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Nick Nolte’s Trial by Stardom : A round peg in Hollywood’s square hole, he says he can always return to the stage

In his new movie “Q&A;” Nick Nolte looks like hell, which is something Nick Nolte can do as well as anyone when he puts his mind to it. To play a bigoted, gin-sodden and sadistic Irish detective literally getting away with murder in New York, Nolte carries 40 extra pounds, wears suits that look slept-in and pastes his hair back in a wet mop. The sight of him lugging his menacing, overweight frame through the grimy precinct stations and watering holes of Manhattan’s demimonde recalls the ache factor in some of the actor’s greatest hits: the opening scene in “North Dallas Forty” when he showed the world what an NFL flanker feels like first thing in the morning or the beginning of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” when he made his entrance from a park bench--stretched out as a phlegm-encrusted wino.

For “Q&A;” director Sidney Lumet, whose long list of urban morality tales include “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict,” Nolte was willing not only to put on the unflattering pounds but to put his name on a hugely unsympathetic character, a cop named Mike Brennan whose obsession with the decay of New York has pushed him well beyond the law to dark and desperate attempts to preserve the old order. The movie, which also stars Timothy Hutton as a young assistant district attorney investigating Brennan’s excesses and Jenny Lumet as a mulatto woman Hutton has loved and lost, is a violent prayer hurled at the damage done by racial prejudice, as well as another anti-career choice for one of Hollywood’s most untamable leading men.

Nolte had a chance to reflect on his Irish anti-hero and other matters one afternoon recently in his trailer at Paramount, where he was waiting for a call to resume shooting “Another 48 HRS,” a movie expected to be as different from “Q&A;” as Mexico is different from Sweden. True, Nolte also plays a cop in “Another 48 HRS,” but he plays a cop in the company of Eddie Murphy, as the two of them re-team in the action/comedy sequel that Paramount has reason to believe will issue the studio a license to print money come opening day, June 9.

Still shedding Brennan’s alcoholic pounds, the 47-year-old actor had just finished a tiny lunch and was puffing unfashionably on a cigarette as he took a seat next to a computer screen where his 3-year-old son, Brawley, had been playing a video game. He was dressed for hanging out on the set--a plain gray T-shirt and lime green hospital pants and on his feet some battered moccasins patched with silver gaffer’s tape. The hard-sculpted face that can so easily read “life without parole,” was on this day showing merely a blue-eyed tan behind rimless spectacles.

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“This is the only job that I do,” Nolte said, commenting on the difficulty of gaining so much weight for the role of Brennan in “Q&A.;” “He required that kind of weight--just the sheer mass of brutality. I felt that would be the right kind of thing. He had to be on the edge of his own dissipation.

“It’s fun to change your body and find new things that your body does because of the weight. It causes you to walk differently. I’m pretty much of a physical actor. The first thing I want to know is, what does he look like? How would he feel? Shoes are important. Because they effect the walk. It helps you get into action for the character. I wore 5, 6-inch lifts. I was trying to get size and a certain kind of walk. They pitch you forward so that you’re in somebody’s face. And he’s always in somebody’s face.”

The figure of Brennan, whom Nolte describes as “bestial,” is drawn from the novel by New York City judge Edwin Torres that Lumet himself adapted into a screenplay. The story turns on the investigation of an apparently simple homicide case in which Brennan has shot a Puerto Rican drug dealer to death.

“Nobody likes to lose power or reach a point of humility,” Nolte said. “And that’s what’s happened to Brennan. His tribe is losing power and he’s trying to hang on. It’s hooked up with the Irish tradition of trying to maintain the composition of New York.”

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But for Brennan, this personal conservation campaign includes strangling the occasional transvestite and randomly blowing away dark-skinned people who don’t speak fluent English.

“I have to go back to the original instincts of why I became an actor to begin with,” Nolte said about accepting the role of Brennan after Lumet sent him the script. “And get away from any kind of thinking that involves career or what type of film I should do--that kind of thing. I just try to look at the material in relationship to the theme, and if I like the theme then, sure, I’ll play the character.”

The theme of racial prejudice came readily enough to Lumet, a lifetime New Yorker whose daughter Jenny, seen in the film, is the offspring of the director’s marriage to Lena Horne’s daughter. “A lot of this is something that Sidney has thought about,” Nolte said. “And the piece is timely in relation to what’s going on in New York City, which is just cut up into tribes now and tribal conflict.

Nolte isn’t sure about the film’s box-office potential. “Certainly with something like ‘Q&A;’, we’re not looking at a large mass public, though you always have a little hidden desire that it’s a crossover film.”

Nolte is coming off a couple of pictures that barely crossed the street--"Everybody Wins,” the Arthur Miller-written film about a private investigator helping a disturbed woman in a small New England town, and “Farewell to the King,” the John Milius epic about a stranded American soldier in World War II who became chief of a tribe in Borneo.

He won critical acclaim for his roles in two other low-grossing movies: “New York Stories,” cast as a modern abstract painter in the Martin Scorcese segment; and “Weeds,” in which he played a hardened criminal finding a new life in the theater.

He made no apologies for any of these films. “A lot of my pictures have had hexes on them,” he remarked.

