Accessibility options

Nick Nolte - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Nick Nolte - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Nick Nolte

Personal details

Name: Nick Nolte
Born: 8 February 1941 (Age: 74)
Where: Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Height: 6' 1"
Awards: Won 1 Golden Globe, Nominated for 2 Oscars

All about this star


It's hard to believe that the gruff and grizzled Nick Nolte, a multiple Oscar nominee feted as one of today's greatest screen actors, was once derided as a pretty boy of no obvious ability. Yet this was the opinion of many, partly due to the few late Sixties years when Nolte's face adorned the box for Clairol's Summer Blonde, and partly because of his professional breakthrough in the melodramatic miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and the empty-headed adventure The Deep.

If it seems a foolish view now, it was actually pretty dopey even back in the Seventies. Nolte had come to prominence after 14 years in regional theatre and was already 35 when he played the 17-year-old Tom Jordache in Rich Man, Poor Man. He would immediately prove himself to be a troubled maverick of deep complexity, and deliberately seek out similar renegade talents. Consider the directors he's worked with - Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Karel Reisz, Walter Hill, John Milius, William Friedkin, Barbra Streisand, Oliver Stone, Paul Schrader, James Ivory, Terrence Malick, Alan Rudolph, Neil Jordan. It's like a roll-call of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic and respected personalities. And all of them have been impressed by Nolte's skill and no-nonsense work ethic.

He was born on the 8th of February, 1941, in Omaha, Nebraska, on the eastern border with Iowa. His father, Frank, was of German stock, his own father being a farmer in Iowa. The Noltes were big men. Even at 6' 1" Nick would be the smallest of them all. Nick's mother, Helen (nee King) was exceptionally beautiful and hailed from a talented family. Her mother had run the Student Union at Iowa State University, and it was here that she'd met her future husband, an agricultural researcher who'd invent the hollow tube silo and also be prominent in early aviation. These people worked hard, and many of Nick's later problems with drink and drugs would spring from his inability to fill the time between jobs.

Frank and Helen would have two children, Nick being preceded by an older sister, Nancy. But the family would be broken up quickly. In 1942, Frank went off to fight in WW2, returning two years later to spend two months in bed with jungle rot and malaria. It's possible that seeing this huge man (Frank was 6' 6") absent then horribly weakened gave young Nick his lifelong hatred of violence and war. He's also said that growing up in the repressed but financially booming Fifties showed him how adults have dark secrets and compete violently - both of which contributed to a deep fear and inner anger in a boy who was already shy and alienated.

Once Frank was up and about, he became a travelling salesman, dealing in irrigation pumps. His job would take the family to Ames in Iowa, then 100 miles east to Waterloo, and then south to Joplin, Missouri before returning to Omaha. It was here that Nick would spend his teens, attending Benson and Westside High Schools where he'd excel as a sportsman. Oddly, he'd specialise in football. Disliking violence and competition, this systematic crushing of the opposition can only have increased his rage and confusion.

Yet it was football that would take Nick to college when he won a scholarship to Arizona State University at Tempe. Trouble was, he had very little interest in classes and continual flunking would see him move on to play football at Eastern Arizona College, then Phoenix College and finally Pasadena City College. In the meantime Frank and Helen would split up, Helen becoming a department store buyer in Phoenix, Nick living with her for a while.

It seemed Nick might be in for a hard life once his football career was over. He was a politically active kid, a keen member of the burgeoning counter-culture of the early Sixties and by 1962 had already been busted for selling fake draft cards to underage kids who'd use them as ID. As these were counterfeit government documents he was given a 45-year jail sentence and a $75,000 fine (both suspended) and would be on probation throughout most of the decade (as a convicted felon he still can't vote). But, more by luck than design, he discovered acting before it all went utterly pear-shaped.

It began when he was still playing football in Pasadena and a friend took him to see Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman at the Playhouse. The tragic plight of the suicidal Willy Loman, the secrets he keeps, the emotional violence he metes out to his family and the competitive life that finally breaks him can only have rung mighty bells within Nolte. He loved the way the actors were dealing with these real-life problems, openly discussing them - this, surely, was the life for him. He began his apprenticeship at the Pasadena Playhouse, and spent a short stint under Bryan O'Byrne at Stella Adler's Academy in Los Angeles.

