Somebody Up There Likes Me was the film that Paul Newman needed. Prior to it, he had only appeared in television dramas and a turkey of a film debut, The Silver Chalice – or as he called it “the worst film made in the entire 1950s.”
But bringing boxer Rocky Graziano to life on the big screen proved to the Hollywood crowd, the moviegoing public, and even himself that he was ready for serious roles.
To help understand the part, Paul and director Robert Wise spent as much time as they could with Graziano, getting a private look into his life.
Wise said, “He would take us down to the Lower East Side, where he grew up and where he hung out, and introduce us to a lot of his friends from those days and the candy store they used to hang out in.”
Since Rocky and Newman couldn’t have been more different from each other, the part was hard to tackle.
“I tried to find universal physical things that he did or emotional responses that he had to certain things that would allow me to create not the Rocky Graziano but a Graziano,” Paul said. “There was a terrific restlessness about him, a kind of urgency and a thrust.”
Newman watched him so closely that he even picked up one of his habits.
“He spits a lot, which I do to this day.”
His preparation for the part also included demanding physical training, spending approximately six hours in the gym every day. The hard work paid off, giving his physique the right look to step into the ring.
Wise enjoyed working with Newman and noticed his dedication to the part. He said, “I think it was one of Paul's very best characterizations as an actor because it's so far away from actual Paul Newman.”
When the film debuted, some criticized Newman’s performance for supposedly being similar to Marlon Brando’s in On the Waterfront, released two years earlier.
However, if critics noticed the similarities, it was because Brando had already borrowed from the boxer.
While rehearsing for A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando acted like Graziano’s shadow, paying close attention to his mannerisms, movements, and speech while he practiced at the gym. When Marlon invited Rocky to see him perform, the sports figure couldn’t help but notice what the actor was doing.
“That kid is playing me!” he said afterwards.
Knowing this, the criticism didn’t affect Newman in the same way. He said, “I always like to think that Marlon and I were working off the same guy.”
While his performance was excellent, Paul was not nominated for an Academy Award. However, he did get something else – something perhaps more meaningful.
Wise and producer Charles Schnee lovingly gave him a “Noscar,” an award for not getting an Oscar.
The inscription read:
“The Schnee-Wise Noscar Award to Paul Newman for best portraying a terrible, no-good blankity blank, for turning him into a charming and lovable sprite and thereby doing what Lincoln said could never be done (i.e. fooling all of the people all of the time).”
In his career, Newman would be nominated for Academy Awards ten times, winning only for The Color of Money in 1987.