Barry Newman, 'Vanishing Point' speedster and 'Petrocelli' star, dies at 92

Barry Newman in a black turtleneck holding a microphone in his right hand and smiling
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Barry Newman was a rogue speedster with a knack of drifting through winding hills and running cops off the road in the 1971 film "Vanishing Point." Off-screen, Newman was nothing like his thrill-seeking ex-police officer Kowalski.

"It amuses me now to think that he was famous for these insane driving movies," his niece Judith Newman said on Facebook. "In real life he was a very cautious driver."

Barry Newman, who also starred as the titular lawyer in the TV series "Petrocelli," died May 11, his niece announced Sunday. He was 92. According to multiple reports, the actor died of natural causes at a New York City hospital.

"He really lived like the modest nice Jewish boy from Boston that he was. RIP Uncle Barry," Newman concluded her Facebook tribute.

Born on Nov. 7, 1930, Newman graduated with an anthropology degree in 1952 from Brandeis University, where he met theater director and acting teacher Lee Strasberg. After a stint in the U.S. Army as a member of the Third Army Band in Atlanta, Newman moved to New York, where he studied with Strasberg and commenced his acting career.

Newman's acting debut was as a jazz musician in the Herman Wouk play "Nature’s Way" in 1957. Subsequently, he appeared in several other Broadway shows including Mel Tolkin's "Maybe Tuesday," the musical "What Makes Sammy Run" and a New York production of Agatha Christie's "The Mouse Trap."

In the ’60s, Newman broke into movies and TV with minor roles in "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Naked City" and soap opera "The Edge of Night," according to IMDb.

Newman led the 1970 film "The Lawyer" as Tony Petrocelli, a young attorney defending a physician accused of murdering his wife. Four years after the film's debut, Newman reprised the role for the NBC TV series "Petrocelli," which ran until 1976. He received Primetime Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his "Petrocelli" performance.

Richard C. Sarafian's "Vanishing Point," however, solidified Newman's place as a leading man as his Kowalski drove a Dodge Challenger to max speed to get from Denver to San Francisco in less than a day. The action film did not initially make a huge splash in the United States, but across the pond, "People lined up around the block to see it," Newman told Paul Rowlands in an interview published in 2019.

"In England I was a hero, and in America I was just a guy picking up his bags at the plane terminal! It opened again in America after playing Europe and people then started getting on to the film," he said. "It became a cult film without me even realizing it. To this day, I'm always being asked to talk about it somewhere."

Cleavon Little and Dean Jagger also starred in "Vanishing Point."

The ’70s were fruitful for Newman. He also starred in films "Fear Is the Key," "City on Fire" and "The Salzburg Connection" and television movies "Sex and the Married Woman" and "King Crab."

Newman turned his focus to a variety of television projects the following decade, with roles in "Nightingales," "The Fall Guy" and "Quincy, M.E." In the ’90s, he appeared in several episode of "Murder, She Wrote" and starred in films "Daylight," "Goodbye Lover" and Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey," among others.

In 2009, Newman was diagnosed with vocal cord cancer, which limited his ability to work. His more recent movie credits include "Jack the Dog," "40 Days and 40 Nights," "Grilled" and "Raise Your Kids on Seltzer." According to IMDb, Newman completed the indie film "Finding Hannah" before his death.

Looking back on his time as Kowalski in "Vanishing Point," Newman told Film Independent in 2013 about getting back into the driver's seat.

"They had the new Dodge Challenger a couple years ago and they called me because they wanted me to drive it. ... There was a big article in one of the car magazines and I thought the car people would be very generous and give me one of those Challengers," he recalled. "Not on your life."

He reportedly is survived by his wife, Angela, niece, Judith, and several nephews.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.