“Come on in.” Nick Nolte is planted on the overstuffed couch that is one of three surviving pieces of furniture in the sitting room of his hotel suite. Wisps of acrylic batting, thousands of them, dot the blue rug and cling to the walls. Had there been some kind of gawdamighty pillow fight in here? The TV is on, very loud, but Nick and his sidekick, Bill Cross, don’t seem to notice. There’s a cheap nickel-plated .38, missing one face of its brown plastic grip, lying in a tapestry of cigarette burns on the end table. “Hey, Joe,” says Nick, taking my hand.
I have been given to understand, through various old Nolte hands, that Nick is filing for divorce from his wife, “Legs,” that he has been in New York getting into a character he’ll play opposite Katharine Hepburn, and that he is on “an enormous drunk.” In Under Fire he played a photojournalist in Nicaragua. This suite, in fact, has the look of a ransacked guerrilla safe house.
His voice is thick, and he peers with determined effort through gray-tinted aviator spectacles. He compulsively hikes up alternate legs of his ripped-in-the-crotch jogging pants to scratch at his knees and calves. Running his hands through his shoulder-length hair, matted from his first sleep in seventy-two hours, he appears to have the hung-over heebie-jeebies.
On the plus side, Nick looks twenty pounds lighter than the sluggish potatohead he portrayed in 48 HRS., and he’s making sense. He surveys the battered room a bit sheepishly. “Ya tend to get a little sloppy in these joints.” Standing in the hallway for a full minute after my first rap on the door, I had heard a flurry of activity, which I took to be the cramming of bottles, ashtrays, and splintered chairs into wastebaskets. Cross, a compact, sinewy Vietnam veteran who coached Nolte in Who’ll Stop the Rain, grins as he reclines, semi-somnolent, in a chair. I ask Nick if his co-star had come around yet. “Katharine came in and said, ‘Well, I hear you’ve been drunk in every gutter in town.’ I said, ‘Well, I just about got it covered, Kate.’ ”
Hepburn will play the title character in The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, a black comedy in which she tries to blackmail lonely hit man Nolte into killing her and they become combative friends. Like such offbeat Nolte outings as North Dallas Forty and Heart Beat, Quigley is not the sort of picture that triggers dreams of boffo box office in studio heads.
Soon, a cup of coffee to the good, Nick grapples a tubular pillow between his knees and begins a tour across the bumpy terrain of his career. It’s a history of fits and starts, marked by Nick’s contradictory, headstrong ways.
It began with a felony conviction that kept him out of the draft, “I accidentally sold counterfeit draft cards. Little moneymaking gig that had nothing to do with Vietnam. It ended up as a Federal charge, but when it was just local charges in Omaha, my mother came in and got me. She said, ‘Let’s go for a trip.’ I had no idea she was gonna make a run for it.
“We holed up over in Redfield, Iowa, for a week. She thought they’d forget about it. By the time the Federal charges came down, I was in California, and they brought me back in handcuffs. The biggest thing that had happened in Omaha before that was a lion getting loose from the zoo. They gave me seventy-five years in jail and a $45,000 fine and suspended it—put me on probation for five years. So I was a felon, unfit for military service. I said, ‘Fellas, I deserve this.’ ”
That scrape left Nick with a dizzying stretch of free time. His father Frank had been a football star at Iowa State in the early thirties, who turned to selling irrigation pumps. All Nick learned, as the family roamed the Southwest, was football. After bouncing out of four schools, Nick saw that he’d have no pro career. “I had probably known all my life I couldn’t go all the way with football, but it was the only support system I had. So I went home to Phoenix, literally cracking at the seams. My mother and father were polite enough not to bother me. Otherwise they would have put me in a sanitarium. I locked myself in the back room for a whole year and disintegrated. I saw how I had spent twenty-odd years fabricating this athletic dream. I kinda said, ‘I wonder if there’s anything else in life where you do this.’ That’s how I got interested in acting, ’cause you build the characters.”
“There are scenes that lesser actors could coast through on technique that Nick can’t do. But he brings to his roles a simple intuitive commitment from somewhere deep in the heart, and that’s much more valuable.”
