Nick Nolte


The set of the next Merchant-Ivory movie, The Golden Bowl, St. Pancras station, London. And amongst the characteristically pallid, genteel-looking cast, the improbable presence of Nick Nolte – a famously growling, grouchy bear of a man – cuts an imposing figure as he prowls about waiting for a take.

Everywhere he goes, a litre bottle of mysterious purple liquid goes with him. Every chance he gets, Nolte takes the opportunity to walk over and take a sip, clutching in it in his paw, with a possessive pride and authority that would convince anyone else thinking of tasting it to think again.

The bottle has no labels, no brand names, and could, theoretically (judging by its home-made, slightly sinister, shiny-looking quality), be anything from Ribena to something more industrial.
“Probably alcohol,” I hear someone in the crew speculate.

In the end, the temptation proves overwhelming.
“What’s in the bottle ?” he repeats with the world-weary tone of someone feeling totally persecuted. “That’s really awfully hard to explain.”

His face and his voice have the plaintive qualities of someone who is just asking for bit of understanding – enough to at least just let him have his drink in peace.
With the bottle in his hand, he trudges off back to the set.

In Nick Nolte’s case, given that some of his crazier drinking exploits were legendary even in Hollywood’s hell-raising fraternity, it would not be surprising if it were. Two of the Cannes Film Festival’s most enduring stories concern the time he was sent home after falling asleep, face down, in his spaghetti bolognese. Or the time he took on Robert de Niro and Gerard Depardieu in a 48-hour brandy-fuelled table-tennis marathon – and won.

He is (for the most part) AA nowadays, although he drank on the night he was nominated for as Oscar for his performance in Affliction last year. And he seemed slightly the worse for wear at a press conference for this year’s Berlin Film festival when he turned up after a night on the town with Bruce Willis wearing a brown bath-robe, beach pants, and what were described “huge swollen yellow slippers”, brandishing a bottle of champagne.

Over the last three years, he has become heavily absorbed by the world of science – chemistry and biology – and fascinated by the challenge of settling about repairing the damage to his brain, his body and his blood. All of which means the purple elixir could be virtually anything.

The first time I meet Nick Nolte – down a corridor, inside a doorway, round the back of a side entrance to St. Pancras, he sits me down in one of those director’s chairs you always see in movies about actors making movies, the ones with the actors’ names emblazoned on the back.

For a man who we are used to seeing in films such as Down & Out In Beverley Hills, Scorsese’s New York Stories, or Cape Fear, expertly portraying a kind of rugged disarray, today Nolte is dressed incongruously in an immaculately tailored pin-stripe suit, wearing a magnificent top hat, and brandishing a silver-topped walking cane. With his sleek silver beard and cropped silver/yellow narcotic-stained hair, he has the look of a majestic Lee Marvin, a shrewd and gritty survivor; a real movie-star, from the old days.

I realise too late I have sat down in the chair with Nick Nolte’s name written on the back in lavish gold italics.

It’s only when she suddenly appears and promptly sits down right next to me, that I realise Nolte himself has been sitting in the chair belonging to his co-star Uma Thurman. Nolte and Thurman have spent all morning, arm in arm, repeatedly shooting the same crowd scene, clambering with some difficulty, into a horse-drawn Victorian carriage.

Before either Nolte or I can say a word, the ravishing Ms. Thurman (dressed exquisitely as a lady of the period) launches into a vehement tirade against the unpardonable venality of the media, journalists, and magazine writers doing interviews in particular.

Nolte lets her gabble away all her complaints for three or four minutes before finally interjecting, looking at me with a mischievous glint in his eye, and saying, “Boy, I bet you really feel great about yourself now.”
“I’m sorry,” he apologises to La Thurman with a fairly transparent show of chivalry. “It was such a good story, I hated to interrupt.”

Thurman takes the news that I am a member of her least favourite profession, rather charmingly, in her stride.
“Hello,” she says, shaking my hand in what I optimistically interpret as an “I-fancy-you-madly” kind of way.
“Er, hi,” I say back in a more obvious, “I fancy-you-more” way back.

