Every so often, my favorite photo of Paul Newman circulates online. It’s 1981, and Newman is wearing an orange t-shirt flanked with black and white stripes on the sleeves. Chunky block text reads, “get really stoned.” Underneath, in smaller text: “drink wet cement.” It’s hard to say where exactly Newman is. The leafy foliage, plus Newman’s bare feet and short white cutoffs (did I mention it was 1981?), suggest the balmy environs of Southern California. But it could just as easily be Westport, Connecticut, where the actor and his wife, Joanne Woodward, elected to raise their children instead. Newman’s graying hair is shaggier than it appears in most of his films, and he’s allowed a salt-and-pepper goatee to flourish underneath his era-appropriate tufts of unencumbered sideburns. He’s holding two bottles of St. Pauli Girls lagers in each hand, not unlike the German barmaid on the label. He looks more effortless, more enviably at ease, than I imagine I ever will in my lifetime.
The photo isn’t exactly textbook Newman—the skinny-tied, cropped-haired actor who once chomped on so many eggs, the one with the eyes, oh yes, the eyes (the same ones that convinced Richard Brooks to shoot Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in color). That Newman of the popular imagination, the serious-minded actor known for his sustained association with Tennessee Williams, would wear many more hats over his storied, decades-long career: original Wife Guy of the highest order; outspoken activist and proud enemy of Richard Nixon; and, as I first knew him, the philanthropic man on the salsa jar.
Under all these personae existed Newman’s wisecracking, impish, preternaturally affable core. It would rear its head in his early films, in momentarily wicked or comically dry flashes, or in interviews as he sipped beer. (“How about a beer, sport?” he told Roger Ebert in 1969, before launching into an endorsement of Coors.) This attitude reeks of Slap Shot’s Reggie Dunlop.
Though Newman starred in Slap Shot in 1977, his character, Dunlop—the charlatan player-coach of a minor league hockey team—must have lingered in his system. He admitted as much in 1984, when he told Time, “There’s a hangover from characters sometimes. There are things that stick. Since Slap Shot, my language is right out of the locker room!” That being said, Newman also professed a kinship with Dunlop that existed long before 1977. In part, it was the shared sense of humor, of which Newman said “comes straight out of the toilet.”
There are also core characteristics—carousing and charismatic—that link the two men. Newman may have expressed his likeness to Dunlop in mildly disappointed terms, but it’s easy to imagine the accompanying arch grin: “Unfortunately, that character is a lot closer to me than I would care to admit.” Though Newman may have been embarrassed by his and Dunlop’s shared vulgarity (Newman, one would hope and assume, was less brazenly homophobic), it’s also the most fun that Newman ever had on film, not to mention one of his oft-mentioned favorites. With Slap Shot, he unlocked the ability to bring his inherent gregariousness and impish charm to the big screen, ushering in his most confident, natural performances of the coming decades.
A bloody, boisterous affair on ice, Slap Shot takes place in a down-on-its-luck New England mill town called Charlestown. The local minor league hockey team, the Chiefs, isn’t faring much better. Once a reprieve for exhausted factory workers with a buck to spend, the Chiefs are struggling with a losing season and a fed-up fanbase. When the steel factory threatens to lay off 10,000 workers, it indirectly jeopardizes the future of the team—that is, unless Reggie Dunlop can turn the season around. You’d be remiss to assume that this is a set-up for a heartwarming, ‘aw shucks’ tale of sports redemption. Instead, what follows is two hours of violence, debauchery, and a near-constant flow of obscenities—and that’s just the fans. At the center is Dunlop’s enterprising trickster, who’s almost as shrewd as he thinks he is. What Dunlop does understand is that fisticuffs fill seats, and his players are (for the most part) eager to comply.
Slap Shot marks the third and final collaboration between Newman and director George Roy Hill, the two having previously worked together on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). Given Newman’s turns as wily charmers Butch Cassidy and Henry Gondorff—not to mention his close, personal friendship with the director—the actor seemed an obvious choice for Dunlop. For whatever reason, however, Hill didn’t initially consider his friend for the role, instead courting interest from Al Pacino, among others (it couldn’t have helped that Newman was already north of 50). Luckily for Newman, Hill prioritized skating prowess in his casting search. Per Jonathon Jackson’s The Making of Slap Shot, their exchange went something like this:
Newman: What are you doing?
