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An Oral History Of Newman’s Own Salad Dressing

In 1982, Paul Newman started a company with his friend A.E. Hotchner. Newman was famous for starring in films like “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid,” but this new venture had nothing to do with acting. His mission was simple: make salad dressing. Little did he know that their fledgling company would go on to have a major impact on millions of people’s lives.

This is the story of a man. A man who had a vision, and who didn’t stop until that vision became a reality. This is the official oral history of Newman’s Own Salad Dressing.

Chapter 1: How It All Got Started

Robert Redford (co-star, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid): On the last day of filming for Butch Cassidy, Paul and I talked about things we wanted to accomplish outside of our acting careers. I told him about my idea for the Sundance Film Festival, how it would showcase independent filmmakers from all over the country and provide a launching pad into the film industry for young American artists. Paul told me that he wanted to drown the world in balsamic.

A.E. Hotchner (co-founder, Newman’s Own): Paul and I had been friends for a long time, so I was well aware of his obsession with salad dressing. He used to call me at four in the morning sometimes and just start naming all the different kinds. Italian. Sesame Ginger. Lite Italian. He knew them all.

Joanne Woodward (actress; Newman’s wife): Paul had no interest in salad. For him, it was always about the dressing. He called it his “wetness,” and he drank it constantly.

Robert Redford: That last shot of Butch Cassidy, the famous freeze-frame when they’re about to be killed by the Bolivian army? It wasn’t supposed to be a freeze-frame. Truth is, it had to be a freeze-frame, because a second later, Paul took out a mason jar filled with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, chugged the whole thing, and shrieked, “Now THAT’S my kind of wetness!” He did it on every take.

Bill Gates (co-founder, Microsoft): I like all kinds of salads. Caesar salad. Cobb salad. Greek salad. Salad is great, and I order it often when I go to restaurants.

A.E. Hotchner: The homemade salad dressing started as a holiday tradition. Every Christmas, Paul would make a bunch of salad dressing, pour it into wine bottles, and drive around the neighborhood throwing them through people’s windows with a note that said “Hi, it’s Paul from acting. Please drink my wetness. I don’t think it will annihilate your bones.”

Robert Redford: He was right. Nobody’s bones were annihilated. And people liked the dressing.

Joanne Woodward: He always gave the dressing away for free during those early days. That’s the way it was with Paul. He gave everything away. One time, he tried to donate every single one of my fingers to UNICEF. He was completely unmaterialistic.

Sam Mendes (director, Road To Perdition): Sometime around the middle of shooting Road To Perdition, I came home to find that Paul had given away everything in my house. He had given away my television. My furniture. My Oscar. Paul Newman had given away my wife and children and all the pictures of them that had been on the walls. He had given away everything except the house itself, which was completely empty. There was nothing left. Nothing at all. He was the most generous man I ever knew.

Joanne Woodward: Paul’s interest in philanthropy is really what drove him to start the company with Aaron. The idea that he could use the salad dressing to fund the many charities he dreamed of starting, most of which involved giving sick children even sicker geckos so they wouldn’t feel so bad about being sick.

A.E. Hotchner: Paul calls me at four in the morning one day and says, “Hello, my extremely unfamous friend! It’s Paul from acting. I want to sell my wetness to strangers so I can use the profits to make charities for good causes like giving sick kids fucked-up geckos and letting homeless people sit on a trampoline for just one minute, so are you with me or what?” The next day, we got to work on the first batch of Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Chapter 2: Production

It was official. Newman’s Own would begin to make and sell salad dressing, with all profits going to different charities. But neither Newman nor Hotchner had much business experience, and they found themselves having to learn a lot on the fly. How exactly does one start a salad dressing company? They would have to find out.

A.E. Hotchner: It took us forever to make that first batch, because every time we finished making it, Paul would taste it to make sure it was right and inevitably love it so much that he’d drink it all, and we’d have to start over again.

Joanne Woodward: That famous slogan, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Newman’s: It Tastes Wet,” is what Paul would shout whenever he tasted a new batch.

Robert Redford: He was extremely proud of how wet it tasted and sent me countless unprompted faxes about it that all said “Hi, it’s Paul from acting, and I couldn’t be prouder of the wet taste.”

Joanne Woodward: Once they had made the actual dressing, there were some issues with the prototypes for the bottles.

A.E. Hotchner: Originally, Paul wanted the bottles to be life-size plastic molds of his body, which you would sort of reach around the waist and perform the Heimlich maneuver on in order to get dressing to spray out of his mouth and eyes.