While in LA, the Sixties high-life came to him. Earning his money as an ironworker, he was hanging with the bohemians and, now in his early twenties, was living in Laurel Canyon with Jan and Joanne, two girls ten years his senior. Friends would come to visit and give Nolte handfuls of pills to try, many of which would be taken by his house-mates. For ages Nolte thought they were protecting him from the hard stuff. Eventually he realised they were taking all the best gear for themselves.

Next he returned to Phoenix for a photography course. It was here that he would join the Actors Inner Circle. The Circle had been co-founded in the early Sixties by Mel Weiser, and Nolte was introduced to him by another actor, Burke Rhind. Nolte explained that he was inexperienced but keen and Weiser would later claim that in this newcomer he saw a gottabe, not a wannabe. The pair would be friends and colleagues for years, Weiser actually writing a book called Nick Nolte: Caught In The Act. In it he described their experiences together, and talked of the actor's obsession with perfect scenes, his bursts of rage and the verbal abuse he handed out (none of it was backed by venom, said Weiser, Nolte was just aggressively pursuing good work). Wesier also noted Nolte's preoccupation with violence. Years later, he recalled, the pair would visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Nolte said nothing for five hours then, leaving the building, gave a pained groan and shouted "Did you see? Did you see?"

With the Actors' Circle, Nolte would immediately set about building his stage CV, taking on Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as the lesser known likes of Anouilh, Durrenmatt and Frisch. He'd appear in up to 16 plays a year. He'd also meet his first wife, Sheila Page, who'd co-star with him in an adaptation of The Rainmaker. They'd marry in 1966, Nolte taking on her two kids, but would be divorced in 1970.

All in all, Nick would spend 14 years in regional theatre, much of it in the south-west. In 1968, he joined the Old Log Theatre in Minneapolis and, now with those extra mouths to feed, he became a print and runway model, and took that infamous job with Clairol. Once divorced, he went to New York, appearing at the Caf' La Mama, then went back out into the regions.

Finally, things changed. In 1973, Nick moved to Los Angeles to star in William Inge's The Last Pad. Now, Inge had been an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter. He'd won a Pulitzer Prize for Picnic and had followed it up with Bus Stop (later filmed with Marilyn Monroe), The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs and Glory In The Flower which he'd rewritten as Splendour In The Grass, the film which won him his Oscar. The Last Pad, released in 1970 and concerning three men on Death Row, would be his last play, the author then turning to novels. Nolte had appeared in a Phoenix production of The Last Pad, and it was Inge himself who insisted the actor reprise his role in Los Angeles, at the theatre now known as the Westwood Playhouse. Tragically, on opening night, the writer took his own life.

This was, of course, a terrible blow to the producers and players. Yet the suicide ignited interest amongst Hollywood's glitterati and the run was a screaming success, raising Nolte's profile no end and winning him a Best Actor nomination from LA's Drama Critics. Quickly, TV work came his way. He played a gang leader in Dirty Little Billy, a gritty western with Michael J. Pollard as Mr The Kid (Gary Busey also made a very early appearance). Then there was an Andy Griffith vehicle, Winter Kill, where a sniper terrorised a holiday resort, and The California Kid, a car-chase movie where a young Martin Sheen took on Vic Morrow, a sadistic small-town sheriff who loves to force speeding kids off the side of mountains.

After this there would be more small roles in Death Sentence, The Runaway Barge and Adams Of Eagle Lake (a TV series take on Winter Kill also starring Griffith) and Nolte would pop up in the popular likes of Medical Centre, Cannon, Emergency!, The Rookies, Gunsmoke and Barnaby Jones. It was all good experience for an actor well into his thirties before he ever appeared onscreen. So was Return To Macon County, a follow up to the hit Macon County Line, where Nolte co-starred with Don Johnson as drag-racing kids who get involved with another mean ole sheriff. Both this and the original were directed by Richard Compton, aware of Nolte's abilities after helming The California Kid.

