’s and began pitching a script idea. Newman just let him talk. In a business that pays lots of attention to the markers of success — where an expensive car or a new, younger wife helps establish one’s place in the pecking order — Newman drives a BMW 525i, no clunker but certainly no Porsche. He has loved the same woman since he was 19 years old. While other agents fight to get their names included in Daily Variety’s stories about their clients, Newman insists that his be omitted.
“Robert doesn’t seem to be packaged like the other guys,” Lee Tamahori told me just before the James Bond sequel Die Another Day — a directing. job Newman got him — became America’s number one movie. “In a town of people who fake being interesting,” says writer-director Greg Berlanti, another longtime Newman client, “he is the genuine article.”
What makes Newman a “rare bird” among agents, as one studio executive puts it, is his deep, abiding, obsessive love of film. It’s an obsession he’s had since he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn who dragged his friends to see Buster Keaton, Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, Mel Brooks, and Akira Kurosawa. Newman wrote his film school thesis on Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which he saw for the first time at age ten. He’s watched it 19 times since.
Ask Newman to describe the last night he saw his mother, or how he courted his wife, or why being profiled in this magazine makes him uncomfortable, and he will start with a movie. Throw out a title, and he can tell you where in the theater he was sitting when he saw it. He was 8 when he saw Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (in Coney Island), 9 when he saw Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (at Manhattan’s 34th Street East), 13 when he saw John Boorman’s Deliverance (at Loew’s Tower East), 15 when he saw Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (at the Paramount), and 20 when he saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (at Loew’s State). Other than his family Newman cares about nothing more than entering a darkened theater and watching what unfolds. Movies are not just a job. They are, for him, a way of making sense of the world.
Newman’s name may not be known outside the entertainment industry, but moviegoers all over the country have felt his impact. Not since the emergence of the blockbuster in the late 1970s has the auteur director had such opportunity in Hollywood. Newman is part of the reason why. As much as any agent, he has helped link maverick filmmakers to the cash and distribution muscle of the major studios. Sometimes this has meant brokering deals that enable a director to bring his own off-kilter vision to the screen — Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas is just one example. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is another.
Other times Newman has married independent filmmakers with big-budget mainstream projects. Not everyone sees this as progress — the consensus on 2000′s The Beach, the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, was that the director, Danny Boyle, had failed to live up to the promise of his heralded black comedy Trainspotting. Similarly, most people who saw 1997′s Alien: Resurrection, the fourth installment of the Fox horror franchise, agreed that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was, as one critic put it, “oh-so-wrong” for the project. Still, there’s no question that over the last decade, Newman has made America a vastly more interesting place in which to go to the movies.
“So many people are just ‘Can I get $ 17 million for the next sequel?’ Robert takes a much more long-term view,” says Miramax cofounder Harvey Weinstein, who gave Newman his first job out of film school in 1981. “He thinks like a marketing executive and an agent at the same time. He’s intimately involved in selling the movie, getting his directors to promote the movie, and generally leaving no stone unturned so that there is success at the end of the day.” The result, Weinstein says: “He can get projects made that another agent couldn’t.”