The Towering Inferno: Paul Newman’s Tan Suede Jacket

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)


Paul Newman as Doug Roberts, ambitious architect

San Francisco, Summer 1974

Film: The Towering Inferno
Release Date: December 14, 1974
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Paul Zastupnevich

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


Alongside disco and bell-bottoms, one major cultural trend that emerged during the 1970s—for better or worse—was the disaster movie. True, the genre had existed since the early days of film, but the ’70s saw a boom in these high-budget, star-studded dramas that introduced as many calamities as the decade’s most popular celebrities could handle. After conquering air (Airport), earth (Earthquake), and water (The Poseidon Adventure), the Hollywood gods—specifically Irwin Allen—turned their attention to the one remaining element.

Thus, on the eve of National Fire Prevention Week, let’s take a look at one of the protagonists who was trapped in The Towering Inferno!

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen had originally been lined up to star together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but issues over billing led to McQueen dropping out while Robert Redford assumed what would become his star-making role. A half-decade later, the price was finally right for Newman and McQueen to share the screen… albeit with unique approaches to the credits and promotional art to make it appear that both actors shared top billing. (For any indication as to who may have been behind these demands, McQueen—who refused visits or interviews on set—was reportedly angered to learn that Newman had twelve more lines of dialogue than he did.)

Despite any real or imagined rivalry between Newman and McQueen, professionalism prevailed and both men even impressively performed most of their own stunts on screen, including Newman climbing the damaged stairwells and McQueen as the chief firefighter jumping from a helicopter onto the burning building and withstanding 7,000 gallons of water doused in an attempt to extinguish the inferno.

“Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is, kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world,” Newman’s character suggests to McQueen of the destroyed tower, though the actor could have also been referring to the movie itself, which he famously disdained:

I did this turkey for a million and 10% of the gross, but it’s the first and last time, I swear.

Whatever your—or Paul Newman’s—opinion of The Towering Inferno, the movie reportedly inspired novelist Roderick Thorp to have a nightmare about a man being chased through a skyscraper by armed attackers. Thorp expanded this concept into a novel published five years later, Nothing Lasts Forever… which would eventually be adapted for the screen as Die Hard.

What’d He Wear?

Costume designer Paul Zastupnevich enjoyed a brief monopoly on dressing the disaster genre during its early ’70s heyday, assigned by Irwin Allen to design the finery for the New Year’s Eve revelers in The Poseidon Adventure before pulling together the vestments for those VIPs spending their fourth of July on the swanky 135th floor of San Francisco’s new Glass Tower.

We can almost immediately discern that Paul Newman will be our hero based on his simple, everyman wardrobe (by ’70s standards, that is), compared to the fussier attire of antagonists like the neglectful William Holden in his red silk dinner jacket, the selfish Richard Chamberlain in his tacky brown evening-wear, or the fatally horny Robert Wagner in his then-trendy navy tuxedo. True, Newman’s Doug Roberts wasn’t even invited to the black-tie affair, but we can imagine he would have had a humbler dinner kit if he had been.

Newman arrives at the towering inferno in a gray leisure suit with a belted bush jacket, orange henley, and aviators, abandoning these threads after having sex with Faye Dunaway.

Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Like Babe Ruth’s 1932 famous at-bat, The Sultan of Architecture shows us where he’s about to score.

Following his tryst with his fiancée Susan (Dunaway), Roberts pulls on a wheat-hued tan suede jacket that—based on its cut, weight, and lack of lower pockets—could ostensibly be called a shirt-jacket or “shacket” as the modern penchant for portmanteaus would dictate.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

The jacket has a long point collar in the excessive tradition of disco-era fashions. The front has five flat plastic two-hole buttons, which match those on the chest-pocket flaps and on the squared cuffs, which Newman wears undone and rolled back over each wrist. The two inverted box-pleat chest pockets are each covered with a pointed flap that closes through a single button.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

The shoulders are reinforced by a curved back yoke that tapers at the center, and a long pleat extends down from this yoke down to the hem, passing over the swollen seam that encircles the waist line. The jacket also has short double side vents.

O.J. Simpson and Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Okay, but we know O.J.’s definitely not to blame for this one… right?

Roberts wears a military-informed shirt in pale yellow cotton, detailed around the edges with double tan striping. The long point collar echoing those on the jacket are on trend for the mid-’70s, and the pointed shoulder straps (epaulettes) that button at the neck add a martial appearance that present Roberts as a natural group leader when he removes his jacket and takes command of the dire situation on the 135th floor.