Now, after three frenetic years of stage and TV work, Nolte hit big with Rich Man, Poor Man, a miniseries based on the novel by Irwin Shaw. Here Nick and Peter Strauss respectively played Tom and Rudy Jordache, sons of a bitter New York baker, and the tale followed them through some 20 years of familial and romantic squabbling as Tom was held back by his wild nature and Rudy studied hard to reach the top. Amazingly, the two actors had auditioned together, a confident Nolte telling a far-from-sure Strauss that they were both going to walk into the parts. One of the first huge miniseries successes, the show made Nolte a star worldwide, where before he'd been totally unknown. Paid $50,000 for his efforts, he was now suddenly invited to all the best parties and certainly took to the high life. Eventually he would have serious problems with booze and cocaine and would later note that the burst of fame was too much, feeding his ego and confusing him. It's the same for most stars, he's said - you don't feel deserving yet you're terrified it isn't going to last.

Even though he was already 35 and a hard liver, Nolte's youthful looks remained. After Rich Man, Poor Man he was considered highly bankable (he was also Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated and receiving 2000 fan letters a week). George Lucas had him on the short-list for Han Solo in Star Wars. Superman too was on the cards, but Nick would only take the role if he could play the Man of Steel as a full-blown schizophrenic. 25 years later, he would actually join the cast of a comic caper when director Ang Lee decided to take just such a Greek-tragedy approach to The Hulk.

Nolte himself wanted something meatier and proved it by turning down the $1 million he was offered for a continuation of Rich Man, Poor Man (having died in the first one, he was told he'd have to come back as his own son). Sadly, great high-profile roles were not easy to find. Having been turned down for Apocalypse Now, William Friedkin's Sorceror and Slap Shot (he failed miserably to learn to ice-skate), he made do with The Deep, a movie he'd been stalling on for ages. This was another watery adventure from Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, and featured holiday-making lovers in Bermuda who get involved with murderous drug-runners and, naturally, a horrifying beast from below.

The film was a real hoot for the actors, with Nolte and Robert Shaw ruining shot after shot by diving below Jacqueline Bisset wearing big pointy shells over their groins and making her laugh. But it wasn't such a joy for the audience, lacking any of the tension of Jaws. Indeed it's really only memorable for Bisset's wet teeshirt. Fortunately for Nolte, help was on hand when the set was visited by Karel Reisz, director of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and, along with Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, a prime mover in Britain's "angry movement". Reisz took to Nolte immediately, despite the silliness of the work-in-progress, and gave him some important advice, most notably to concentrate on his own performance and not expend so much energy entertaining the crew. He also cast him in his next picture - Dog Soldiers.

Dog Soldiers was just what Nolte was looking for, an action picture that was politically heavy and emotionally fraught. In it he played Ray Hicks, a disillusioned Vietnam vet who agrees to transport heroin for his buddy Michael Moriarty then, when the deal goes bad, takes off with the drugs and Moriarty's wife, Tuesday Weld, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. It wasn't a financial hit, but it allowed Nolte to prove his worth as a complex actor, particularly in the scene where he decides to sacrifice himself for his shiftless friend and the woman he loves. Already he was showing his great strength. Like William Holden, Robert Ryan and Paul Newman (who, coincidentally, had taken the lead in Slap Shot), he was at his best as a tough guy tortured by his own sensitivity. New York's film critics would note this, honouring him at their Best Actor.

Things were certainly happening. 1978 also saw him marry again, to Sharyn Haddad, a dancer nicknamed "Legs" (they'd divorce 5 years later). It also saw him sued by his former long-time girlfriend, actress Karen Louise Eklund, over community property and support - the case being settled out of court. Nolte moved on to another complicated hard man, Phillip Elliott in North Dallas Forty. This saw him return to his football roots as a star player who loves the game despite its crushing effect on his body and struggles with abusive bosses in it only for the money. The movie was very anti-authoritarian and lauded as one of the better sports films ever made and Nolte, having worked hard to build himself up then turn himself to flab (this was before Raging Bull) was once more voted Best Actor by New York's film critics.

Still seeking interesting roles, he turned to Heart Beat, playing beatnik Neal Cassady with Sissy Spacek as his wife Carolyn. Then came Cannery Row, based on John Steinbeck's famous novel, a kind of seedy adult fairy-tale where Nolte played an ex-baseball player falling for hooker Debra Winger amongst the down-and-outs in a poor Californian neighbourhood. Again it wasn't a great success, but Nolte was praised as Doc, a brave role to take given the affection with which the book was held. There was also a tempestuous affair with Winger which foreshadowed Nick's divorce from Haddad a year later in 1983.

