Nick Nolte: The bad stage was good too

Booze and divorce took a toll on Nolte, but he remains a survivor. James Mottram meets him

As he shambles his 6ft 1in frame towards me, Nick Nolte looks like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Father Christmas. Everything about the 64-year-old actor - the beetroot-hued face, the sunken eyes, the wild mane of white hair, the whiskers spreading across his cheeks - suggests a life lived to the full. And excess. Yet he's wearing surprisingly co-ordinated sartorial choices - navy shirt and trousers, no socks, deck shoes - that seem symbolic of his current state of mind. Last time we met, he was sporting orange Nike boots, black-and-white checkered trousers and a red overcoat. His speech patterns, too, matched this mad professorial image: uncontrollable monologues that refused to bow down to a logical chain of thought. But these days, Nolte is a changed man; sober, serious and in control. Just.

He looks better than he did on that infamous night in September 2002, when he was stopped on California's Pacific Coast Highway and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence - of both drink and drugs, as it later emerged. Reports noted he was drooling for his mug shot; true or not, his Medusa-like hair looked as if it had been used to mop the floor. He blamed his frightful appearance on work rather than the date rape drug GHB pulsing through his bloodstream at the time. Pleading "no contest" to two charges, he immediately checked himself into a rehab clinic in Connecticut and received three years' probation for his trouble. He has since been hosting meetings at his home to help others deal with alcohol and drug problems - although, worryingly, his only son, 18-year-old Brawley, was recently pulled over by the police, who discovered 70 grams of marijuana in his car.

Nolte has struggled with substance abuse the majority of his adult life. He began drinking at the knee of his Uncle Cole and graduated to putting away pints of whiskey. His love affair with the sauce was so bad that, at one point, he would convince directors to turn his characters into boozers to permit him to drink on set. It was only his third wife (and mother to Brawley), Rebecca Linger, that encouraged him to quit. Sober for almost 10 years, Nolte started drinking again in the late 1990s. Paul Schrader, who directed Nolte in Affliction - the film afforded the actor an Academy-nominated turn as a small-town lawman with a drink problem - suggested it was losing out to Roberto Benigni at the 1999 Oscars that started him drinking again. Nolte refutes this. "I was at a low point and I got slack," he clarifies. Not long before his arrest, he had lost his mother, Helen, who died of pneumonia; he nursed her through her final four days.

If Nolte is now a reformed character, he's been vicariously exploring addiction through his work. In 2003, he played a gambler-cum-heroin addict in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief; meanwhile, one of his forthcoming projects is Papa, a Havana-set story that casts him as famous literary soak Ernest Hemingway. This month, he turns up in Olivier Assayas' Clean, the story of a female singer (played by Maggie Cheung) struggling with drug addictions. Nolte delivers a sensitive turn as Albrecht Hauser, father to Cheung's late musician boyfriend, who dies of an overdose.

Was playing in Clean a cathartic experience? "There's always a bit of catharsis in film-making in general, in the arts," he replies. "We're really all alone. We can't ever get inside another person's spirit, and see the world they do. So we are alone in that sense. The only way we have to communicate feelings is through words. I became obsessed about that." Can he ever be free from addiction? "No," he says, repeating the word several times. "There's an understanding about addiction. It's just learning about yourself; either things are tough and you detach yourself or it becomes an experiment and a lifestyle. The thing about addiction is that you don't feel things; it's about cutting the pain off, whether it's physical or psychological. And it's a necessary thing, too. I don't think Clean is negative in that way. It's really about whether people can change. In my lifetime, I have changed much - that's a guaranteed deal." Are you at a good stage now? "Yeah - but the bad stage was good too! I had a great time." He smiles. "Some of my greatest moments were in altered states."

A self-confessed "enthusiastic liar", the Nebraskan-born-and-raised Nolte has spent much of his career creating a smokescreen in front of journalists. There seems little reason to lie, for what can be verified is colourful enough. The son of a travelling salesman and a department store buyer, Nolte's misspent and rootless youth peaked in 1962 when he was caught selling fake draft cards. "It began as a way to get into bars and expanded as a way to get out of the Vietnam draft," he explains. He was sentenced to five years probation and fined $75,000, the irony being that his conviction barred him for being drafted himself.

