Nick Nolte

An actor of extraordinary range and physical presence, he shines in roles where the tough-guy hero is strung up by the depth of his own feelings.

Published December 14, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Nick Nolte is like Clark Gable with an anguished soul. Writing about him in 1982, when he'd been playing movie leads for about half a decade, the critic Pauline Kael called him "an ideal screen actor -- believable, and with a much larger range than McQueen or Wayne." Like Steve McQueen and John Wayne in their best roles, it's his physical actions that often articulate what's going on under the surface; like Gable and Mitchum, he's magically relaxed on screen and projects an outsize, sprawling likability. But his real lineage is agonized men's men like William Holden and Dana Andrews and Robert Ryan, and later Paul Newman -- actors whose sensitivity complicates their macho credentials.

"I work from emotion," he reminds his acting coach, Mel Weiser, who wrote about the process of working with him in "Nick Nolte: Caught in the Act." "I have to know why I'm feeling what I'm feeling. What's behind it? How is it expressed? What's its source?" And when you think back on great moments in Nolte performances, generally what come to mind are the ones where the tough-guy hero is strung up by the depth of his own feelings. You may recall the scene in the Nicaragua-set "Under Fire," when his character, the prize-winning photojournalist Russel Price, recognizes that the photos he snapped of the Sandinistas, whose revolution he's fallen in love with, have been used to hunt them down and kill them. Or the moment in "Who'll Stop the Rain" when he realizes he's going to sacrifice himself for his best friend, a hapless drug runner, and for the woman he loves.

Or perhaps the image in "Life Lessons" (the Martin Scorsese segment of "New York Stories") of Lionel Dobie, his face and bare chest smeared with the paint from his latest canvas, sunk in a chair like a Francis Bacon figure, looking up with absurdly grandiose romantic longing at the room where his much younger assistant (Rosanna Arquette), who has rejected him sexually, is making love to someone her own age. And most certainly the climactic scene in "The Prince of Tides" where Tom Wingo's confession that he was raped at 13 seems to burn out of his eyes -- those eyes that have, throughout the movie, been like tunnels sucking down the painful memories the psychiatrist (Barbra Streisand) who's treating his damaged sister keeps prodding.

Nolte was born in Omaha, Neb., in 1941 and spent 14 years acting in regional theaters, including the Actors Inner Circle in Phoenix, where he got to sink his teeth into Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as try his hand at Anouilh, Durrenmatt, Frisch. That's where he met both Weiser, the company's co-founder, and Nolte's first wife, Sheila Page, who co-starred with him in a production of "The Rainmaker." He's been married three times in all; his third wife, Rebecca Linger, is the mother of his only son, Brawley, who displayed his legacy in his only movie role -- he was terrific as Mel Gibson's kidnapped boy in "Ransom." Nolte currently lives with the actress Vicki Lewis, whom he met on the set of "I'll Do Anything."

Nolte appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows in the early '70s, but his breakthrough came in 1976, when he played Tom Jordache in the miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man." Nolte was already 35, but he carried off Jordache's 17 -- deftly enough to earn an Emmy nomination and the romantic lead in a moronic Peter Yates adventure called "The Deep," which came out the following year and initiated a remarkably prolific Hollywood career. ("Simpatico," due out this Christmas, marks his 35th movie role since "Rich Man, Poor Man" made him a hot property.)

It's clear he was cast in "The Deep," opposite Jacqueline Bisset, for his sexy-hip '70s look: He sports a thick ginger moustache and a mop of gold-dusted hair, and when he's not diving (the film is set in Bermuda) he wears the neo-Renaissance outfits that were just coming out of fashion -- ruffled shirt, white bells. He doesn't look 17 but he could pass for, say, 25, and he's certainly handsome enough in this pin-up role to be the hero of a Hollywood action picture. Yates probably cast him without caring whether he could act, and the only thing he's got going for him is a kind of renegade energy -- though at this juncture, for all we know it could be beach-bum vibes we're picking up, not talent.

But in "Who'll Stop the Rain," his next picture, you know you're watching an actor. I hadn't seen Nolte on TV and he had barely registered with me in "The Deep," so I recall being startled when "Who'll Stop the Rain" came out: Here was this imaginative, fully formed movie actor giving a highly complex performance in a major role, and where the hell had he come from? As Ray Hicks, whose Marine buddy (Michael Moriarty) gives him a stash of heroin to transport, he has a life-scarred look and a soldier of fortune persona -- though that's not the whole story. Ray, who also spent some time on a Southern California commune, has had to struggle to put his personality together, and when Moriarty hands him the dope, we see the terror in Ray's eyes and his shaky determination to keep himself balanced. He goes through with the escapade out of loyalty to his friend, but he knows it's bad karma -- that it puts him out of touch with who he thinks he is.