At this point, now in his forties, Nolte was still drinking heavily. He'd always had trouble winding down between roles and would basically stay drunk until his next film began (he tried golf but it didn't relax him). It didn't slow him down, though, in fact it proved a boon as, with his pretty boy looks dissipated, he was more convincing as gnarlier characters. This made him ideal for Walter Hill's 48 Hrs where he played a rough, drunken cop who gives wise-ass prison-bird Eddie Murphy a two-day release to help him catch a killer. Amazingly, the studio didn't think Murphy, a Saturday Night Live regular, was funny and wanted him replaced, but Nolte (who was paid $2 million for his part) and Hill fought for the comedian and were proved absolutely right. The two stars were brilliant together, insulting and battering each other, with Nolte slipping easily between the exasperated and fascistic.

It was a massive hit, making Murphy's film career and boosting Nolte's. Being Nolte, though, he did not use this as a springboard to Hollywood superstardom. Indeed, though peppered with artistic successes, the Eighties for Nolte were fairly catastrophic. 48 Hrs was followed by Under Fire where he was a photographer in war-torn Nicaragua in 1979, mixed up with friend Gene Hackman's wife and slowly having his journalistic integrity undermined. Then came comedy-drama Teachers where he battled both bored kids and corrupt board to provide a decent education. This was followed by the black comedy Grace Quigley, featuring Katherine Hepburn as an old lady slowly dying in New York. Witnessing hit-man Nolte at work, she blackmails him into killing her - then decides that euthanasia might be a money-spinning business. It was a real low point for Nick, and he was still drinking heavily. On-set an appalled Hepburn explained to him that Spencer Tracy was a big drinker, but never before he came to work. She accused him of falling down drunk in every gutter in town. Not quite, replied Nolte good-naturedly, "I've got a few to go yet". It can't have been easy for his third wife, Rebecca Linger.

1986 saw Linger bear him a son, Brawley, who'd later play a young version of his dad in Mother Night and Affliction, as well as Mel Gibson's kid in Ransom. It also saw a return to form of sorts with the satirical Down And Out In Beverly Hills, where Nolte's hobo tries to drown himself in the swimming-pool of rich folks Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler. Naturally, they take him in and, just as naturally, everyone's so impressed by his authenticity and street wisdom he takes over the establishment. Nolte's innate roughness, and the five weeks he spent homeless by way of research (on-set he literally stank), made this Nolte's best performance in ages. Many critics agreed that he was at last growing into his skin.

He moved on to Extreme Prejudice, directed by Walter Hill and written by John Milius, playing a Texas Ranger on the Mexican border engaged in a confrontation with Powers Boothe, an old buddy now keen to smuggle drugs and steal Nolte's girlfriend. Next came Weeds, the true-ish story of Rich Cluchey, where Nick was a suicidal jailbird who writes and puts on a play while inside and later takes it to Broadway with an ensemble of ex-cons (Nolte would be Golden Globe-nominated for his pains). Then came slapstick comedy Three Fugitives and another pairing with a Saturday Night Live star - Martin Short. Here Nolte was a bank robber just released from the Big House who gets dragged into a hold-up by the miraculously inept Short. The cops don't believe Nolte's innocent and he ends up on the run with Short and his mute daughter.

If Three Fugitives re-raised Nolte's popularity, he gained further artistic credit from his other two movies in 1989. First, he starred in Martin Scorsese's segment of New York Stories as a painter obsessed and driven by his unrequited desire for his much younger assistant, Rosanna Arquette. Then came Farewell To The King, directed by Extreme Prejudice writer John Milius. Here he played Learoyd, a US soldier who escapes execution by the Japanese and flees into the jungle, where he becomes head of a native tribe. He struggles to protect their innocence, but the war is not so easily escaped.

These two pictures were a high point for Nolte but in his rollercoaster career he has never stayed up for long. Everybody Wins saw him reunited with Karel Reisz and Debra Winger. Adapted by Arthur Miller from his play Some Kind Of Love Story, it was supposed to be a mystery-romance, Nolte playing a tousled PD set on a murder investigation by Winger, a hooker with multiple personalities, and getting involved with her. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a mess and ended the Hollywood career of Nolte's mentor Reisz, something for which Nolte later expressed lasting feelings of guilt. It was followed by another reunion, Another 48 Hrs, this time with a suspended Nolte pursuing a drug baron and Murphy being chased by a motor-gang. It wasn't bad, but it certainly lacked the original's charm.