Nolte didn't begin acting until his mid-twenties; he spent his first 11 years in the profession touring with regional theatres. At 35, he landed a part in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man. A year later, in 1977, he was cast as the beefcake in The Deep. "I didn't stay in a popular vein," he says. "I never really got stamped like that. I worked very hard to keep changing my image." Perhaps echoing his mother's stubborn, rebellious streak, he turned down all offers for a year until someone backed North Dallas Forty, a script about a washed-up jock that he co-wrote and starred in. He followed it by playing beat-writer Neal Cassady in Heart Beat and then his break-out role opposite Eddie Murphy, as the grizzled cop in the 1982 comedy 48 Hours.

Married and divorced three times, his private life has been volatile. Soon after Nolte wed his second wife, Sharyn Haddad, in 1978, his former long-term girlfriend, Karen Louise Ecklund, presented him with a $4.5m palimony suit for community property and support. The case was eventually settled out of court, but Nolte was soon embroiled in an affair with his Canary Row co-star Debra Winger, while still with Haddad. While his first and second marriages lasted four and five years, respectively, his third spanned a decade, overlapping by 12 months with his second common-law marriage, to comedienne and dancer Vicki Lewis. They also notched up 10 years before separating in 2003. "I've been married five times," he grunts. "It's very much a mid-life crisis. I've just been married all my life. Seems to be the relationship I have [with women]."

This in mind, it makes sense why Nolte has spent a career honing one role above all others - that of the angst-ridden male. "He's a truth-seeker," says the director Alan Rudolph. "Other actors look up to him. If you go back, look at 48 Hours. Out of that idea came all the Lethal Weapons and the Die Hards, and Nick turned his back on it. And shortly afterwards he turned his back on Hollywood altogether." Rudolph may be forgetting Nolte's reprisal of Jack Cates in 1990's Another 48 Hours - but compared to the average Hollywood hack, Nolte's soul is more than intact. At the time, he had just embodied a painter for Martin Scorsese in New York Stories; played a renegade cop in Sidney Lumet's Q&A; and would act Robert De Niro off the screen as the lawyer in Scorsese's Cape Fear. He capped this golden period by winning his first Oscar nomination, playing the Southern football coach to Barbra Streisand's psychiatrist in 1992's The Prince of Tides.

But on the verge of his third divorce, it was at this point that he struck out. "There was a period when I tried to stay in that game a bit too long," he says. Basketball drama Blue Chips was followed by the Julia Roberts vehicle I Love Trouble and Merchant-Ivory clunker Jefferson in Paris. "I needed some cash," he shrugs, adding 1996's Mulholland Falls to the list of flops. "You convince yourself you can fix the screenplay, because there's a lot of money involved. But you can never make it work - if the script has a hole in it, it will always have that hole."

It changed his attitude to work, as Nolte arguably entered the most fruitful phase of his career. Aside from his work for Rudolph, Schrader and Jordan, he played a gung-ho lieutenant for Terrence Malick in The Thin Red Line, made U-Turn with Oliver Stone and featured as a compromised colonel in Hotel Rwanda. His only concession to Hollywood was working on Hulk. He chuckles and says the doctor won't let him work on studio scripts. "Or I get heart murmurs." He wants to work further afield. "There's nothing in the United States to do - except the independents. Certainly not in the studios. It's a situation where films are made for $100m and they knock out all competition. Their audiences are eight to 20. It feels silly being a 60-plus year-old man in those films, which are basically cartoons and high technology."

Nolte personifies 1960s counter-culture, a trait he often brings to the screen. "America is in a difficult position right now," he says. "It has so much wealth, it has become obese and gluttonous. It will change but it has to get through this time now... It's not that I wish I was not from America. It just goes through these peculiar times." Would he ever consider moving? "I could live anywhere. But I wouldn't want to abandon a country just because it's being silly. I'll do what we did in 1968, and try and change it and get some sense into it."

Nolte may not be invincible but everything about him says "survivor". The drugs, liquor and divorces have bounced him in the gutter but he always had the wherewithal to pull himself up. His career has blown hot and cold, but he's now a hero to a generation of actors. Does he fear the phone will stop ringing? "I'm not worried about that. When I did Affliction, I called [co-star] Sissy Spacek. She was retired and said there was nothing to do any more. I said, 'Sissy, that's ridiculous. There's so much to do. Just know that it's not like the old days.' So you adapt and change." Clean and coherent, it seems as if Nolte is living by his own advice.

'Clean' opens on 1 July

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