Hill: Well, I know this isn’t for you. You’re too old, and you can’t skate anyway.
Newman: Actually, I can skate.
Hill: You can?!
For Newman, the role meant more than returning to a childhood hobby. (Though he had last graced the ice 40 years prior, Newman skated every day for two months to prepare for the role, enlisting his hockey-playing brother, Arthur, for help.) It was, Newman hoped, an escape from the stasis of tired, unoriginal scripts that were beginning to bore the veteran actor. To Newman, Slap Shot, penned by a young screenwriter named Nancy Dowd, was electrifying.
Protective helmets didn’t become mandatory in the National Hockey League until 1979. Thanks to a loophole, the statute only applied to incoming players; members of the league who signed contracts prior to June 1, 1979 needed only sign a liability waiver, meaning that players were still skating sans helmets as recently as the ‘96-‘97 season. Even in a movie whose whole thing is violence, the sheer number of exposed, sweat-slicked heads in Slap Shot is still shocking to behold. (One actor, Allan Nicholls, did wear a helmet, but only to distinguish himself from his similarly shaggy-haired castmates.) Of all the major sports, hockey also has the most menacing acoustics, making the lack of protective gear an even more glaring omission.
Slap Shot’s first hockey game arrives about three minutes into the film, the players skating out to increasingly hostile greetings from their own fans. (For Reggie: “Dunlop, you stink!” For the Quebecois player, a charming: “Frog pussy!”) If the violence of the game presents itself immediately, in the smashing of bodies and sounds of blades slashing through ice, so does the defeated, lackadaisical energy. At one moment, the camera lens goes blurry, either because it’s overwhelmed by the highly kinetic sport, or because one of the players casually mentions that he’s hammered.
With all its low-brow chatter and high-octane spectacle, it’s easy to see why minor league hockey was scintillating fodder for Dowd. A graduate of Smith College and UCLA’s film school, the 30-year-old’s first stab at screenwriting was inspired by her brother, Ned, a member of the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League (Ned has a cameo in Slap Shot as uber-goon Ogie Ogilthorpe). When Dowd learned that the team was up for sale, she decamped to Johnstown, PA, where she tailed the famously violent Jets—sometimes in person, other times via a tape recorder that her brother planted in the locker rooms and on the bus—to get a sense of the team’s F-bomb-laden repartee.
Dowd’s Chiefs turned out to be a very thinly veiled version of the Jets. All of Slap Shot’s fight scenes were pulled directly from Jets game logs, including a memorable moment when the players hop over the plexiglass divider and storm the seats to brawl with the fans (a well-timed cut shows the opposing team standing on the ice, blinking). Hill also cast real-life hockey players, some of whom were Jets, in bit parts. Two menacing members of the championship game goon squad, Clarence “Screaming Buffalo” Swamptown and Ross “Mad Dog” Madison, were played by the just-as-fearsome Joe Nolan and Connie “Mad Dog” Madigan. Most famously, the Hanson brothers—the dopey, bloodlusting bunch in Coke-bottle glasses—were played by the Jets’ Carlson brothers (Dave Hanson took over the role of Jack Hanson when the latter’s real-life analog, Jack Carlson, was called up to the Edmonton Oilers—got that?). The real players add a certain, shall we say, vérité to the mix—cue the bruiser taking out his dentures before the game—but also a lack of pretension that makes Slap Shot ‘guys just being dudes’ canon.
Among a crop of hockey players, character actors like Strother Martin and M. Emmet Walsh, and newcomers like Michael Ontkean, Newman was the sole bona fide star. But he didn’t spend his time sequestered in a trailer. Rather, he rubbed shoulders with the guys, drinking beer, shooting pool, and soaking up hockey stories. As a result, the film’s lived-in energy radiates, especially off the ice. Much of Slap Shot exists in the stretches of tedium between games, various rust belt watering holes, and hotels that echo with a barrage of profane zingers. In a moment that Dowd took from real life, the Chiefs sit at a bar in the middle of the day watching a soap opera and yelling at the screen as if it were a hockey game: “That c—t is no good.” “She’s lyin’ to ‘im!” “She makes him crazy on purpose!”