Robert Redford: These were 6-foot-tall, translucent statues of Paul’s nude body, and they each weighed about 200 pounds because they were filled with 15 gallons of balsamic vinaigrette.

A.E. Hotchner: Some people in the focus group had a hard time figuring out the mechanism for expelling the dressing, so Paul installed a soundbox on each bottle that would scream “I’M CHOKING! I’M CHOKING!” in order to encourage people to perform the Heimlich maneuver on the bottle, which was the only way to get the dressing out. It didn’t work.

Bill Gates: Another kind of salad is Chinese chicken salad.

A.E. Hotchner: So, we decided to stick with a more traditional bottle and just put a picture of Paul on the label. He was adamant about that.

Robert Redford: Paul once explained it to me like this in an unprompted fax: “Hi, Robert from acting. It’s me, Paul from acting as well. The reason for my face on the bottles is so that all the extremely unfamous strangers know that the wetness is mine. So they’ll look at the bottles and see my face and think, ‘Of course, the wetness belongs to none other than Paul from acting. This is the one thing that is certain in this world.’”

A.E. Hotchner: We shipped the first bottles of Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette to stores across the country and waited for the sales figures. We had no idea what to expect.

Chapter 3: Disruptors

With the bottles of Newman’s Own packaged and shipped to vendors, the fate of the company hung in the balance. But Newman and Hotchner weren’t the only ones wondering how their salad dressing would sell. Competitors in the food industry waited to see what the world would make of this new enterprise from Paul Newman.

Benno Dorer (CEO, Clorox, which owns Hidden Valley Ranch): Nobody at Hidden Valley considered him a serious threat. We’d just locked down sponsorship deals with every remaining survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and President Reagan had used a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing to kill a spider on national television. We were absolutely dominating the industry.

David H. Murdock (CEO, Dole Food Company): Benno underestimated Paul. Everyone did. Paul was from acting, not from salad dressing. It just didn’t make any sense that he would succeed.

Benno Dorer: They could only afford one commercial. It aired twice during a two-hour block of forest fire footage and consisted entirely of Paul Newman lapping at a puddle of balsamic vinaigrette while a number flashed on the screen. I called the number just to try it out, and it took me to a recorded message of Paul Newman saying “Hi, it’s Paul from acting, and I think it tastes wet. Thank you very much.” I didn’t feel like we had anything to worry about.

Edward F. Lonergan (CEO, Chiquita Brands International): Benno and the rest of those Hidden Valley Ranch guys thought they were untouchable because a food critic from the Times had just hailed their ranch dressing as both “slippery” and “nonflammable.” And then Paul surprised them all.

A.E. Hotchner: Every single store sold out of our dressing in two hours. Vons, Albertson’s, Jeffrey’s Food Museum—suddenly, all the national grocery chains were calling us demanding more Newman’s Own.

Benno Dorer: I go into work that day and there’s a nude balsamic-filled statue of Paul Newman on my desk screaming about how he’s choking. I asked my secretary who it was from. “A gift,” she said, “from Paul Newman.”

Joanne Woodward: Paul was very happy when he heard how well the dressing was selling. But he didn’t understand why people were pouring it all over their salad. He said to me, “Hi, Joanne from acting and also marriage, it’s Paul from acting and also marriage as well. I don’t understand why they’re putting my wetness on the plants. The wetness is a kind of beverage that tastes so wet and probably doesn’t annihilate your skeleton, so it is a mystery to me why they pour it on the plants.”

A.E. Hotchner: At the end of the day, as long as the dressing raised money for charity, Paul didn’t care what people did with it. And it did. It raised a lot of money for charity.

Joanne Woodward: On the first day alone, we raised enough money to donate over 15,000 terminally ill geckos to children’s hospitals across the country. I went with Paul when he delivered some of them. To see the way those kids’ faces would light up when Paul handed them a mangled gecko that was clearly closer to death than they were…it was very special.

Bill Gates: If you can’t finish your entire salad and want to save some for later, make sure to put it in the fridge.

Edward F. Lonergan: How do you compete with a company that is giving all of their money away to charity? The answer is, you don’t. Benno knew that. Hidden Valley was fucked.

Benno Dorer: The moment Paul Newman turned to Tom Cruise in the climactic scene of The Color Of Money and announced that Newman’s Own would begin making ranch dressing, I knew our time as the bad-boy lust lords of the salad dressing industry was over. Goodbye, free access to the secret bathroom at the top of the Washington Monument. So long, permission to bang on the glass of the jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We had been dethroned.

Chapter 4: Crossroads

Following the record sales of the first batch of Newman’s Own, the company that had started in Paul’s basement in Connecticut was now manufacturing massive quantities of salad dressing in several factories throughout the country. As the business grew, so did Newman’s network of life-changing charities. But success came at a cost.

