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INTERVIEW : Prisoner of His Image : Nick Nolte is sick of hearing ‘ex-this and ex-that.’ Hard living is now history and what he really wants to talk about is <i> a</i> -<i> c</i> -<i> t</i> -<i> i</i> -<i> n</i> -<i> g</i>

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

“Yeah, all that ‘up from the ashes’ stuff,” he rasps in faux Italian as he shoe-horns himself onto the trailer’s window seat, his feet, fancy in black brogues, dangling.

Nick Nolte is chewing out in character (Milanese by way of Des Moines) the media bandwagon banging the Oscar drum for his portrayal of Tom Wingo, the good ol’ boy in need of Freud, in Barbra Streisand’s “The Prince of Tides.”

A prequel, of sorts, arrives in this month’s “Cape Fear,” the 1962 thriller remade by Martin Scorsese in which a buttoned-down Nolte goes mano-a-mano with a tattooed Robert De Niro. It is a brace of roles no other actor can match this fall, a real one-man trend.

“‘There’s not an article you read . . .,” says Nolte, beginning the litany--ex-drunk, ex-illiterate, ex-football player, ex-convicted felon but a great actor--a one-too-many-times journalistic take that has the subject, already running a low-grade fever on the set of his latest film, “Lorenzo’s Oil,” a tad overheated.

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“Hey, you arrived just at the wrong time,” says Billy Cross, an actor, writer and Nolte’s friend, golf partner and creative consultant since they first worked together on “Who’ll Stop the Rain” 14 years ago.

“We just finished reading the latest story on Nick and then you showed up,” Cross says to this latest interrogator, exiting the Winnebago in a trail of cigarette smoke and laughter leaving Nolte to back and fill.

“Well, eventually you have to put it in perspective,” Nolte says, letting his voice, sandpapered by years of Marlboros and booze, lose the Italian and regain its Midwest twang. “You don’t have control over it. Many actors try to have control. Many actors get irate. You can’t let it go too far. It does affect you. Oh, sure,” he says punctuating the sentence with the flare of a match. He blows smoke at the ceiling, smoothes his tie. “Oh, sure. It affects you.”

Seventy-five degrees on an October afternoon and Pittsburgh is ablaze with golden maple trees raining leaves on this wagon train of trailers parked somewhere downtown.

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“Lorenzo’s Oil,” a true-story tear-jerker, has been in production since early September--director George Miller (“Mad Max” and “The Witches of Eastwick”) and an all-Australian crew--with Nolte holed up here hours at a time with Cross and a pair of dialogue coaches polishing his accent.

His trailer door is emblazoned with masking tape bearing the name “Augusto” for the Italian-American executive Nolte plays--a devoted father who is seeking a cure with his American wife (played by Susan Sarandon) for his 12-year-old son dying of a rare nerve disorder. Even for an actor known for his eclecticism, as Nolte is, it’s a stretch.

“I thought the script was dangerous,” says the actor, adjusting the pillow under his head. “A diseased boy? TV disease of the week. But it’s not so much a story of a father and son as it’s an operating beyond the ego. Acts of unselfishness.”

He talks in fragments, using his hands to make the connections, part of the Italian training. His hair has been died dark, more henna than black, and he wears wire-rim glasses. For once, the 50-year-old actor, an ageless blond bad boy in our collective memory, looks his age. Or perhaps it’s just that with a film career spent mostly playing low-lifes--a disillusioned wide receiver in “North Dallas Forty,” a drug-smuggling Vietnam vet in “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” a homeless drifter in “‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and a disturbed cop in “Q&A;"--Nolte seems in costume in a suit and tie.

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“I had my doubts about it, taking a guy right out of Iowa to play an Italian. And that’s another thing that writer got wrong--saying I had to always hustle for roles,” Nolte says, annoyed again, hoisting himself from his tiny sofa to retrieve a glass of water, stooping in the trailer’s equally doll-size kitchen like some Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

“Any number of actors’ names are considered for any project. But this (writer) makes the assumption that I look at that (situation) as me not being a director’s first choice. I don’t care about that. If you cared about that, you would never work!”

Nolte has been running this diatribe for 30 minutes, rebutting point by point the latest media interpretation of his career:

* On his fabled inability to read: “Obviously I had gone all through high school and into college and you don’t do that not knowing how to read.”

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* His athletic prowess: “That’s part of the ‘North Dallas Forty’ myth because I was never big enough or fast enough to play professionally.”

* His nomadic youth on the college ball circuit: “That’s been exaggerated. I got sent up to a junior college because I had to have a certain grade-point average at Arizona State to stay eligible.”

