‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ star Susan Blakely Reflects on Working With Paul Newman

by Suzanne Halliburton

Susan Blakely starred in two great projects from the 1970s. She was part of the record-breaking mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man.

And two years before that project, she also appeared in The Towering Inferno, a disaster movie with an all-star cast. That included Blakely’s crush, Paul Newman.

So let’s set the 1970s entertainment scene. It was all about disaster epics, like The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure. And then the mini-series came to be. Rich Man, Poor Man was based on a novel written by Irwin Shaw. And ABC turned it into a 12 hours of TV history in early 1976. As the New York Times pointed out in a story from 1976, the mini-series had a designed beginning, middle, and end, which made it unlike any show on television. The article pointed out that each installment ranked in the weekly top 10. All episodes were watched by an average of 40 percent of the country’s TV sets.

Rich Man, Poor Man Told Story of Two Brothers

Rich Man, Poor Man focused on the Jordache brothers, who grew up in a blue collar family. Peter Strauss played Rudy, the rich, successful brother. Nick Nolte was Tom, the poor one who tried to make it in life as a boxer. Blakely played Julie Prescott, who was Rudy’s life-time love.

Two years before Rich Man, Poor Man, Blakely was one of many stars in The Towering Inferno. It was the top grossing movie in all of 1974 as fans flocked to see some of the world’s top stars all on screen together. This movie had sizzling star power, pun intended. There was Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Reps from regal old Hollywood made appearances, including Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones. Faye Dunaway was in the movie, as was Richard Chamberlain, who went on to star in a mega1980s mini-series, The Thorn Birds. If not for previous mini-series like Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots, The Thorn Birds might never have made it to TV.

Blakely was entranced with Paul Newman. Seriously, who wouldn’t be? Newman played the architect of the world’s largest building located in San Francisco. Yes, it went up in flames. McQueen was a battalion chief in the San Francisco fire department.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Blakely Befriended Paul Newman and His Wife

“I was just in love with Paul Newman,” Blakely told Closer Weekly. “He was my biggest crush. So when I heard Paul Newman was in it, I said if he was doing it, I was doing it.”

“I had a fabulous time,” said Blakely, who portrayed Patty, William Holden’s daughter. “I got to hang out with William Holden, who was a wonderful man, and Fred Astaire, who was amazing… He was just so humble and sweet. I also met my husband on that set, but we didn’t hit it off then. I remembered him when we met again later.”

She said Holden introduced her to Newman.

“I looked at him and my heart started to race!” she said of Newman. “He was the sexiest man, the best actor, and he turned out to be the kindest man, too.”

She became friends with both Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward.

“They were just such down-to-earth people,” she said.