In the source novel, "Dog Soldiers," Robert Stone used the heroin as a metaphor for the way Vietnam had corrupted America, and that may have been what the director, Karel Reisz, intended in his version. But when you watch the movie you get caught up in the details of a drug deal gone sour, and the metaphor pretty much vanishes. Still, the movie clings to you like the scalding memory of an ugly high, and Nolte's exploration of this character's efforts to stay grounded in a world that's lost its moral compass forms its impassioned core.

Nolte had been a '60s wild man himself, and he looked it. Both "Who'll Stop the Rain" and (in a less obvious way) "North Dallas Forty," which came out the following year, 1979, chronicled the moment when the excesses of the '60s began to occupy a drastically altered moral landscape. Ray Hicks sticks to an ethic that Vietnam has effectively obliterated, and Phil Elliot, the football hero of "North Dallas Forty," wants to play solely for love of the game, while his bosses operate out of a heartless corporate vision to which the players are inevitably sacrificed. Both these movies are built around the tension between Nolte's characters and the world they move in; both these men are scrupulously honest, honest in ways that punish them.

And for both of them, the proof of that honesty is physical -- it's the capacity to continue to march toward a rendezvous even after you've been badly shot up, or the satisfaction of working through the pain to reach the limit of what your body can achieve. In the memorably funny opening scene of "North Dallas Forty," Nolte's Phil pulls himself out of bed, every muscle clearly aching; he staggers across the floor, holding his stomach and his wrist, barely able to move his feet; he washes down a pain killer with stale beer; he sinks into a warm bath, hauling on a joint as if he were inhaling oxygen; and he grins happily as he recalls a heroic play from yesterday's game. And that's Phil Elliot in a nutshell: He proves himself to himself by offering up his body, and God, it feels good.

And in a way, that's how Nolte himself works. "His big, rawboned body suggests an American workingman jock," Kael writes, "but he uses his solid flesh the way Jean Gabin did: he inhabits his characters. He's such a damned good actor that he hides inside them. That's his sport."

You learn much of what you need to know about the men he plays by reading the body code -- the bruised fighter's stance he takes, as Tom Wingo in "The Prince of Tides," when he faces off his mother (Kate Nelligan); his restlessness in "I'll Do Anything," where he plays an actor striving not to show how desperate he is for a part; the way he plunges at his canvases in "Life Lessons," a rock-and-rolling action painter who brings a sexual energy to his work, while Bob Dylan and Procol Harum provide his personal soundtrack; the shift in his tempo in "Under Fire" when Russel Price is transformed from a cynical observer to a revolutionary.

In "Weeds," he plays a convict who finds, in writing and directing plays, a way out of his despair and, eventually, a way out of prison. For this role Nolte adopts an ambling walk, what I'd call a Steinbeck walk -- acutely conscious, close to the earth, with a tense swing because he's accustomed to meeting obstacles but he's damned if they're going to stop him from covering ground.

When Lee Umstetter (the role is based loosely on Rick Cluchey, the San Francisco ex-con actor-director) strips down to make love to his girlfriend on his first night of freedom, he reveals a demon tattoo on his chest. It's the ineradicable mark of what he used to be, but it's at odds with the wonderment in his eyes -- what, in the movie's view, he's become.

Later in the film, the troupe he's assembled from his ex-con buddies runs into financial trouble, so as a last resort he slips off to rob a convenience store. But he can't do it -- sitting in his car with a stocking mask distorting his face, Nolte still manages to convey what this reversion means to him, and how much it means to him to fight against it.

This physical expressiveness is as much a Nolte trademark as the beery husk of a voice, the hushed vocal intensity. He rarely makes the choice to shout a big scene; that would be too obvious and, as he tells Mel Weiser, he hates doing the obvious. Besides, you get so much more color in a quiet, held-perilously-in-check moment than you do in a loud one.

Then there's that rough-hewn, all-American face, which can look battered and sensitive at the same time (as it does for his cop's role in "48 Hrs."), or can take on a slightly dissipated Southerner's charm (in "The Prince of Tides") or a conscious Yankee ruggedness (as the crusading private eye in "Everybody Wins").

In "Affliction," which won him both the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics awards last year, his face looks distinctly '50s -- it's the sort of face you might see in an old photograph and be haunted by, the face of a man who fights a losing battle to keep himself from falling off the end of the world. And certain scenes in "Affliction" bring out a boyish sweetness and vulnerability that is also, I'd say, a Nolte characteristic.