Some facts, however, stand on their own. His felony conviction for selling fake draft cards in the ‘60s. The decade he spent working in regional theater. His 20 films. His three failed marriages. His reputation as one of Hollywood’s most charismatic drunk and disorderly. His three years on the wagon. His 4-year-old son Brawley. His prodigious work ethic.

“The image of Nick Nolte is so different from the man,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, production chief at Disney, who has known Nolte since the actor broke into film with the 1975 TV movie “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

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“That whole aspect of celebrity he just laughs about. Nick is a hard-working actor devoted to his craft.”

“Nolte is a very clever actor who works without showing you his cleverness,” says Paul Mazursky, who directed Nolte in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

“He just happens to have been a wonderful actor during a time dominated by Jack (Nicholson), Dustin (Hoffman) and Warren (Beatty).”

Pete Gent, the former Dallas Cowboy, author of the novel “North Dallas Forty” and a longtime Nolte acquaintance, puts it this way: “Nick is a hard-working guy who’s tried to stay out of the limelight. He also likes to fine-tune the truth. In an actor’s life, sometimes they start to do that.”

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Indeed, Nolte’s conversation includes long, rambling narratives that pause, double-back, correct themselves and move restlessly off in other directions. For someone born and raised in the Midwest, he has a Southern raconteur’s style down.

“Right off the bat I became interested in acting through playwrights and plays,” he says. “I became engaged by playwrights and immediately it made no sense to me not to do the work I liked. I had a long argument with a lawyer, Gary Hendler. He wanted me to attack my career like (Robert) Redford. ‘Do this and this and this and eventually you’ll get to do what you want.’ And I said, ‘Gary, you don’t understand. I’ve been doing what I want to do ever since I began. I’m damn well not going to do a bunch of schlock that will be successful so I can do what I want to do. What will happen is if I do the schlock, I’ll get identified as a schlock actor and not be able to do what I want to do anyway.’ So I’m going to do what I want to do.”

He wanted to play Sam Bowden, the uptight Southern public defender portrayed in the original “Cape Fear” by Gregory Peck, who is nobody’s idea of Nolte’s clone, including Scorsese’s. He wanted the role so much, he attended the premiere of Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” dressed in character, a tidy blazer and tie, hoping to catch the director’s eye.

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” says Nolte. “I certainly knew of the film and I was very curious to know what Marty was going to do with the picture and I decided to go to the screening and there was this idea in the back of my head that if Marty saw me. . . . But I had just finished ‘Prince of Tides’ and I wasn’t that interested in working right away.”

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“Oh, no, that’s true,” says Scorsese, who had worked with Nolte in “Life Lessons,” the director’s portion of the triptych “New York Stories.” Nolte played Lionel Dobie, an obsessive painter, with an attention-getting ferocity.

“He had played this bear-like man, very big and rough, and I didn’t think he would be right for ‘Cape Fear,’ ” says Scorsese, who cast Nolte only after several discussions with the actor about the role. “I wanted the character to be in shades of gray, not black or white, a man who wants to be decent but can’t hold his life together. It’s a very delicate area and Nick understood that.”

With a budget of nearly $35 million, “Cape Fear” is Scorsese’s 14th--and largest--feature film to date. It is also the much-anticipated first result of his six-year deal with Universal Pictures, an arrangement that marks the most official liaison between the New York-based director--most famed for his films “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull"--and the Hollywood mainstream.

Indeed, this remake was a movie the director resisted until Steven Spielberg (whose Amblin Productions carries co-producer credit, and Robert De Niro, who was anxious to play Max Cady, the psychotic ex-con) persuaded Scorsese that such an updating was possible.

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“I thought the original film was suffering from a holdover of the ‘50s--an overly simplistic view of this family,” says Scorsese, who was interested in “making something more emotionally violent and threatening. I wanted to explore the nature of good and evil and have it be in the nature of a test, almost a religious test like the one Job experienced.”

To heighten the psychological tension and add this religious motif to the original “Cape Fear” story--an embittered ex-con seeks revenge on his attorney by threatening the lawyer’s family--Scorsese insisted on 24 drafts from writer Wesley Strick before filming began in South Carolina earlier this year.

“Even then a lot of the scenes were improvised,” says the director, adding, “that is something I never like to do, but I did it because of the actors I was working with.” Nolte, he says, is that rare actor “who is not really performing but behaving. He takes a lot of chances and is very sensitive to direction as well as the other actors.”

Although Nolte, like De Niro, is known as a Method actor of exhaustive physical preparation--for the role of the drifter in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” he slept on heating grates and didn’t bathe for weeks--his work in “Cape Fear” required some script revisions.