As if to spare our blushes, and to prevent me from being unceremoniously chucked out, Nolte then very generously diverts attention away from my presence by explaining that he and I have “just been discussing whether preparation helps an actor’s performance.”
“Preparation H ?!” Uma gushes with impressively demure, even lady-like, grace. “That always helps an actor’s performance !”

Needless to say, this causes me to guffaw with laughter for what seems to everyone else for several minutes, figuring that not everyone can claim that Uma Thurman has made a haemorrhoids joke in front of them, and seeing it as further evidence that our wildly flirtatious relationship is progressing nicely.
Nolte makes reference to an amazingly candid interview he had recently given in America.
“Oh I read that !” Uma chimes, she heads through the door and out of my life forever. “Wasn’t that the one where you gave the journalist mind-altering drugs ?!”
Which, of course, in a way, it was.

NICK NOLTE does not, as it turns out, give me any mind-altering drugs. Thurman was teasing, although the journalist did have to have a lie down after the second injection.

The best I could do is risk a sip of his drink as I am waiting for him in his trailer, while he is taking a leak. (The trailer is parked, alongside Uma Thurman’s, in front of St. Pancras Station with streams of London traffic passing obliviously by.)

The purple drink, I discover, is crisp and clear, like cold Cranberry juice but lighter. Weirder. It’s only after I’ve sampled it that I ask him again what it is.
“You can say it’s, ah, natural carbohydrate,” he mutters in that deep, gravelly growl that makes him as distinctive as one of those old-style maverick characters he most resembles and whom he has been most compared to, like Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, or James Coburn, whose faces seem to belong in an era of Westerns.

As much as his talent (which, it has to be said, has probably yet to be really appreciated), Nolte’s face and his voice have made his fortune.

He has the weathered, deeply-lined face and steely look in his eyes of someone not many people would argue with. His red, raw face and shrewd, unflinching eyes, bear testimony to the suggestion that he has seen, and survived, alot of life.

Besides the drink and the drugs, there have been three marriages and a palimony suit, a brief early career as a small-time American football player. He has a 12 year-old son Brawley who lives with him in Malibu.

His dedicated, somewhat manic, methods of preparation that he puts into his roles have often (even in this day and age when we are used to actors like De Niro or Daniel Day Lewis continuing to live their lives off the set in character) have often been dismissed as
excessively obsessive, but they have also brought him an almost ridiculous wealth of experience(s).

He lived out in the jungle of Borneo for a month before the shoot for Farewell To The King, winning the special privilege of being invited by villagers to sacrifice a pig.
He slept rough and lived off dog-food for Down & Out In Beverly Hills – “gourmet dog food” he stresses. He re-designed his house likes Thomas Jefferson’s after playing him in Jefferson In Paris. He put on 50lbs for Mulholland Falls and then lost it all, turning up in character at the premiere of Good Fellas to show Scorsese that he could play Sam Bowden.

Nolte has the air of a serious, highly-intelligent man whose appetite and energy (for acting, and for life) is hungrier than ever but whose intensity (what one writer called his “crazy vitality”) might send him spinning off-kilter at virtually any time – no matter how much self-control he tries to exert. It comes as no surprise that a copy of Hunter S.Thompson’s novel, The Rum Diary, is sitting on the table, or that he is thinking of filming it.

He was born in Omaha in 1943, just after his father left to fight in the war. Even when his father returned, to a job as a travelling salesman, Nolte hardly saw him before he died and his struggle to understand a loving father/son relationship surely informed his amazing performance (opposite James Coburn as his dad !) as a heavy-drinking father spiraling towards self-destruction in Affliction when sees himself in the mirror and realises he has turned into his drunk, abusive his father.

Nolte inadvertently got his big break after 14 years doing plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in regional theatre, when William Inge created nationwide interest in his latest (and last) play, The Last Pad, featuring Nolte – by committing suicide.