His other trademark is professional: his celebrated abhorrence of the mainstream. Yes, he's made some standard Hollywood crap -- like "I Love Trouble" with Julia Roberts, and "Three Fugitives," not to mention the sequel to "48 Hrs." -- but it takes up only a fraction of his risumi, and he's well known for turning down projects that promise him lucrative salaries if he doesn't respect the director or find the material interesting. He's drawn to writers and directors he believes behave like artists, and his instincts aren't always sure. He should have stayed away from Oliver Stone; he shouldn't have played Thomas Jefferson for James Ivory. He shouldn't have done Scorsese's feverous remake of "Cape Fear" or tried to play a bespectacled Italian in a grand operatic style in "Lorenzo's Oil."

But his instincts have also netted him more sensational roles than most movie stars have had. And even his bad movies tend to be bad in unusual ways -- John Milius' "Farewell to the King," "Mother Night" (a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation), the new "Simpatico" (based on a Sam Shepard play), even the repugnant "Q & A" aren't like the lousy projects Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis may choose. There's a fearless recklessness about an actor who elects to play a champion "equal opportunity hater" like the corrupt police lieutenant Mike Brennan in "Q & A," who bullies a gay hustler into bending over for him and then garottes him. I hated seeing Nolte in this role, because playing a man with a rotted soul reduces him, and you don't believe him anyway -- he can't erase the sensitivity in the pockets of his face.

But to get to the heart of Nick Nolte, you have to see that the daring and unconventionality that lead him to a misbegotten project like "Q & A" also land him on a terrific project like "Weeds" or "Under Fire" or Paul Mazursky's "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," where Nolte plays a homeless man wandering the streets of Beverly Hills who's adopted by a wealthy family after he tries to drown himself in their pool.

The quality of Nolte's performances in two high-profile 1998 Christmas releases, "Affliction" and "The Thin Red Line," rallied the critics behind him, and he's probably more highly respected now than he's ever been. Through the years, however, he hasn't always been taken seriously by the press. Perhaps that's because he used to like to appear for interviews in pajamas and spin elaborate tall tales. He told Cosmopolitan, for instance, that his first wife was a trapeze artist, and several publications recorded his claim that he once lived in a Mexican whorehouse. His behavior in interview situations has often betrayed his contempt for the publicity process, as well as a holdover hipster rambunctiousness that used to surface regularly when he drank or took drugs. (He's made no secret of being a recovering alcoholic.)

On the other hand, you don't see him on talk shows after a movie of his has fizzled at the box office, groveling to apologize to his fans -- obeying the Hollywood reflex to distance yourself from a bomb. Weiser, in an oddly ungenerous reading of Nolte's defense of the critical and financial fiasco "I'll Do Anything," claims that the actor has "a remarkable capacity for self-delusion. It's as if he's incapable of admitting an association with failure, as if such an admission diminishes him, personally, not his talent, but his very being."

Maybe Weiser should take another look at "I'll Do Anything" -- maybe it's time everybody did. Columbia planned this movie as a 1993 Christmas release, with James Brooks directing and songs by Prince, choreographed by Twyla Tharp. But audiences booed at the studio previews, so the numbers were hacked out, and by the time the movie came out in early 1994, it was blighted by the buzz of failure. It's a wonderful movie, though -- a scrambled, sweet-and-sour view of Hollywood with a loose enough weave to allow the performers (Nolte, Albert Brooks, Julie Kavner, Joely Richardson) to experiment with their roles.

Wearing sublime casuals designed by Marlene Stewart, Nolte plays actor Matt Hobbs, who is so gentle and affable that it takes you a moment to realize that these qualities are wrapped like a cozy blanket around an essential narcissism. When his wife (Tracey Ullman) leaves him, taking their baby girl out of the state, he finds it easier to stay in L.A. and live the life of the eternally hopeful than to make time for visits. Then suddenly Ullman's character lands in jail and he's stuck with Jeannie (Whittni Wright) -- who's now 6 years old. The arc of Matt's development is clear: He has to learn to think beyond his own needs. What makes the movie so original is the juxtaposition of the life he leads with Jeannie with the world of the studio, where narcissism is rampant.

Nolte gives one of the funniest, most subtly nuanced and most accurate portrayals of an actor I've ever seen. In the early scenes, he seems to be parodying his own days as a pretty boy; later he parodies the Method. It's a loving send-up, like Dustin Hoffman's in "Tootsie." These are actors whose Method preparation, after all, is famous: Nolte lived among the homeless for a while before shooting "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," and in the scene where he entices his hosts' neurotic dog into eating his supper by lapping dog food out of his bowl, that's really what he's eating.

