Nick Nolte isn't about to relax -- With ''Cape Fear'' and ''The Prince of Tides,'' it's his year at last

Nick Nolte lies on a bed, smoking Marlboros in a converted schoolhouse outside Pittsburgh. I sit near Nick Nolte on a chair, studying the books on his bedside table. He has She: Understanding Feminine Psychology. And The Way of All Women. And What Men Are Like. I’m asking him a lot of questions. He’s giving me a lot of answers.

”Boss!” booms a young man with an Australian accent, loping into the classroom with a walkie-talkie hissing in his hand. ”Boss, have you got the radio on?”

”Yeah,” drawls Nolte, nodding to the intercom on a table near the window, ”but I’m not listening to it. I’m bullshitting tremendously fast!” He laughs, a guy-to-guy laugh. A smile breaks on his famously beaten-up face — chiseled and lined, handsome and debauched, part Marlboro Man and part Raging Bull.

”Um, well, Boss, they need you on the set.”

”Right.” Five minutes.” Nolte swings off the bed, stands up. ”I’ll be right back,” he says in the direction of where I sit. We’re in a kind of base camp for the production of Lorenzo’s Oil, Nolte’s new movie, due out this fall. Just across the street is the house where lights and cameras and his costar Susan Sarandon wait to shoot a scene, the house where Nick Nolte becomes Augosto Odone, a character based on a real-life Italian-born lawyer who spent years looking for a cure for his son’s rare genetic disease.

At this moment, it’s the movie-set house that feels most like homes to Nolte, an actor who is masterfully at ease in any man’s skin except, perhaps, his own.

For more than 15 years, Nolte has made a deeply interesting career out of playing the untrustworthy, the unsmiling, the unkempt handsome, the uneasy and uneasy-making. He has played a disenchanted Vietnam vet and a world-weary football player, a rough good cop and a twisted bad cop, a suicidal bum and a bullying painter. Ever since 1976, when he first demanded attention as restless Tom Jordache, all feral and blond, in the TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, Nolte has unnerved and impressed audiences with his dark personifications of Man At His Worst.

Now, at 50, he is in his middle-aged, cleaned-up, sobered-up prime with big roles in two of this season’s biggest movies: In Martin Scorsese’s remake of the nasty 1962 thriller Cape Fear, he plays Sam Bowden, a spiritually weak lawyer desperately trying to shield his family from terror. In Barbra Streisand’s Southern psychosoaper, The Prince of Tides, he plays Tom Wingo, a former English teacher from South Carolina who has hidden the awful truths about his childhood from himself.

Nolte’s Wingo in an intense characterization of a man whose blustery exterior slowly cracks to reveal inner pain. It’s a turn that seems destined for an Academy Award: Hollywood’s Oscar buzz gives only The Silence of the Lambs‘ Anthony Hopkins and Bugsy‘s Warren Beatty a shot at overtaking Nolte. But this Oscar talk makes the actor, whose moodiness is well known, edgy. In fact, interviews make him edgy.

”I’m already getting too sensitive about what other people presume I am,” he warns. At the urging of his agent and his wife, Nolte — who has never so much as attended the Oscar ceremony — did actually enroll as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year. Just in case.

And then he says, as he has said to umpteen other tape recorders, why he lies to people like me. ”I tell the journalist, ‘You make it up.’ I just give you a bunch of anecdotes,” he says. ”If a journalist is going to come and talk, we’re going to talk. Just talk. I’ll dodge some questions. And I’ll lie about some, you know, when I feel they’re areas that I don’t want to talk about. On the other hand, I don’t do what other people do — get mad, upset. Tuesday Weld at one time, you know, you’d have to give her written-out questions.” Then his mouth smiles while his eyes don’t, and he lights yet another Marlboro.

Talking to Nick Nolte is a bit like studying one of those Zen bits of paper that says, ”The statement on the other side is true,” and then you turn the paper over and it says, ”The statement on the other side is false.”

He has always played the underside of handsome. Although blond and rugged as any big-screen hero, Nolte prefers playing men tormented by impulse, intellect, and screwed-up insides. He’s no Superman; Nolte lore says he turned down that role when he was told he couldn’t play the Man of Steel as a schizophrenic.

