Nick Nolte on learning to work sober

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Nick Nolte, who turns 80 today, warned me of the dangers that lurked in Los Angeles. The Iowa-born actor had an explosive impact playing rebellious fighter Tom Jordache in the hit 1976 TV miniseries ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’, based on Irwin Shaw’s terrific novel. He played rough-edged and rowdy characters in ‘The Deep’, ’48 Hrs’ and ‘Teachers’. He also made more thoughtful pictures including ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’, ‘Under Fire’, ‘Cannery Row’ and ‘Heart Beat’.

I met him first in Chicago on a junket for ‘Teachers’ and talked to him again in 1985 ahead of the release of a black comedy titled ‘Grace Quigley’ starring Katharine Hepburn in her last leading role as an elderly widow, lonely and suicidal, who hires a hitman (Nolte) to kill her. When I asked about his rambunctious image, he said, ‘It’s a fast pace. It’s not so bad when you’re working. Then, it’s justifable to be a little extreme. You know, actors are extremists. That’s what Katharine says. Hepburn. Quote her. I called her a natural. She said, “Oh, no. I’m an extremist.” It’s when you’re not working … if you carry on that behaviour when you’re not working, you’re not gonna survive.’

Nolte lived then in Charleston, West Virginia, with his third wife, Rebecca. In part, he said, that was to avoid the kind of fast crowd that ran with comedian John Belushi, who had died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles in 1982: ‘I’ve been hanging around Los Angeles for 20 years. I was there to play junior college ball at Pasadena City College. L.A. is dangerous. It’s a beautiful place. It’s pastel. It has no seasonal change, that’s why it’s all pastel. But it’s dangerous in the aspect that you can’t walk anywhere. You can’t walk your way out of trouble. You’re stuck. That’s why it’s more dangerous than, say, New York for the John Belushis. It’s terrible to find yourself all alone in some place you don’t know where in hell you are. That can happen but it’s not gonna happen to me. It’s the period between pictures that’s the most difficult because you’re on a whirlwind if you go right back to L.A. Thus, West Virginia. You have to wait for trains in Charleston. That’s rather refreshing.’

He said he learned a lot from his co-star on ‘The Deep’: ‘It was my friend Robert Shaw who taught me, I loved that English camaraderie actor thing that we don’t really have in America because the actors stay a little isolated. Richard Harris is the authority on that. He said we’ve all got to learn that we can act without being drunk. Of course, he’s had to give up the booze and he’s absolutely right. My father-on-law is a retired cardiovascular surgeon in Charleston. He always says, boy, that was a great picture, Nick. Imagine what you could have done if you were sober.’

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