For Newman, it had to have been a happy reprieve from stardom, not to mention an opportunity to slip into character actor mode. For all his star power, sometimes Newman seemed exactly that—a character actor trapped inside the body of an impossibly handsome man. What a kick, then, to be surrounded by true-blue hockey fans who couldn’t care less about the blue-eyed actor. In one anecdote from Jackson’s behind-the-scenes book, Newman goes up to the starstruck bartender to get another round for the group. “Do you know who those guys you’re sitting with are?” she says. “They’re the Johnstown Jets!”
Still, for all of the downtime and inter-game carousing, Dunlop spends most of the film zipping around Charlestown and other icy hamlets of the Northeast, ceaselessly manipulating others either for the hell of it—as when he tricks his goalie into a meaningless five-dollar bet—or to advance his team-saving scheme. “You gotta twist ‘em and fuck with ‘em!” Dunlop asserts. In her treatment, Dowd outlined the “catch-22 situation” that Dunlop cooks up, a plot that involves planting a rumor that a Florida retirement community is buying the failing team: “To win, they have to think they’ve been bought. To be bought, they have to win.”
In another actor, all the calculated rabble-rousing might get tiresome—or worse, too slimy for viewers to bear. But he never quite approaches pure slime or smarm, his well-meaning charm so eclipsing. When Dunlop has a tryst with another player’s bi-curious ex, Suzanne (Melinda Dillon), he’s non-judgmental—sympathetic, even—in a film that’s otherwise filled with the more brazenly bigoted. Still, Dunlop is nothing if not enterprising, and he uses the pillow talk as ammunition to score goals, luring her goalie husband out of the net with measured taunts: “Hanrahan, Suzanne sucks pussy!…She’s a lesbian! A lesbian! A lesbian!” When his opponents try to clap back, their provocations slide like water off a duck’s back. “Dunlop, you suck cock!” He only smiles: “All I can get.” Newman hadn’t combined stupidity, savvy, and cocksure charm so well since The Hustler.
Even when Dunlop’s scheming tilts towards ruthlessness, there’s still that endearing glimmer in his eye. Ahead of a game against Syracuse, Dunlop puts out a bounty on one of their opponents to the fury of the Chiefs’ general manager—and the interest of his most impressionable players. He bests the GM again later, essentially blackmailing him by implying that he’d share a salacious, career-ending recollection. Don’t blame me, Dunlop suggests, just those sneering bigots who’d do you in. “I’m sexually liberated,” he says winkingly. “I don’t care who’s a f—g no more.” For Dunlop, the impish act is half the fun. His real fangs only come out when he’s bested by someone out of his league. The team’s owner is Anita McCambridge (Kathryn Walker), an upper-cruster who’s immune to his charms, who understands hockey to be nothing more than a boorish tax write-off. “Oh, you are very clever,” she says of his adorable little ploys. “It’s been so much fun waiting to see what you’re gonna do next.” His reaction starts out nobly enough (“You’re garbage for letting us all go down the drain”) before slinging homophobic barbs at her son on his way out.
Whether out of guilt, spite, or a renewed sense of clarity, Dunlop decides to play the championship game clean. He delivers the closest thing the film has to an uplifting locker room speech, repudiating the team’s brutal buffoonery—”We’ve been goons! We’re the freaks in a fuckin’ sideshow!”—and embracing “old-time hockey.” But this is Slap Shot, not Hoosiers. At the first mention of scouts in the stands, Dunlop’s eyes widen, and the enterprising glimmer returns to his eyes: “Scouts?” Next thing we know, he’s back on the ice, wailing on a Syracuse player.
Slap Shot gets an ending befitting its bleak, industrial ‘70s environs. The team folds. The mill workers, presumably, are laid off. Dunlop’s ex-wife leaves for Long Island. For Dunlop, though, things are peachy—at least by his estimation. He accepts an offer to be a player-coach in Minnesota, with plans to bring his teammates with him. It’s a magic trick that Dunlop pulls off repeatedly throughout Slap Shot: scheme and scrap and charm your way through it until things work out, even if they kind of don’t. Win the championship, even if it’s because of a bogus forfeiture.
Earlier in the film, after the player/fan brawl lands the Hanson brothers in jail, Dunlop argues semantics with the police officer. “They’re folk heroes,” he asserts. “They’re criminals,” the cop responds. Dunlop retorts, “Well, most folk heroes started out as criminals.” The line reads like an in-joke about Newman’s most beloved characters. The magnetism of Reggie Dunlop, a sunny optimist who doesn’t mind twisting a few arms in pursuit of said optimism, is that he might just believe it.