And he has always played his characters to the edge. Like his colleague Robert De Niro, Nolte is legendary for the intensity and zeal with which he does his homework: To play a down-and-out bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, he lived on the streets for days; to become a mad-prophet soldier in Borneo in Farewell to the King, he hied himself into a cop-gone-bad in Q&A, he gained 50 pounds and added six inches to his height with shoe lifts. To convey the big, messy obsessiveness of painter (and, some say, ultimate Nolte alter ego) Lionel Dobie in New York Stories, Nolte painted and drank with real-life artist Chuck Connelly, whose paintings are at the heart of the tale Stories‘ costar Rosanna Arquette called Nolte’s research ”one hundred percent focused. He really watched Chuck,” she says, ”the way he moved, how he looked at the canvas, how he cocked his head.”

Now, as lawyer Augosto Odone, Nolte wears his hair, so sunstreaked in The Prince of Tides, longer, browner, and threaded with gray. The lean six-foot frame of Cape Fear is temporarily fuller, bulked up by an Italian-knit cardigan sweater. The left hand that spun a steering wheel so recklessly in 48 HRS. temporarily wears a sober wedding band.

To become Italian, Nolte devoured the language. He has filled the blackboard in his schoolroom with Italian, English, and phonetic transliterations. He has stacked Italian books next to his bed. In the makeshift study hall set up next door, he listens to recordings of Odone made for him by diction coach Bill Dearth (who also helped him shape his Prince of Tides sounds); he also goes over scripts with Italian teacher Carmen Piccini. The walls are covered with oversize cue cards on which Nolte has written plot points. ”Happy,” one says. ”Follow Doctor’s Diet,” reads another.

”It takes quite a while to learn where the tongue is going to produce certain sounds,” Nolte explains in a voice paved with smoke and a nubbly large-screen maleness. As he talks, he fiddles with a chain of paper clips; Augosto Odone fiddled with paper clips to teach himself about chains of molecules.

”For instance,” Nolte says, propping himself up on one elbow and leaning toward my vicinity, ”in the Italian you never put your tongue outside your mouth. A TH — THis — becomes a D — Dis. Italians are embarrassed if their tongue is exposed outside the mouth. So Italian is at de back of de teeth all the time.”

He shades his voice, refines it, prides himself on the rich, sexy range of it. He got his Tides voice from Dearth and from a South Carolina English teacher who taught him to turn ”My wound is geography, my port of call” (from the prologue to the Tides novel by Pat Conroy) into ”mah wooond is geahhhgrafy, mah pawt of cahhhhl.” His growling, mumbling New York Stories voice, he says, he borrowed from the late, hip ’50s comedian Lord Buckley.

Nolte says he’s cautious about discussing preparation. Then again, here he is discussing it, which might lead a less wary journalist to conclude that letting journalists see just how he prepares is something Nolte actually enjoys.

It is, after all, something he can articulate, something he cares about, something to forestall the inevitable personal questions — on such subjects as his much talked-about recent separation from his third wife, Rebecca Linger, with whom he has a 5-year-old son, Brawley King Nolte. Or on his much talked-about hard-drinking days — he stopped in 1990 and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the Lorenzo’s Oil production schedule includes notations about where ”Friends of Bill W.” — a reference to the cofounder of AA — can gather.

”I got into this process because of working in the theater,” Nolte says, twisting himself on his neatly made bed. ”I used to write plays out longhand because I wanted to take as long as it took the original writer so that I would get a real sense of why he picked a particular word.”

In addition to deconstructing the script, Nolte loves the work of ”building the character,” an obsessive process he bounces off everyone in his path, especially Billy Cross, a Nolte-esque Vietnam vet who was one of the actor’s models for his character in 1978’s Who’ll Stop the Rain, and who now serves as a kind of traveling Guy Pal/sounding board. ”I start to explore where this man came from, everything i can possibly think of,” says Nolte. ”It’s tremendous fun. What does the man read, when does he do this or that? You can even get so specific as, okay, when he leaves his house, where does he go?”

With Martin Scorsese on Cape Fear, Nolte says, he took the director’s ”total vision” and worked outward. With Streisand, he got to swim in a warm sea of boy-girl talk.

”I wanted to work with a female,” he says, draping an Italian topcoat over his shoeless feet like a baby blanket. Sunlight beams in on his books and his blackboard.

A ”female”?

”I wanted to explore the man-woman thing. I think men have a certain agreement of what emotion is to be shown in a scene, and usually when that’s felt, that’s the extent of the exploration. But a woman being steeped more in the feeling side of nature, will explore it further.”

So, would Streisand push him?

”Well, she doesn’t know the masculine entity any more than I know the feminine entity. So it behooved us to get into a contract to explore those two sides without ending up with great conflict.”

I ask him if there was any interesting sexual tension as a result of the ”man-woman thing.”