"I'll Do Anything" contains an uproarious sequence in which Matt auditions for a bored director who immediately walks out of the room and lets his producer (Brooks), a tasteless blowhard, supervise. You can see Nolte's Matt searching around for a hook into this guy, a way to read his hysterical outbursts, to maintain some dignity and sensibility without pissing anyone off. Nolte and Brooks don't miss a trick.

Along with "Weeds" and Karel Reisz's 1990 "Everybody Wins," "I'll Do Anything" is the neglected jewel among Nolte's movies. No one went to see "Everybody Wins," either. It's a delicately shaped film noir in which Nolte is seduced by the most unexpected of femme fatales -- Debra Winger as a Marilyn Monroe type (Arthur Miller wrote the script) with multiple personality disorder. ("I, like, break up," is the way she explains her puzzling behavior.)

Nolte and Winger had already done one movie together -- a deadly adaptation of Steinbeck's "Cannery Row," eight years earlier -- and they didn't bring anything out in each other there; in "Everybody Wins," though, he gets so caught up in her sexual energy that he spends some of the movie looking like he was bopped on the head in the dark.

Nolte's Tom O'Toole is an investigator known for taking on lost causes -- he's also a Catholic with an aggravated sense of mission -- and for his delight in making the public prosecutor look like an idiot. Winger's Angela Crispini offers him the chance to free an innocent man convicted of murder and dangles the image of corruption in high places, while she's coming on to him at the same time.

In traditional film noirs, the hero is either a private eye with a smart take on the case or else a dupe who's manipulated by the femme fatale; Nolte's Tom O'Toole is a combo -- a duped shamus. This (dark) comic setup makes it easy for us to undervalue what Nolte does in the role, but the movie wouldn't work without his sensitivity and his wit.

Nolte's acting galvanizes the touching "Weeds," and he's the only actor (among at least a dozen gifted ones) who's able to deliver a performance of any shape and clarity in Terrence Malick's incoherent "The Thin Red Line" -- he cobbles together a persuasive portrait of a bullish colonel whose every move is motivated by his desire for the generalship he feels is owed him.

He carries off some amazing effects in Paul Schrader's "Affliction," a project he helped to initiate, though the material finally defeats him. "Affliction" is a thesis picture, set on proving that the small-town cop Nolte plays is doomed to turn into his violent, alcoholic dad (James Coburn). Nolte gets at the terror and despair deep inside this rough hunk of a man, who's struggling against his impulses; if he could just give up the battle, he'd be less miserable, but as it is he can't settle himself. As long as Nolte's Wade resides in the area of this conflict, the performance is superb, and his scenes with Sissy Spacek (who plays his supportive girlfriend), and with Brigid Tierney as his daughter, who means so much to him but whom he can't talk to without straining every muscle in his face, are plausible in every detail. But when the movie gets where it's going and Wade explodes, even Nolte's intensity and conviction can't save it.

If I had to choose my favorite Nick Nolte performance, it might be "The Prince of Tides," where he's almost good enough to make us forget the preposterous plot about the repressed Southerner who's called upon to tear away the veils of his own past as a way of helping a therapist heal his suicidal sister. (This movie must have had shrinks howling in the aisles.)

Or "Life Lessons," where Dobie's sexual obsession with his assistant takes him to hilarious and piteous heights, The performance is like an unbroken series of arias.

Or it might be Roger Spottiswoode's 1983 movie "Under Fire" -- perhaps the most extraordinary project the actor has ever been involved in -- where he does his most physically eloquent acting in the role of a man who always responds first with his body -- his eye, his instinct for getting the best photo, charges his muscles; he operates his camera seemingly by reflex.

When a young Sandinista who's made a connection with Russel is killed before his eyes, though, he doesn't reach for his camera, and that signals a profound change in this man. All of Nolte's big scenes "Under Fire" rely on the depth and color he brings to tiny phrases or to silences; the idea is that what Russel goes through in the course of this narrative is beyond words.

It's a clichi that our most beloved stripped-down action heroes -- our Gary Coopers and John Waynes and Steve McQueens -- are walking illustrations of the Hemingway dictum that action is character. Nolte gives us more -- active physicality without spareness. With him, action is character plus feeling.

By Steve Vineberg

Steve Vineberg teaches theater and film at Holy Cross College and writes regularly about both for the Threepenny Review.

MORE FROM Steve Vineberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------