Now spending most of the year at homes in West Virginia and North Carolina, Nolte said that he was never really cut out for the Hollywood game. This is a man who once turned down the chance to play Superman and has never joined the acting branch of the motion picture academy. If he happens to be here at Oscar time, he leaves town.

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“After ‘The Deep’ was successful,” he said, harking back to his first box-office hit, released in 1977, “I had maybe four or five years there where if I had wanted to pursue straight leads in studio films, I could have. But I was always jumping off into something like ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain,”’ the Karl Reisz film of Robert Stone’s grimly elegiac Vietnam era novel “Dog Soldiers” in which he played an ex-Marine-turned-heroin smuggler on the run from corrupt federal drug agents. “Simply because those were the stories that appealed to me. I don’t buy into the monetary structure of Hollywood either, where you reach some (high) level and then freeze there.”

For a movie like “Q&A;,” with a total budget of $6 million, Nolte might work for as “little” as $100,000, but for “Another 48 HRS,” he’s getting paid “as much as the best baseball player,” he said, referring to New York Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly, who recently signed a contract guaranteeing him $3.9 million a year. “That’s great for Don Mattingly, by the way. I’ve always been on the athletes’ side.”

One can assume he will be paid well for his next movie, Barbra Streisand’s undertaking of Pat Conroy’s prestigious novel “The Prince of Tides,” in which Nolte will play a South Carolina coach and teacher opposite Streisand, who’ll be playing a psychiatrist.

“ ‘48 HRS’ is a different entire thing. None of us are under the illusion that we’re making something with depth. The studio has asked us to compete in the big summer arena, and when you do that you’re more commercial.”

Asked about the plot to the sequel, Nolte went silent and then laughed. “It’s an action picture. It’s the good guys and the bad guys.” Then he thought of a better answer. “I have a young nephew who works with me on films--he’s 23 or 24. He said he and his buddies sat and watched ’48 HRS’ five times before he ever thought of the plot once. Then, he finally decided to watch it by himself the sixth time and figured out the plot. So, it’s not a plot film though we work very, very hard at making it as logical as we can.”

With Walter Hill returning as director, the basic idea for “Another 48 HRS” sounds very close to an encore of the original. In the new scenario, five years have passed since Nolte’s character sprang Eddie from prison for that weekend of foul-mouthed-star making mayhem in San Francisco. This time Eddie is getting out of the joint for good, but Nolte’s sour-faced cop needs him for one more assignment and is not above using extortion to command his services. “I’ve still got his car and his money,” Nolte said, by way of explanation.

“Action films have a certain illogicalness to them,” the actor continued. “They’re what we call, when we’re working, ‘exaggerated realism.’ It’s really an art form of violence using violence, not to illustrate death but more as an instrument of rhythm.

“You take the violence of ’48 HRS’ and the violence of ‘Q&A;,’ and you’re on much finer ground in ‘Q&A.;’ Sidney said to me, you know I’m not a violent director, but yet there is terrific violence in ‘Q&A;’ because it has to be that way.’ Our violence in these action pictures is more like a ballet. And with Walter Hill it’s a lot of the Old West. On a film level, Walter’s doing a whole other thing with style.”

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When the first ’48 HRS’ was released in 1982, Eddie Murphy was a mere cast member on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and had never made a movie before. This time his name’s not only above the title but above the studio.

“Eddie’s great to work with. I’m real comfortable with him. He has his problems but not as far as his work. Most of Eddie’s problems stem from his popularity, his success, dealing with the press, dealing with lawsuits. Probably the most dangerous point for an actor is the point that Eddie is in right now and how to survive that,” said Nolte, who survived what he terms “a glimpse of this on a minor level” after his break-through success in the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” followed by “The Deep” and “North Dallas Forty.”

“Because you buy into a lot of the star stuff. It just seeps into you no matter how straight-ahead you are. All the invitations to the parties and the awards . . . you get caught up in the reward rather than the work.”

After his initial success, Nolte got a reputation as one of Hollywood’s great carousers. Looking back now, he said that was a misleading image, though one he was happy to embellish. “I perpetuated that pretty much. It was true to a degree. When I was popular that was the favorite story. I used to play along with it. I’d do an interview with at least a six-pack. That’s a young actor’s disease. But I never missed work.”

A native of Nebraska, Nolte spent 14 years acting on stage in regional theaters across the country before venturing to Los Angeles in 1973 with group of actors from Phoenix who put on a production of William Inge’s last play, an extended one-act called “The Last Pad,” staged in a furniture store near UCLA. Nolte was cast in the important role of a farm boy on Death Row for killing his wife.

Inge had endorsed the production, but on the play’s opening night, he committed suicide.

“We ran for six months,” he recalled. “It was jampacked. I really didn’t have any intention of staying here, but from that production casting directors came up to me and I started getting parts in TV, and from then on I stayed.”

Has he found what he was looking for in the movies?

“Sometimes and sometimes not. It depends on how appreciated I feel that day. You have these days when you don’t feel appreciated as far as your work goes, and you say, '(expletive) it, I’ll go back to the theater.’ But basically I feel very satisfied with the stories that I get to tell in film.”


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