In the company of Nick Nolte, master storyteller

Actor Nick Nolte stars in the movie "A Walk in the Woods" with Robert Redford.

Actor Nick Nolte stars in the movie “A Walk in the Woods” with Robert Redford.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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He appears as if a flicker among the rose bushes and sycamores. He squints, tilts his head in that signature way, and smiles with new teeth. “Just got ‘em. $3,000 a set. They hurt.” He laughs, waves you on, riffing and drawing you in like a confidant on a bar stool or an usher in a pew between Masses.

Nick Nolte’s take on things slides from the lyrical to the exasperating: “a beloved little run of a play,” or “I dropped acid with professors when it was legal,” or “the lawyers really went at it,” or “one of my ex-wives gets $1,000 out of my pension.” In a preening town neurotic about image, Nolte, who once played football in Pasadena and built storm drains in Beverly Glen, is unadorned, a man of energy and talent dealing out transgressions and triumphs in equal measure.

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He’s candid to a degree and philosophical when the need arises.

“The money and perks become ego,” says Nolte, a three-time Academy Award nominee, whose new film, “A Walk in the Woods” with Robert Redford, opens Wednesday. “That’s not necessarily an advantage. Wipe it away and go like you had been doing all your life. Go out and do the work. Don’t take on an entourage. The material is all you need.”

He roams his sunlit Malibu estate. A gardener shovels soil. Large vases and statues — a belly dancer, Michelangelo — peek above tomatoes, pumpkins and gourds. Sycamore branches rise, twist and swoop. A guy wanders around with a hammer and a tape measure. A half-built guest house stands in the shade, a wet suit hangs from a tree. It’s the rustic domain of a tinkerer, a man with a feel for nature and unfinished chores.

Nolte finds his office. A fan hums. He eases onto a couch and takes off his shoes. A marked-up script sits on a coffee table. Stuff is stacked on the floor, including the 1992 People magazine cover of him as “the sexiest man alive.” Blond and tanned, boyish almost. The cover appeared the year after he made “The Prince of Tides” with Barbra Streisand. He still has those killer eyes. They go right for you.

He leans in and stories flow this way and that with no discernible beginning or end.

“Bob kind of got mad and walked up the mountain,” Nolte recalls of Redford during the filming of “A Walk in the Woods,” a story of two disparate men trekking the Appalachian Trail. Redford got irritated when he wanted to ride his horse to a shoot location but was told someone had to hold the reins and walk beside him. “Bob’s a horseman,” Nolte says, and didn’t like not having the reins.

“I went up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle,” he says, noting that the Georgia landscape where much of the movie was shot was verdant and that “if you didn’t want to be with people, all you had to do was walk that way and you were in dense forest.”

“A Walk in the Woods” is based on the book by Bill Bryson. Redford, 79, plays the writer and Nolte, 74, his bearded, alcoholic, out-of-shape friend. It’s a comedy of imperfect lives set against the grandeur of nature. “Nick knows how to do a lot with a little,” said Ken Kwapis, the film’s director. “His face can go immobile and somewhere will come a strange sigh that will tell the whole story. At times, though, he would put me in a headlock.”


Nolte and Redford — on-screen and in real life — have survived the decades on different trails. They were once represented by lawyer Gary Hendler, who gave Nolte advice. “You have to have a career like Bob,” Nolte says he was told. “He does a couple of studio movies and then gets to do one for himself. And I said, ‘Gary, I’m doing one for myself now, and I’m going to do one for myself after that and all the time’, which used to piss him off a little bit.”

Nolte’s characters are combustible universes. They run on and from guile, cruelty and infraction, as if down deep there’s a recognition that the world is pernicious and that the demons will have their due. His roles can also be sharp and iconoclastic, such as the disillusioned, painkiller-prone wide receiver in “North Dallas Forty,” and charming like his “Jefferson in Paris.” It is the damaged ones, though, that stay with you: the grievous policeman in “Affliction” and his last memorable part as the wreckage of a father in “Warrior” in 2011.

The script on the coffee table is for “Graves,” an Epix original series on which he’ll play a former U.S. president seeking to undo the wrongs of his administration while contending with the political ambitions of his wife, played by Susan Sarandon. He wouldn’t have thought years ago when playing football at Pasadena City College (his yearbook is in the bathroom) and working for the Iron Workers Union that he would one day compile a prolific and enviable film resume.