Undeterred Nolte, at this point winning his war with booze and drugs (his wife had finally coaxed him into AA in 1987), entered perhaps the most impressive run of his career. It began with Sidney Lumet's Q&A, a severe and challenging drama where Nick was Detective Lieutenant Mike Brennan, a corrupt and casually racist cop investigated by idealistic Timothy Hutton and protected by a corrupt and racist old-boy network. Here he was brilliant, an utterly terrifying monster yet still recognisably a good man gone bad. He fully justified critic Pauline Kael's assertion that he was "a master of the inchoate, of the mixed-up".

He was also a mess in his next effort, Scorsese's Cape Fear. He could have just kept it straight, played a good guy menaced by Robert De Niro's supremely nasty Max Cady. But Nolte never keeps it straight. As the lawyer whose poor work sees Cady jailed for years, he was weak and troubled, ruining his marriage to Jessica Lange with pointless infidelity and ignoring the blooming of young daughter Juliette Lewis - both failings give Cady further ammunition as he tries to bring Nolte down. His deep performance lent real weight to what might otherwise have been an ordinary revenge drama.

Nick was now on a roll. In Barbra Streisand's The Prince Of Tides he was an unhappily married Southern football coach who travels to New York to help his suicidal twin sister and winds up falling in with her psychiatrist (Streisand). By opening himself up, he aims to reveal his sister's past but instead finds a painful redemption of his own. Nolte is said to work purely on emotion, all his exhaustive research being aimed at why he's feeling something and how that should be expressed. God knows where he dug up his feelings for the fraught climax of The Prince Of Tides, but his efforts were impressive enough to earn him his first Oscar nomination and win him a Golden Globe.

His next release was another emotional winner, Lorenzo's Oil. Here, along with Susan Sarandon, he played the parent of a boy who's dying of ALD, a nervous disorder that's always fatal. Unable to accept the inevitable, he fights the Establishment and begins to do his own increasingly successful research. Based on the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, it was a wordy but moving experience. Also, it sparked a passion in Nolte for health and medicine. He'd begin to attend conferences on cancer, ageing and hormone deficiency. Later, he'd eat only organic food, take 60 pills a day (mostly vitamins) and build a small laboratory where he'd create his own potions and inject them between his toes in order to make up for all those years of substance abuse. He'd even take to examining his own blood and, if they'd let him, other people's.

Having followed his Oscar nomination with a popular hit, Nolte oddly found his career nosediving. It was mostly his fault, but not completely. First he took on a worthy and ambitious project, James L. Brooks' I'll Do Anything. This was intended as a satire on the film industry, with Nolte as a desperate actor forced to look after the 6-year-old daughter he's been ignoring in his frantic search for work. But it was also supposed to be a reinvention of the musical, with songs by Prince and choreography by Twyla Tharp. None of the cast could really sing, but it seemed to be working - that is until the disastrous test screenings that saw all the music and dancing cut out and the film re-edited as a straight comedy. How could it possibly succeed?

This one wasn't Nolte's fault. The next ones were. After the Oscar nomination, Nolte had sat down with his lawyers and discussed money - lots of money. The offers he was receiving were too good to turn down, and he decided at last to accept. Thus came Blue Chips, I Love Trouble and Mulholland Falls.

The first of these, which saw him finally working with William Friedkin, had him as an honest college basketball coach compromised by failure. It featured plenty of cameos from real-life basketball stars and some hot court action but Nolte would not look back on it fondly. Next came I Love Trouble, a real ripsnorting disaster when he played alongside Julia Roberts as rival Chicago hacks covering a conspiracy around a train wreck. They trick, double-cross and, inevitably, grow rather fond of each other. Like 48 Hrs without any sass or chemistry, it was execrable stuff.

Though directed by James Ivory, Jefferson In Paris wasn't a great deal better. Here Nolte was in the title role, when Thomas Jefferson was US Ambassador to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He fights for freedom in this tumultuous time, but is also a slave owner, a situation further complicated when he falls for his daughter's young slave, played by Thandie Newton. It could have been a great opportunity for Nolte to step forward once more as the master of the inchoate, but he played Jefferson as such a distant character it was hard to care about his confusion.