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“Nick and I really made up a lot of our scenes,” says Jessica Lange, who plays Nolte’s wife, Leigh. “The roles really weren’t there and I wouldn’t have even considered doing the film if it wasn’t for Marty, who wanted Nick and I to come up with our characters. Nick was great at delineating a lot of the family’s neuroses so we weren’t just paper dolls in a horror show.”

Nolte describes his character, attorney Sam Bowden, as “a surface man who is covered by this law mask. He keeps everything under control and his family at bay with his lawyer’s mentality.”

To research the role, Nolte spent several weeks in various public defenders’ offices. He also worked with the image of a primate--inspired by the opening sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey"--for the last scenes in “Cape Fear.”

“We were all trying for a very primal image,” says the actor, who used a small prophylactic device fitted under his upper lip for the film’s final scenes.

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“Cape Fear” has stirred up significant word-of-mouth for its disturbingly visceral final scenes, a use of violence that Nolte suggests “is how Marty sees the human condition.

“Birth is violent and out of that violence is our only chance of rebirth,” says the actor. “There’s the element of biblical violence--the story of Job, a man stripped by catastrophe. And then there’s another social aspect, this pretense of laws as a structure of values. Marty likes to reduce that theme--that we are as good as our word--and show how we slide by on white lies and that the actual connection between good and evil is a lot closer than we think. That’s his statement and it’s not tempered by the feminine nurturing side.”

Indeed, “Cape Fear” is a marked contrast to “The Prince of Tides,” the film adaptation of Pat Conroy’s best-selling novel that features Nolte playing a troubled Southern schoolteacher seeking to unburden himself of a tortured family history with the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist played by Streisand. The film, originally due to open in September, was rescheduled as Columbia’s Christmas film, largely on the strength of Nolte’s performance.

“I think this film needed a feminine touch,” says Nolte, who had been interested in working with a woman director for some time.

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“Women are just more oriented toward feelings--and I don’t mean that in a negative way. But with a male actor and a male director, the emotional exploration can only go so far. With a female director, you can end up exploring so many more depths.”

Indeed, Streisand, who is directing her first film since “Yentl” with “The Prince of Tides,” approached Conroy’s family drama with an embracing “no villains” attitude toward the characters.

She had to persuade studio executives that Nolte was right for the part of the sensitive protagonist, Tom Wingo.

“I told them, he isn’t just the character he played in ‘Q&A;,’ ” Streisand says, referring to the actor’s portrayal of Mike Brennan, the volatile Irish cop in Sidney Lumet’s 1990 film. “I knew he was capable of much more.”

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At her urging, Nolte dropped 30 pounds to play Wingo; on his own, he incorporated many of the theories espoused by John Bradshaw, psychologist and author of the book, “Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child.”

Nolte describes “The Prince of Tides” as “the integration of a family. I don’t care how much of a cliche it is, these relationships go on. While I didn’t experience that kind of physical abuse Tom Wingo did, abuse is abuse and I could take parts of my own childhood experience and use that. Everybody I know is still messing with their parents one way or another.”

He was born in Omaha in 1941, the second child and only son of Helen and Frank Nolte--a proverbial corn-fed Midwestern family of Irish and German farming stock, whose tall, handsome, athletic and blond son was “a kid for whom everything came easy,” recalls Jerry Koch, Nolte’s former baseball coach at Omaha’s Westside High School.

“Nick was one of those people who if he used all the talent he had, he could have had a great college career as an athlete and a student.”

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But Nolte, according to those who know him, was something of a squanderer, a bright student who had a reading disability and sold fake ID cards, a skillful athlete who was bounced from the team for drinking.

“The day before he had pitched a no-hitter,” says Koch. “Looking back, maybe we were too tough on our athletes, but at the time I had no recourse.”

“It was the ‘50s,” says Nolte of his childhood, spent first in Iowa and later in Nebraska. “It was a very deprived decade, a relapse of the ‘40s, when everything had a lid put on it, everything was stifled. Schools were uniformly run, there were curfew laws, women wore girdles. Living in a small town, one of the keys to survival was your imagination.”

It was also a time in Nolte’s life when his father, a former football player at Iowa State and a traveling engineer and salesman for the Johnson Pump Co., was absent a great deal of the time. Indeed, Nolte was born while Frank Nolte was stationed in the Philippines during World War II. He did not see his father until he was nearly 3 years old.

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“Nick always suffered from the lack of his father,” says Gent. “The next male authority figure was your coach, and Nick had the misfortune of playing for guys who really tore into him. He started drinking to make himself feel better. Eventually it affects your attitude, your play.”

He was playing football at Arizona State when his parents separated. His mother, a buyer for department stores, took a job in San Antonio; his father moved to Kansas, and his sister, Nancy, left home for New York.