The shirt also has a front placket, two chest pockets with wide mitred-corner flaps, and mitred button cuffs with two stacked buttons that alternate between having one or both fastened on each wrist.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Roberts wears khaki-colored flat-front trousers that communicate his more grounded, work-ready nature, though I shudder when considering the very realistic possibility that the cloth is polyester… particularly when I consider the effect of flaming polyester melting onto skin.

The trousers are styled with unique belt loops crossed into “X” shapes around the waist, save for much wider—like multi-inch—”tunnel” loops, through which he wears his thick brown leather belt with the curved gold single-prong buckle.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

In addition to these distinctive belt loops, the trousers are rigged with straps toward each side of the back, just below the belt line which adjust the fit around the waist with a gold-toned rectangular single-prong buckle that closes through one of three gold metal grommets.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Roberts takes stock of the top floor after it’s been doused to extinguish the flames. Luckily, the redundancy of his belt and waist adjuster-tabs prevent his pants from being pulled off even under the pressure of literal tons of water.

Roberts’ trousers have slanted western-style front pockets, set-in back pockets each covered with a scalloped flap that closes through a single gold button, and plain-hemmed bottoms which—despite the timeframe and the fact that he wears them with cowboy boots—are not significantly flared. The dark brown leather boots have decoratively stitched shafts.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

On the third finger of his right hand, Roberts wears a massive gold ring that has a large black oval surface textured with a three-pronged shape resembling a trident or the Greek letter psi (ψ). I believe the ring belonged to Newman, as there are photos of him in the early ’70s wearing it in situations unrelated to production of The Towering Inferno, though I don’t know anything else about it other than the fact that it seems like it would be a mighty encumbrance when trying to escape a burning building.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

The trident-like shape on Roberts’ ring could be a nod to Irwin Allen’s previous success with The Poseidon Adventure… but Newman wearing the ring in real-life seems to squash this theory unless the actor was just a big fan?

You’d think there would be a record of the watch Paul Newman wore in The Towering Inferno. After all, Newman’s 1968 Rolex Daytona briefly set a record with its $17.8 million auction yield, and this blockbuster co-stars fellow horological king Steve McQueen, who actually wears his famous Rolex Submariner in it.

Newman’s mystery—for now!—watch appears to be a stainless steel cushion-cased chronograph, strapped to a steel three-piece link bracelet. The silver dial has a black inner ring, from which the silver non-numeric hour markers are raised, and two black sub-registers; the sub-register at the 3:00 position has a red hand while the sub-register at the 9:00 position has white or silver hands.

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

How to Get the Look

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Paul Newman as Doug Roberts in The Towering Inferno (1974)

Remember a couple weeks ago when I said Paul Newman’s tan chore jacket as Butch Cassidy transcended the film’s setting and would make a great casual outfit in any context? Time to put my money where my mouth is!

Doug Roberts’ tan jacket, light shirt, khaki trousers, and brown belt and cowboy boots lean in harder to the trends of the ’70s but the overall approach shares remarkable similarities to how Edith Head had dressed Newman throughout the first act of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

  • Wheat-shaded tan sueded leather 5-button shirt-jacket with long point collar, two button-flap chest pockets, single-button squared cuffs, and double side vents
  • Pale-yellow shirt with long point collar, shoulder straps/epaulettes, two button-flap chest pockets, and 2-button mitred barrel cuffs
  • Khaki polyester flat-front trousers with “X”-crossed belt loops, buckle-tab waist adjuster straps, slanted western-style front pockets, scalloped button-flap back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Brown leather belt with large curved gold single-prong buckle
  • Dark brown leather cowboy boots with decorative-stitched shafts
  • Large gold ring with trident-textured black oval surface
  • Stainless steel chronograph with cushion case, round black-ringed silver dial with two sub-registers, and steel three-piece link bracelet

While we’re likely to see more suede jackets offered as fall continues, there are already a few select styles (as of September 2021) that follow the “shacket”-like sensibilities of Newman’s screen-worn jacket, such as the Abercrombie & Fitch Relaxed Vegan Suede Shirt Jacket, Boden Beaufort Suede Jacket, The Territory Ahead Highlands Suede Shacket, and the snap-front Michael Kors Suede Shirt Jacket.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

Hey, are you here to take me on or the fire?

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