And then there was Mulholland Falls, set in 1950s Los Angeles, where Nolte led the Hat Squad, a gang of middle-aged cops who dispense justice by flinging criminals off the cliffs. Then, when his ex-squeeze Jennifer Connelly is found dead, the investigation leads to dubious atomic testers and corrupt police chiefs. Sadly, again there was no tension, the movie was like a neutered Chinatown.

But there was a happy result for Nick. Feeling himself to be hopelessly unfulfilled by his latest efforts, he made a conscious choice to please himself rather than go for the big bucks. Consequently the mid-Nineties became another boom time. First came the Kurt Vonnegut-penned Mother Night where he played a US spy in Nazi Germany whose covers himself by working as a radio propagandist for the Third Reich, using his position to pass coded information to the Allies. In later years he's caught by the Israelis who don't know that he was a double-agent and he's forced to ask himself whether arrogance and love of fame actually caused him to do more for Hitler than his own team.

The movie, directed by Keith Gordon (the nerdy anti-hero of Christine), was a real comeback for Nick. And it almost never was. Gordon had tried for years to get the script to Nolte but never got past his agents. Eventually he took a small part in I Love Trouble (what a humiliation for the director of A Midnight Clear!) in order to hand it to him. Three months passed, no reply. Gordon called the agents once again, to be told that Nolte had lost the script. He sent another. More waiting. But then Nolte hit the point when his work needed to be good rather than well-paid. He called Gordon personally. He was in.

This was turning into a great time for Nick. Back on the set of I'll Do Anything he'd met Vicki Lewis, a comedienne and dancer who played Beth in the hit show NewsRadio and had just enjoyed a bit hit on Broadway with Damn Yankees. The couple would hit it off well, and live together until they split in 2003 (Nolte's divorce from Rebecca Linger would come through in 1997).

Nolte's comeback now continued with Afterglow. Here he played a handyman in Montreal who, deeply troubled, can't resist sleeping with the bored housewives he meets. His wife Julie Christie (who years earlier had turned down Under Fire because it wasn't Left Wing enough) is a former B-movie actress who tolerates his behaviour as long as it's never serious. Then he meets yuppie Lara Flynn Boyle, whose hubbie, Jonny Lee Miller, won't give her a baby. She throws herself at him, Miller meets Christie and the couples interchange. It was all artfully put together by the ever-excellent Alan Rudolph and the whole cast gained kudos, Christie even being Oscar-nominated.

Afterglow was followed by a very different beast - Oliver Stone's U-Turn. Here Nolte and Jennifer Lopez played a thoroughly bizarre small-town couple who each try to get drifter Sean Penn to top the other. It was convincing noir, and about time Nolte got to play beside Sean Penn. The pair would in 2000 take to the stage together in Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss as two drunken, furious brothers dealing with the death of their difficult dad.

Coincidentally, dealing with an appalling father was the subject of Nick's next movie - Affliction. This saw him as Wade Whitehouse, a sheriff in a small New Hampshire town who feels absolutely worthless. Worn down by a lifetime being belittled by his venomous father, James Coburn, he's a poor sheriff and a wretched partner and parent, despite his own good heart. At last, when a local fellow is murdered, Wade decides to pursue the case as a lawman should, believing that this to be the redemptive act that will turn his life around.

When director Paul Schrader brought Coburn onboard, he warned him that he'd better not coast. Nolte, he said, would arrive absolutely prepared and would not tolerate anything less than 100% effort. So Coburn, who'd waltzed his way through most of his films, gave of his best as Nolte's drunken, destructive father, and duly won an Oscar for his pains. Nolte himself - Whitehouse being one of those massively conflicted and damaged men he knows so well - was nominated too.

As with Mother Night, Affliction might easily have passed Nolte by. Schrader had first approached him back in the bad old early Nineties when Nolte was selling his butt to the big studios at $5-6 million a time. Schrader says he was asked for the same kind of money but couldn't raise it, Nick only coming onboard when he decided he preferred good parts to huge cheques. Nolte himself says that, after all those years despising violence, he just wasn't ready to accept that he had a killer inside - something the part of Wade Whitehouse demanded. When he was ready, he claimed, he jumped at it, and even helped Schrader raise the cash.