Robert Redford: Paul was accomplishing everything he had set out to achieve. He had established a charity that helped sick kids sneak into R-rated movies. He had created a lite ranch dressing, something science had once thought impossible. But at some point, it became clear that Paul’s focus on salad dressing was affecting his acting.

Joel Coen (writer/director, The Hudsucker Proxy): Watch Hudsucker Proxy again, and you’ll notice that you never see both of Paul’s arms in the same shot. That’s because he was always stirring a vat of dressing just out of frame.

Ethan Coen (writer/director, The Hudsucker Proxy): When we offered Paul the part, we thought we were getting the Paul Newman from Butch Cassidy and The Color Of Money. We didn’t realize we were getting Paul Newman the salad dressing guzzler who would insist on renaming his character “Marvin, the Balsamic Genius” 15 days into principal photography.

Joanne Woodward: Paul did hours and hours of character work for Hudsucker, painstakingly developing the character of Marvin, the Balsamic Genius, who knows about vinegar in a world where nobody else knows about vinegar. It just wasn’t the same vision that Joel and Ethan had for the role.

Bill Gates: Breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. Salad is great for any meal.

Robert Redford: I started hearing stories about how Paul would try to tinker with scripts in order to make them about a character who drinks so much salad dressing that God kills himself out of jealousy. It worried me.

Tom Cruise (co-star, The Color Of Money): Paul once told me that it was “unrealistic” for my character to feel sadness, because salad dressing existed and therefore happiness was a much more probable emotional state.

A.E. Hotchner: Paul was getting a reputation as being difficult to work with, but the truth is that the guy was just overextended. One day, he’d be acting on set; the next, he’d be passing out semi-decapitated geckos at St. Jude’s, or soaking in a vat of creamy Caesar at one of our factories until he passed out from sodium poisoning.

Joanne Woodward: Paul’s agent would call and offer him the lead in something or other, and Paul would always say the same thing: “Hi, it’s Paul from acting. Unless there is a scene where the character is given the Nobel Peace Prize for murdering the man who drank the last bottle of Greek vinaigrette, then I’m not interested.”

A.E. Hotchner: I think Paul wanted to wind down his acting career so that he could focus on running Newman’s Own, starting more charities, and building The Ranch Canal, a nonfunctional canal that would stretch across the entire United States and be entirely filled with ranch dressing. You have to respect that, even if you’re a fan of his acting, and even if The Ranch Canal ended up being both enormously illegal and environmentally catastrophic.

Chapter 5: An Enduring Legacy

In 2008, Paul Newman passed away, and the world mourned his loss. But even in his absence, Newman’s Own has lived on, continuing the work Newman and Hotchner began when they started the company more than 30 years ago. Since then, they’ve made countless servings of salad dressing and raised millions of dollars for charities, all because one man had the vision and the fortitude to bring his dream to life.

A.E. Hotchner: Of all the Newman’s Own products, salad dressing was always Paul’s favorite. It was his wetness, and he liked how it tasted wet. It started it all. But even though Paul thought Newman-O’s were large bugs that wanted to steal his plans for a balsamic ear, I’m sure he’d be happy today to see how many kids our company has been able to help by selling them, as well as all the other Newman’s Own products.

Joanne Woodward: It’s crazy to think that the money raised from selling salad dressing was able to provide wetsuits for so many homeless people, and 400 eels for one sick kid, and a bunch of prosciutto for some old people one time in a parking lot. How inspiring.

Robert Redford: It’s hard to say what I admire about Paul more. Is it the fact that he exhibited a quasi-supernatural ability to consume copious amounts of salad dressing with seemingly no harm to his well-being? Or that his last words to me were from an unprompted fax that said “Hi, Robert from acting. It’s Paul from acting as well. A beautiful thing to imagine is a birdbath filled with balsamic and also I’m sitting in it fighting away birds with a rake because I want the wetness for myself. Okay, so long now.” I just don’t know.

Joanne Woodward: I still have about a hundred of those old nude prototype bottles in my basement, and every now and then, something will set them off and they’ll all start screaming that they’re choking in the middle of the night. I’d throw them out, but it’s nice to hear his voice again. He really was a great man.

Bill Gates: And who doesn’t love croutons?

A.E. Hotchner: I’m incredibly proud of the company that Paul and I started. But most of all, after all these years, the thing I’m most proud of is that no one’s skeleton has ever popped like a balloon inside of their body from eating Newman’s Own salad dressing, because that would be awful.