Nick emerged from the back room and enrolled in a local junior college. They taught him to read books—“I had never read one in my life”—and he began looking for stage work. He didn’t want to carry a spear in a repertory company; he wanted to drill into his own obsessions. The son of an itinerant salesman, he wanted to play Biff, the son, in Death of a Salesman. He wanted to do Tennessee Williams, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire. It wasn’t Stanley Kowalski he related to, Stanley whose role was “pure, dictatorial ownership.” He identified with Stella, caught out in the cold: “When you leave home you can’t come back because they can’t trust you. In order to stay home you have to keep something alive, something you’re part of. Once you leave, you take that part with you, and somebody else has to fill it. So there’s really no place for you back home.”
The man who Hollywood once hoped to exploit as a “macho hunk” peers more closely to see if his words have registered. He’s been tapping a cigarette for a few minutes, rolling it in his fingers, sizing it up. He lights the thing, which he’ll smoke hungrily till the ash burns down and drops off the filter. “So I worked in these rep companies in Phoenix, and when I needed money, I’d go up to the Old Log Theater in Minnesota. You could make fifty or sixty bucks a week. There used to be a train that would run right past, in back, and we’d have to stop the damn play, and look and say, ‘Ah, there goes the 10:15….’ ”
The young actor started to get a name on the rep circuit, in Miller, Williams, and Inge, and in John Osborne’s Luther. “You progress quickly to narcissism. You know, you get fairly good and you think you’re real good and you start repeating yourself. One year Don Stolz at the Old Log wanted me to do these plays like Girl in My Soup and Two Dozen Red Roses and said, I can’t do these things, these nonhuman characters. And he said, ‘You’ll never be able to do a character as long as you judge them.’ That broke my ego habit.”
Nolte showed up in L.A. as an ironworker, bracing storm drains under the city. An agent spotted him in an Inge play, and a trickle of jobs in westerns and cop shows began. “In the sixties I did a picture called The Feather Farm. I was a cowboy and this ostrich was in love with me. Gunsmoke, The Rookies … did an Andy Griffith and then Andy said, ‘Hey, let’s go over to ABC and see if we can make a series.’ Okay, what do you want to do? ‘Let’s be two cops in Big Bear Valley,’ he said. So we did this thing called Adams of Eagle Lake; he’s the sheriff, I’m the deputy. And Andy and I drank a lot of vodka and laughed like hell. Thought it was funnier than hell. We went and saw it. We’re sitting there and Andy turns to me and says, ‘It ain’t funny, is it?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘It ain’t.’ ”
Then came Rich Man, Poor Man, the 1976 television mini-series with Nick as the sometime boxer who gets killed in the end. Suddenly bankable, he tried for parts in Apocalypse Now, The Sorcerer, and Slap Shot. None panned out, the most bitter moment being when he had to admit that he couldn’t teach himself to skate as well as Slap Shot would require. “Jesus Christ, it was a rude insult. I’d been skating all day for a month. But throw a puck on the ice and I’d lose all technique.”
That left The Deep, a leaky project during which Nick planned to sneak an acting course from Robert Shaw. “I went down there and bugged Shaw like crazy. I said, ‘We gotta put some substance in this, have a relationship for our characters internally ….’ And Shaw said [Nolte stops and lowers his voice to a wearied, menacing burr], ‘It’s a treasure picture, Nick.’ It was a miserable experience, but we got to be friends. Everybody thought Shaw was the kind of drunk with weak kidneys. Nobody copped to the fact that those eight-ounce glasses he drank from were full to the top with vodka. After three he’d damn near swallowed a fifth. He died back home in Ireland. He and his wife were driving and he had a heart attack and ran for it. Ran right across the countryside. Guess he thought he could outrun death. I was pissed off. I was looking forward to bugging him a lot and he cheated me a little bit.”
Bill Cross had stepped out for a six-pack and some groceries. He comes back in and empties the bag on the table. “Baloney!” says Nick, with basso enthusiasm, “And cheese! We’re on the road now.” Wonder Bread, Michelob Light, and a baby jar of mayonnaise complete the feast.
“I cultivate people who will tell me I’m an asshole.”