Nolte played football at a succession of colleges, supporting himself by selling fake draft cards. Eventually he was arrested, convicted of a felony and given a five-year probation. Any hopes for a professional ball playing career were gone and Nolte spent the next year holed in his mother’s home, reading, mostly plays, and contemplating becoming an actor.

Nolte’s mother remembers those difficult years differently. “The whole world is full of mothers with children like me and my son,” Helen says. “It’s just that Nick made it public.”

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“These are all family myths,” says Nolte, determined not to unsnarl any of the various tales that have been attributed to his background. “No one literally tells the story of how they were raised. When you’re a child, your mind is not a rational one. It’s mythology. There is no way to say literally, this is what happened. They’re stories.”

It is much the same narrative approach that Nolte has brought to his career as an actor. “Acting,” he says, “can either be the ultimate ego trip or a selfless act, working in the service of the story. If storytelling is how we perpetuate ourselves, then there is a purpose to it.”

He spent several years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s working in regional theaters and summer stock before he landed in Los Angeles in 1973 with a New York production of “The Last Pad” by William Inge. When the playwright committed suicide on opening night, the production, and Nolte, received more than the usual attention. Within three years, the actor was playing Tom Jordache in the hit miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

He worked a lot--20 films in 16 years--all of them, he says, films he wanted to make, with the exception of his beefcake turn opposite Jacqueline Bisset in “The Deep,” and even that, he says, “was a piece of luck--one of the first films to gross over $100 million.” He seemed to have made as many hits as misses, but Nolte usually sidestepped the bad reviews, often winning praise in the midst of duds.

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His drinking and womanizing only added to the slightly scuffed luster that Nolte brought to a set. Despite his penchant for late nights and hard living, his craft never suffered, according to colleagues. “He doesn’t worry about being a star,” says Mazursky. “He’s just there--a wonderful actor who’s generous enough to give the dog the scene.”

Kate Nelligan, who plays Nolte’s mother in “The Prince of Tides,” calls the actor “a real pro who really understands what it means to serve the director. I learned more from him than any actor I’ve ever worked with.”

“Nick’s extra-curricular activities never got in the way of his work,” adds Katzenberg, for whom Nolte has made nearly half a dozen films. “If anything, they only added to his love of life.”

That whole scenario changed abruptly, three years ago, when Nolte stopped drinking. The actor is characteristically vague about the exact reasons. “Drinking was integrated into my life and I didn’t have problems with it until it was time to change,” he says. “Fifty seems like a good age to change anyway.”

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Friends say the decision had to do with his marriage to third wife Becky Linger, and their son, Brawley, who was increasingly a witness to the kinds of post-filming “recovery periods,” as Pete Gent puts it, that Nolte was prone to.

“What makes Nick such a great actor is his willingness to put himself out there on the edge, that he brings pain to the screen,” says Gent. “And you need a recovery period from that. Some people race cars, others lift weights and others drink. His family hated to see him go through that.”

The one casualty from Nolte’s new-found abstinence, ironically, has been his marriage. He is currently separated from Linger, trying to work out custody of their son--a devastating rupture, say friends and colleagues who suggest that once Nolte was on the wagon his wife lost her primary function as his caretaker. “Nick drew a lot on his breakup in ‘Cape Fear,’ ” says Lange. “A lot of personal history went into that role.”

It is a personal connection that Nolte has sought in all his roles. “I’m not the kind of actor who liked to play himself or to play one kind of character over and over,” he says about his career. “But I guess you have to define yourself somewhere. My interest was always to discover something of myself in this literature. That’s what fascinated me. It’s what fascinates me today.”

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The walkie-talkie lying on the trailer’s kitchen table crackles to life. Through the trailer porthole, Susan Sarandon’s red-haired head goes by in a sea of Australians. Nolte rises, begs off and goes out the door to work.

Cross, who had been lingering outside, takes over the second shift, settles into a chair, puts his feet on a nearby table and and spins tales of Hollywood, Vietnam, drinking, death and redemption. Marriages and movies will come and go but this friendship will remain.

Barely half an half hour has passed when Nolte returns, clearly discomfited to see Cross acting as one-man press table. He is not shy about shooing interlopers off his couch. He is supine in a second, fumbling for the Marlboros. The conversation turns to a discussion of Nolte’s golf handicap and his actual residence--is it Malibu or West Virginia?--a dispute that devolves into Cross accusing his best friend of lying.

“Hell,” says Cross. “He may not live in L.A. but he sure shows up there for a daily golf match.”

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Nolte sputters, once again playing Augusto, hands waving, accent roiling.

“You don’t know where you live,” says Cross, laughing. “Hell, you don’t even know who you are!”

“You’re right,” rasps Nolte, his Italian lending more verisimilitude than perhaps he intends. “I don’t know who I am.”


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