For such a late developer, global stardom was sudden, when he starred in the 1976 ABC series Rich Man, Poor Man. He staunchly resisted studio pressure to do Rich Man, Poor Man 2 – not to mention threats to halt his career and a then-unheard of cheque for a million dollars – principally on the pedantic grounds that his character had died at the end of Rich Man Poor Man 1.
“They said, well, you could come back as your son.”

Having actively stepped away from mass fame (in fact, he actually get away from it), he took the starring role in Robert Benchley’s sequel to Jaws, The Deep – only to find Jacqueline Bisset’s wet t-shirt launched his career as a leading man anyway.
He’s made over 30 movies since then – including box office blockbusters like Barbra Streisand’s Prince of Tides, Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Down & Out In Beverly Hills.

Paul Mazursky, who directed him in Down & Out In Beverly Hill, said he could have played virtually any of Brando’s roles, but somehow Nolte’s career has never quite clicked into the Major League status of a de Niro or Nicholson.

This could have been because of his drinking. When his drinking was at its worst, Julia Robert (his co-star in the ill-fated I Love Trouble) described him as “disgusting.”
Debra Winger said that, even when he had quit, he used to try to persuade every director he worked with that his character should be a recovering alcoholic. On the black comedy, Grace Quigley, even the great Katharine Hepburn (who came from an era where hard-drinking movie stars were the norm) told him that Spencer Tracy was a heavy drinker but even he never drank before coming to work and accused him of “falling down in every gutter in town.” Not quite, Nolte commented undeterred. “I’ve got a few to go yet.”

But, if anything, it is his reputation as one of Hollywood’s genuine oddballs that has outshone everything he has done.

This, he would be the first to admit nowadays was, partly, his own fault, as a result of the stories he would tell the press – usually when he “would turn up at interviews with a six-pack of beer and just talk” – an example which frankly, you wish his fellow Hollywood stars had followed.

It is (perhaps disappointingly) not true, he says now, that he had a testicle ‘tuck’, or that he only learnt to read in his 20s, that he lived in a brothel in Mexico, met his wife at the circus, or, better yet, once got drunk and lost his father’s artificial leg in a bar.

Nolte maintains that his reputation (either as an eccentric or a heavy drinker) never hampered his career – “because Hollywood is only concerned with what happens on the set” – but you can’t help wondering.

Always fond of wearing pyjamas round the house, he turned up at Cannes in 1995 doing interviews seemingly veering towards the down-and-out status he portrayed in the film, when he was photographed in April 98 in the street going down to Planet Hollywood dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown. Earlier in the 90s, he took to turning up at film festivals or press junkets wearing green medical overalls, saying that he was insane and wanted to be dressed correctly when they came to take him away.

Which brings us to his fascination with all things medical. The recent piece in American Esquire found him, in his pyjamas, doing experiments with blood all night with his son and scrambling around on his hands and knees in the garden at one in the morning, harvesting raspberries.

Over the last three years, Nolte has developed a serious, seriously obsessive, interest in scientific research regarding anything to do with his health and his body’s nutritional requirements: the latest theories and “the cutting edge of research science. Brain scans, DNA, testosterone levels. Dark-field blood-work.”

He is obsessive about analysing blood, X-rays, or brain scans (mostly his own, but also other people’s) – all part of the process, he says, of trying to repair the damage, or “blunt trauma” as he calls it, that he’s done to his body, his blood and his brain.

“I’ve SEEN a brain scan of a normal 10 year-old, a normal 20 year-old, a normal 40 year-old. I’ve seen a cocaine brain and I’ve seen a brain scan of a chronic alcohol and there’s a massive deficit. It’s hard to kill brain cells. I mean, they can take a tremendous amount of abuse. Your liver will give out first. But it doesn’t mean the brain cells are dead. They’re just not firing anymore…. The more challenged the brain, the more dendrites it builds.”

Rather than protect himself from any journalistic probing into these pursuits, he seizes the chance to talk about them, as an eager student whose eyes have just been opened to the wonders of science as a whole.

Nolte seems like an amiable, fairly laconic, character – until you get started on the subject of the meds he has in his little bottles – substances like tureen, lycine, argenine.

