That really is Paul Newman riding again as Doc Hudson in 'Cars 3'

Paul Newman fans are in for a real treat: His beloved character Doc Hudson plays an integral role in the new chapter of Pixar’s animated Cars franchise.

The late Oscar-winning icon and a longtime auto-racing enthusiast played the character of Doc Hudson, the wise, gravelly voiced mentor to hotshot rookie racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), in 2006’s original Cars. And thanks to unused lines from Newman’s old recording sessions, flashbacks featuring Doc’s sage advice bring an extra sense of gravitas to Cars 3 (in theaters Friday).

“There’s a soulfulness there for the story we’re telling, the story of generations,” says Cars 3 director Brian Fee. “Even though Doc’s not there anymore, it was important that McQueen is still learning lessons from Doc.”

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Newman died from lung cancer in 2008 at age 83. In 2011’s Cars 2, his character is referred to in the past tense — "Doc would have been real proud of you," Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) sadly tells Lightning — with the Piston Cup renamed in his honor and his Radiator Springs clinic turned into a museum to his on-track triumphs. Doc’s younger days are revisited in Cars 3, which finds Lightning battling upstarts like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) who are consistently lapping him in competition. As Lightning seeks out the roadster who trained his mentor so he can get his career back in gear, McQueen recalls several old memories where Doc gave him life lessons. 

When directing Newman in the recording studio for the first Cars, Disney/Pixar animation chief John Lasseter remembers the two bonding over their shared love of horsepower. Lasseter grew up in Whittier, Calif., working as a stock boy in the parts department of the Chevrolet dealership where his dad was a manager, while Newman lived the life not only of a famous actor but also a champion driver and co-owner of an IndyCar team.

“Paul would sit and talk with you about racing as long as you wanted to talk but when it came to movies or acting, he wasn’t interested,” Lasseter says. Newman was dedicated to making Cars feel like real racing and especially got a kick out of being Doc, a character based on the 1951 Fabulous Hudson Hornet that raced in NASCAR events.

Cars 3 incorporates an unused monologue from the first film, where Doc describes racing as “one lap after another, inches apart, never touching.” And in the old recording, “he’s really lost in it,” Fee says. “I don’t believe he was acting. I think the actual real Paul Newman believed every phrase of that little rant he goes on.”

Going through the tapes brought up a lot of old feelings for Lasseter. “I grew to really love Paul and we had such great times,” he says. “Listening to us converse, it was very nostalgic and very emotional for me.”

Adds Fee: “Anyone who’s a Paul Newman fan finds it haunting to hear his voice again — in a good way.”

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