From Affliction on, Nolte was busy. And not with junk, never with junk. In the creepy Nightwatch he was a rumpled copper who suspects morgue security guard Ewan McGregor may be the serial killer who's gouging out prostitutes' eyes. Then he joined the all-star cast of Terrence Mallick's The Thin Red Line, standing out as Lieutenant Colonel Tall, the bullish leader who, fearing a withdrawal might be ordered before he's wrapped himself in glory (and thus earned the promotion he believes he deserves), launches his men on a fatal attack.

True to his word about seeking good parts, this would be Nick's last big budget movie for 5 years. He now returned to his Afterglow director, Alan Rudolph, for Breakfast Of Champions, for Nolte a second Vonnegut adaptation. This was a satire of American greed and materialism, where Bruce Willis starred as a relentlessly upbeat but secretly suicidal car salesman who's desperate to make sense of the craziness surrounding him. His boss, Nolte, doesn't help him much by wearing lingerie under his clothes and generally being twisted.

1999 brought Simpatico, written by Sam Shepard, where Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone are ex-buddies who used to pull off racetrack scams when they were kids. Now Nolte, who's been blackmailing the successful Bridges for years, requires a big score and the past returns to haunt everyone. Next came a reunion with James Ivory with period-piece The Golden Bowl where Nick played a tycoon, racked with guilt over ripping off his workers, who gets involved in a love rectangle with Kate Beckinsale, Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam. Following this there was more Rudolph with comedy thriller Trixie, where a hilariously deadpan Nolte was a crooked state senator involved in gambling and real estate scams. Emily Watson played a security guard in a casino, uttering malapropisms every time she opens her mouth and stumbling upon one of Nolte's more serious crimes. Also appearing was Dermot Mulroney and both he and Nolte would next appear in Investigating Sex, another Rudolph effort where several young aristocrats and one rich, lascivious brute discuss their sexual experiences, their words being transcribed by two young nubiles. Naturally, this was originally a French piece.

And it was followed by another French adaptation, Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, based on 1955 flick Bob Le Flambeur. Here Nolte played an ageing gambler and junkie who's drawn into a Monte Carlo art heist. It was an impressive no-frills effort and all the more interesting because close to its release Nolte managed to blur art and reality by being busted for drugs. On September 11th, 2002, he was stopped by police while driving his black Mercedes on the Pacific Coast Highway and pleaded no contest to charges of driving under the influence of controlled substances - in this case GHB. Voluntarily entering rehab at the Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut, he was let off with three years probation. He had been dealing well with his addictions, he said, but had tumbled briefly from the wagon. Perhaps this is what ended his relationship with Vicki Lewis.

After the strange and magical Northfork, where Nolte played a priest looking after a delirious orphan in 1955 Montana and James Woods slimed around trying to persuade the townsfolk to move out of an area about to be flooded, Nick returned to worldwide prominence with The Hulk. Of course, he needed some persuading, but director Ang Lee finally persuaded him that it was actually a Greek tragedy rather than a CV effects-fest and he signed on to play Dr David Banner, manipulative father of Eric Bana's troubled and occasionally green and angry Bruce.

The Hulk was another odd move from this most unpredictable of actors. But Nolte always does things his own way. Often seen in public in a cashmere trench-coat and Calvin Klein pyjamas, his only interest seems to be delivering interesting work. And, despite his heavy thespian reputation, he's not afraid to learn, allowing himself to be filmed taking lessons from Marlon Brando in Tony Kaye's sadly shelved Conversations With Brando. His Kingsgate production company will help to keep the good roles coming.

Early on in his career, Nolte decided to lie to the press, to give them good copy and make interviews more tolerable. The story about the 10-year-old Nolte falling from a rooftop and being impaled through the groin on a white picket fence? Not true. Yet we know enough of the facts to recognise that Nolte's passage to fame and respect has been long and dreadfully difficult. He's a fascinating man, and clearly has plenty more to give.

Dominic Wills


Search our film biographies.

Advertisement starts


Advertisement ends

Travel offers

Oxford Thames Hotel

Oxford Thames Hotel

Sandford-on-Thames, Oxfordshire - save 47%

Advertisement starts


Advertisement ends