Just how, I wondered, had Nick dropped so much weight so fast? He takes a contemplative sip. “You stay up and run faster than the weight. I knew the minute I hit town and started working with Bill I’d be able to knock it down pretty good. Got another five or ten to go, and we’ll shape it up afterward.” By jogging? Nick gives out with a barking laugh, as if I’d told a hilariously bawdy joke. “I’m forty-two years old! But I will get the physicality I need for whatever role I play. For Jack Cates in 48 HRS., it was a guy like me or Walter [director Hill], a little potbellied. I wanted to take some off for Under Fire, but we didn’t have time. Anytime you play a character with weight, you buy trouble, ’cause people are gonna say, ‘Aww, Nolte, he’s over the hill now, he don’t give a shit, he’s fat, he’s finished.’ I don’t have much vanity left, but this guy in Quigley should look as good as he can. The main thing I’ve gotta find is his aloneness, because this script deals with old people, and he shares their problem of being alone in life.”
For the role of the gung-ho photojournalist Russell Price in Under Fire, Nick didn’t mind the suggestion of “seediness” his extra weight carried. That seediness gives way to a misguided involvement. In one scene where he and a fellow journalist played by Gene Hackman come upon a government assassination team, their anger seems genuinely raw and reckless. “Roger Spottiswoode manipulated that expertly,” says Nick. “He didn’t let us walk into that set until the actual shot. I had become pretty good friends with these two Mexican actors who played the fathers and he had laid them out, all bloodied up. I didn’t expect that.”
Nolte’s politics are rooted in a skepticism of powerful bureaucracies. “Everybody in Washington who’s criticizing the Sandinistas,” he says, “seems to be trying to ignore the fact that the US government’s relationship with Somoza was corrupt in the first place.” His distrust for systems verges on the doctrinaire. The other day North Dallas Forty author Pete Gent, fresh from a TV appearance talking about cocaine and the NFL, came by his hotel room and they stayed up until eleven the next morning bewailing the current witch hunt—“players,” Nick grouses, “getting popped for less than an eighth of an ounce.”
When Nolte played Phil Elliott, the beaten-up flankerback of North Dallas Forty, he worked intensely, studying pass-catching with pro stars. Elliott was a mixture of high professional craft and excessive self-absorption. Combine that with the frenzy-under-wraps of the Neal Cassady he portrayed in Heart Beat and the solitary pridefulness of Doc in Cannery Row, and you’ve got a good window on Nolte the private man. But there are still rough edges to his acting. Who’ll Stop the Rain director Karel Reisz says, “There are scenes that lesser actors could coast through on technique that Nick can’t do. But he brings to his roles a simple intuitive commitment from somewhere deep in the heart, and that’s much more valuable.”
The day a gunfight scene was shot for 48 HRS. Nick threw himself over a ribcage-high hotel desk, and even the stuntmen who lost a payday applauded. Later he dismissed the notion that he’s one man who might be a hero to his valet. “I cultivate people who will tell me I’m an asshole.” Chief among them is Bill Cross, who is usually with Nick during pre-production, the two of them working on scripts like good ole boys taking apart an engine. For Under Fire the research was more scattershot, but it leaned heavily on gonzo combat photographer Tim Page’s book Nam. For Quigley, Nolte went to Sonny Landham, the lanky Indian who was one of the killer hoods in 48 HRS. Watching Nick twist and fidget on the couch, I almost suspect that part of him welcomes the upcoming divorce—it should send him further inside that solitary hit man’s head.
A year ago, on the set of 48 HRS., I had watched Nolte light up when “Legs,” a bubbly, blond, sometime nightclub singer, popped into his roost one day. Now he talks about her in flat tones. “It just wasn’t working out is all. Different timing in life, I guess. I’m forty-two, she’s twenty-seven. I think I was more ready to settle down than she was.” Nick twirls the gun absentmindedly on his finger. “I told the lawyers I want a divorce. I pay you $250 an hour; you do it. They want to get you in all sorts of screwy battles. I just want to follow the law. I don’t regret anything. It was a good five years.”
So the job now is to get through 1983 as a workingman’s actor? “What you put up on the screen is definitely cathartic; you can’t dismiss it as separate from life. It can’t be the narcissistic thing, the really self-involved thing that actors and rock musicians get into—some sort of gypsy, self-destructive life. That’s a hard life. I mean, look at the goddamn room you’re sittin’ in.” With this, Nick stands up to see me to the door. “Hell, I haven’t really had a home for twenty years now. I’ve been on the road ….” He pauses as I hand over the inside doorknob, which has detached itself to settle limply in my hand. “And workin’.” These last words crumble into a laugh on us both, as I stand there in the hall, he in the room, each of us holding a doorknob in the air.