”Absolutely. We discussed it quite a bit.” They also, he says, discussed ”the romantic notion as the basis of relationships, and why this intensity of romance never lasts.” This is something Nolte has a theory about. ”The original idea was a courtly love, and you were never to have physical sexual contact with your ideal love object, the female,” he says. ”It was to be a spiritual thing. Well, we’ve mucked that up. So there’s great disappointment in romantic love.”

Nolte rearranges his topcoat over his legs, talks to the air. The stack of books about women, I say, pointing toward his bedside table — was that inspired by The Prince of Tides and talk of romance?

”Ah, those. No. I just, you know, I just read a book and if I find the book fascinating I’ll go to the back pages, to the sources, and I’ll read every one of those books. And then I’ll shift off of that into another whole thing.”

”Hey, Nick, man!” Brion .James enters, grinning. You might not know Brion James by name, but you know his face: He was bad guy in 48 HRS., and Another 48 HRS., the one with the dead eyes the sneering mouth. Except when he’d hugging his old pal, he’s the picture of evil. The next time Nolte leaves the rooms — the hair people want to touch up his gray — I ask James about Nolte’s sublimination of life in work.

”Nick is generous. He wants to play ball with you,” says James, who happens to be in Pittsburgh and dropped in to visit his old buddy. ”We’d make up histories for the characters, we’d read books about cops.” They also went bar-crawling, although ”drinking never affected Nick’s work. The only difference now is, he’s more available for everything.”

There’s a classic Nolte story about the green surgical scrubs he is often seen wearing in photographs. A reporter wrote that Nolte said he wore them because he’s manice-depressive, and, by implication, belongs in a hospital.

Is that true? I ask Nolte later.

”I don’t know,” he sighs. ”I suppose that was at a certain time, with a certain interviewer.” The real reason, he decides, was a joke.

”It started out when I was working on a Disney picture,” he begins, ”and I insisted on a gurney instead of an actor’s chair. I did that for several pictures. Then, during New York Stories, it became a whole thing — mainly for (Disney Studios chairman) Jeffrey Katzenberg to the the unreasonable demands that actors would make.

Never? I ask.

No, he says.

So I tell him James’ theory: that Nolte wore the loose garments because when his weight was fluctuating so much, those were the only clothes he could easily fit into.

”He said that?” snaps Nolte. ”That’s a good explanation. I like that one.”

This much is approximately true: Nick Nolte was born in Omaha in 1941. He grew up drinking beer, running wild, and playing football and baseball. A sports scholarship brought him to Arizona State. He flunked out, began selling fake draft cards, for which he was arrested, convicted as a felon, and given five years probation. ”I say that’s what led me to not being eligible for the draft, which eventually led to my resistance in the Vietnam War,” Nolte says, “but I was really selling drafts cards for kids to get into bars to drink.”

He moved to Los Angeles, found the theater, wrote out his longhand scripts, got some movie and TV jobs. Then came Rich Man, Poor Man. He got his first movie break playing opposite Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep. He found his persona: rough and roughed-up guy, brooding on the inside, armored on the outside. He filled the places where peace and domestic pleasures usually go with obsessive preparation, liquor, women.

After a failed first marriage to actress Sheila Page, a live?in relationship with actress Karen Eklund ended in a palimony suit in 1977. (The case was settled out of court) His tumultuous second marriage, to Sharyn Haddad (known as ”Legs”), lasted from 1978 to 1983. His third wife, Rebecca Linger, a doctor’s daughter nearly 20 years sends their son to Nolte for a visit every other weekend.

”We’re totally friends, communicating and everything else,” Nolte says of Linger. ”It’s just not working out, in a classic clichéd way of two people in a marriage in the same house.” It’s not a topic Nolte cares to get very specific about. ”There’s some debate of lifestyle going on,” he concedes.

The Australian returns. Nolte is needed back on the set.

Kicking his Italian overcoat off his legs and rolling off the bed, this year’s most likely Best Actor Oscar winner shaker off the personal details, the explanations and evasions, and escapes back to the soul-fulfilling job of being someone else. When I walk out, I see him making his way across the street, eyes deeply focused in concentration behind his rimless glasses. I see the shadowy Nick Nolte fading away; I see the essence of Augosto Odone pour itself into his body.

I pick my way past wires and cables and the busy machine my of making movies that the people who make movies cherish so much. And as I turn a corner, Nolte once more crosses my path. I smile, lift a hand — but for Nick Nolte I’m gone from his script. I’m out of the picture. He walks though the bum door of his movie-set house. And he’s home again.

Cape Fear
  • Movie
  • 128 minutes