“Argenine is quite a wonderful amino acid,” he says warmly, with a big smile over his face, like a cowboy giving a connoisseur’s appraisal of a thoroughbred. “You stack four or five grammes of argenine two nights in a row and you have the same effect Viagra has.”

These days, rather than drink, when he feels he’s suffering from excessive stress, he has a propensity for injecting himself with shots of B12 (sometimes several times a day) or hooking himself up to an IV bag containing 13 different vitamins and minerals which will take as long as an hour to go through. His comment that “all the old hippies are doing it” suggests that, in California at least, he’s not the only one to switch allegiance from acid or dope or coke to his current drug of choice.

This 5ccs of “generally illegal” human growth hormone, which he buys “on the underground market”, and injected into the stomach, will do wonders, he says.

It strikes me as only hospitable to enquire if he’s got everything he needs, er, pharmaceutically, for his stay in our country, but, luckily he brought everything with him much to Her Majesty’s Customs’ consternation: 60 sterile plastic tubes, 60 IV drips, 60 needles.

“The minute they see needles, they start to panic. The human growth hormone always freaks ’em out,” he announces with relish. “That, and testosterone. But I always say, ‘well then you’ll just have to ban your own body from coming in too.’ They say, ‘people rub testosterone on race-horses. I say, ‘well I’m gonna rub it on me, but if you want to come and watch me run a few laps…”

(His problems in this respect are only going to worsen if they see his latest film, Simpatico, in which he plays a former race-fixer haunted by the time of his crime.)

He is also positively evangelical about the benefits of injecting “ozone” (Oxygen 3 or 03) – “the second most sterile substance in the world. They use it to scrub hospital wards. LA’s water is ozonated at the source – and “pushing oxygen into the plasma and revitalising it.”
“You can breathe it (he has spent up to ten hours in type of hyperbaric chambers that diverse use), or you colon use (colonic irrigation). If I had a stroke,” he beams amiably, “I would immediately inject myself with ozone.”

This is something Nolte would know something about, having had a heart murmur himself. His third wife tried to accommodate his drinking by allowing him three drinking days every six months, until he started taking them all at once, and disappearing on 72-hour benders.

His commitment to AA is such that bathroom walls of his home in Malibu are plastered with laminated copies of the 12 steps and admonishing reminds like the question “why are you frightened of being alone ?” with the answer just below. “Because you are faced with yourself as you are, and you find that you are empty, dull, stupid, ugly, guilty and anxious.”

He is not – as the drinking on Oscar night suggests – your average AA candidate though. His recent studies seem to have persuaded him that the attraction to drink is, principally, less a matter of choice than a chemical/biological, or possibly genetic, need, ostensibly freeing him from the responsibility of answering to his choices. His “rapid” brain speed – “with a voltage of 5.03″ – makes him susceptible to addiction”.

“Alcohol has been with mankind since the beginning, so obviously it serves some kind of function – for socialising man for example” which is not exactly what they preach at AA.

At home, each time he takes a shower, he faces the print-outs of definitions from books on brain chemistry, printed in large print and scotch-taped from floor to ceiling on the shower door, definitions of addiction, stress and craving.

Underneath the science, his message he seems to believe is that it’s his brain that wanted the alcohol.
“The brain is not really trying to destroy itself by drinking. What it’s really trying to do is balance itself. It’s just using the wrong substance.”
“Alcohol, first, is a dopamine stimulant,” he begins, sounding like a college lecturer. “It’s not the alcohol that gets you drunk, it’s the serotonin.”
He is shocked and somewhat appalled by the naivety of my suggestion that it falls to us to resist the temptation to drink and fall into ruin, or that he was drinking because he was unhappy.
“No ! NO !” he shakes his head. There’s no way NOT to succumb to it in life, or you wouldn’t be living.”

He takes no umbrage at the suggestion that his career has not fulfilled his potential,, blaming money and Hollywood, rather than his drinking or the vagaries of his personality.