“He combines brute force with the poetic,” said Tom Thurman, who directed “Nick Nolte: No Exit,” a 2008 documentary in which the actor has a running conversation with himself, questioning his ideals, motives and beliefs. “I can’t fully explain Nick Nolte. He has an intensity that most actors have lost at this age or never had.”

First-rate raconteur

Polished stories arise from distant times, and Nolte, appearing in no particular hurry, unfolds one: “I was living with a couple of gals in Laurel Canyon,” he says. He was in his early 20s, they in their early 30s. “I wasn’t having sex with them. I was called younger brother.” Musicians came to the house late at night after gigs and gave Nolte “a pill or two.”


One of the women dated an Armenian painter. “He was a bear of a guy who had a tendency to slash his older paintings. They put him into electric shock therapy.” The artist drove an MG and broke a sink having sex in the bathroom.

He laughs. Nolte’s voice is part wheeze, part growl, the sound of a rustling bag of marbles set to the rhythms of an old-world mariner. Words slow when he talks about his restless childhood in Omaha, his disdain for school, his love of sports and not seeing much of his father, a World War II veteran and traveling salesman. “I remember the fear of adults. My dad came home skinny from war and I didn’t know who he was,” he says, “I was headed for problems.”

When he was 24, he received a suspended sentence on a felony conviction for selling counterfeit documents. His acting career began in regional theater, including stints in Minnesota and Arizona, and he knew playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. “There are certain older actors in repertory companies that are far better professionally than anybody here [Hollywood],” he says.

Nolte reached a wider audience with his role as the rebel boxer brother in the 1976 TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man.” That was the year America turned 200, Gerald Ford was in the White House, and television sets had rabbit ear antennas and a handful of channels. Things were more delineated, story lines and scandals didn’t bleed through endless news cycles, and Hollywood studios didn’t have to contend with YouTube and Netflix.

“We’re in a technological time, and we’re really moving fast, and the entertainment people, the storytellers, don’t know where the audience is,” he says. “They’re really at a precarious moment. It’s just as likely that some amateur will find a way to connect with the audience as some professional. It happened in the 1960s. They were still doing ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ when the new kids [filmmakers] showed up” with movies like “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”

He had good and tough times playing against certain women, notably Sarandon, his costar in “Lorenzo’s Oil,” whom Nolte described as “easygoing, really solid,” and Debra Winger, his costar in “Cannery Row,” whose name drew a pause. “Debra would seduce a film. She’d gain control over it,” he says. “She was known for being rough. Winger had a wicked sense of humor that I really loved. But she might come in the morning into my trailer and, wham, hit me.”


Personal struggles

Nolte had recurring problems with narcotics and alcohol. He could be belligerent. He was once spotted at a Malibu drug store in a bathrobe and pajama bottoms, and a 2002 mug shot taken after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence was a crystallized image of imbalance. He seems more settled these days. After three failed marriages, Nolte is in a relationship with actress Clytie Lane. They have a 7-year-old daughter. It is, he says, about perspective.

“You grow out of it,” he says. “Cocaine was a horrible, insidious drug. Everybody had that happen for a while. It was just too dangerous. You’re out of it. I drank on and off up to a couple of years ago, a year ago, and then I just stopped. Now, I can have a drink and stop. But I used to fill the gaps between adrenaline rushes with booze and drugs.”

“He obviously struggled with chemicals for decades,” said filmmaker Thurman. “The irony here is that he remained very professional about his craft. He’s extremely dependable and loyal.”

He also has a wily streak. Before filming “Mulholland Falls,” a 1996 noir caper in which Nolte played a detective, he and his assistant Greg Shapiro, who would later produce “The Hurt Locker,” wanted to imbue the screenplay with the feel of Los Angles in the 1950s. Nolte suggested they “steal” from crime novelist James Ellroy.

“We got into Ellroy’s books,” he says. “But after a while we had stolen so much that I said, ‘Greg, call Ellroy.’ Ellroy answers the phone and says, ‘Dog, here.’ ‘Cause he calls himself Dog. Greg explained who he was and what we were doing. Ellroy said, ‘Well, what are you taking?’ Greg had the quotes down. This line and this line.


“And I said, ‘Give me the phone. James, it’s Nick Nolte. Here’s what we’ve taken so far. I think we’re right at the edge of taking too much.’ Ellroy said, ‘Look, I’ll meet you at the Pacific Dining Car in three days at eight o’clock.’”

Nolte laughs. More stories come. The conversation spins in one direction, then another. The fan hums. He stands at the office door, as if a man who has come down from a treehouse to play in the sunlight and broken shadows, to tend the rose bushes and marvel at the sycamores.