“They come to your house and put $ 5m, $ 10m, on the table and shove it across to you, and it’s very hard to say ‘no thanks’. So you’re seduced in, and once you’re seduced in, it’s over. You don’t realise it, so you’ll go several films that way, but at that exact moment it’s over. You cease to be creative.”

There is a heavy, sombre, sadness about the way he says this, as if it still weighs down on him, even though it has also been seeking to put this right.
He proudly, painstakingly, explains how he gone from making $ 10 million per picture down to $ 75, 000.

“I am slowly working my way back to zero. I think within the next year I will work for no money at all and I am absolutely looking forward to it. Good movies with big budgets are very rare. They don’t make them anymore.”

Even though it was only 9 years ago, he says, “they wouldn’t make a film like Cape Fear now – not with me anyway”.

He has been concentrating instead on smaller, more subtle independents – “affairs of the heart, outside the studio system”: The Breakfast of Champions, The Best of Enemies, Trixie with Emily Watson.

The first of these, which he has co-produced – is Simpatico, written by Sam Shepard, set in the Texan outback of Cucamonga, around the Kentucky Derby favourite ‘Simpatico’. It is basically Paris Texas with horse-racing, with the film noir atmosphere of a Touch of Evil and a Chandler-esque heroine thrown in.

Amidst bravura performances from Jeff Bridges, Albert Finney and Sharon Stone, not for the first time (as he did in The Thin Red Line, Cape Fear, Affliction, or New York Stories), Nolte excels as a big man finding himself in a spot, someone whose unease and panic at his situation causes him to start spiraling towards self-destruction. In a way, for all four of the principal characters, it’s about disintegrating.

Nolte as ever threw himself into it, “going out to Cucamonga, hanging out with race horse-owners on the small tracks. See for myself how far was it to walk to this place, this bar.”

At the start of the film, Nolte’s character is sleeping all day and drinking all night, a wreck, a hollow relic, haunted by his past, but he says he didn’t consider it in any way ‘dangerous’ for him, given the painstaking research he always gives a part, seeing it as a means to investigate Shepard’s life, “all his plays, all his books.”

He seems particularly drawn to the idea that “Sam and I are from the same generation – there was something about World War 2 – we had disappearing fathers. There was something about the 50s- where the father didn’t have to be present. This disappearance kind of a thing. I don’t know if that explains it… ah – the absenteeism of family. I’ll know more,” he says as if he’s going to get back to me, and let me know the rest, “when I do Sam’s new play. ”

Like Shepard’s classic Paris Texas, Simpatico is, once again, about characters disappearing, walking away from their lives to try (fruitlessly) to become someone else or change, only ultimately to return to their real selves.

Rather than talking in terms of his old hell-raising past and his new, obsessively cleaner, self, Nolte’s role in Simpatico has an obvious parallel with the peace he seems to have made, or is trying to make, with himself, accepting his flaws and his drinking, instead of fighting his own chemistry to try and change, and just setting out to do the best he can, to do good work again, and be an example to his son.

“Circumstances change. Sure you change, but I don’t think of it as deciding to change.. It’s how much are you willing to accept in life. It’s how much suffering you can take and how much you deny your own pain.”

His absorption and commitment to such a role as the one in Simpatico is fine, he says, “as long as you don’t take it home.” It is, in any case, what he enjoys and what he does.
“All actors know what the requirements are. It’s a little demeaning to an actor to say he ‘becomes’ each role, with some kind of connotation that there’s a sickness in that. There’s disease. This idea that maybe you’ll go into a role and go home and kill your wife.”

It’s like an experiment, I suggest, to see if the actors can keep their mind.
“Actors have always been considered as insane people,” he says heading back to the set.

I ask him if, being essentially unstable, being an actor has made him worse.
“I’ve never been slightly unstable,” he bristles, taking exception to the very idea.

He stops still, standing in the middle of the car park in front of St. Pancras station ready to get back into his horse-drawn carriage, dressed in the finery of top hat and tails.
“I have just been… kind of like the world. I believe in the theory of chaos. If quantum theory is true and all is chaos, then I fit in to the universe very well. There’s nothing unbalanced about me at all.”