Three questions for Nick Nolte? His mind just doesn’t work that way; when you ask him just one question, you get a thousand answers! Nolte plays by his own rules, but he’s much more together than his unconventional reputation suggests, and he readily confesses that sometimes he just “makes things up” about himself. The three-time Academy Award nominee probably comes closest to the truth in his autobiography, My Life Outside the Lines.
Nolte reveals that he’s been extremely shy since he was a kid and never feels comfortable as part of a group. Growing up, he stood out because he was a good football player who dressed and spoke outrageously. When it comes to his enduring career as a famously intense and unpredictable actor, there are legendary tales about his on-set obsessions and how far he’ll go to portray a character. (People still talk about him sleeping on the streets and eating dog food for Down and Out in Beverly Hills.) He fascinated audiences in a wide range of films, from The Deep to 48 Hours to The Prince of Tides and Affliction.
Now, Nolte is working on the film Honey in the Head, playing a grandfather with Alzheimer’s. His co-star happens to be his own 10-year-old daughter.
Jeanne Wolf: In spite of all your great work on the screen, you took lots of chances and sometimes messed up very publicly. A lot of fans think you’re wild and crazy or at least untamed. True?
Nick Nolte: Well, I don’t have a drug problem. I’ve been relatively clean outside of prescription stuff for years. The only time I got hooked was with alcohol. I was in my 40s and I realized that I gotta stop drinking. I just didn’t know how to do it. I got into AA and learned that you can stop, but you need some help.
I encouraged my reputation. Never want to be boring. I knew right at the beginning when I started doing things that were attracting attention that it was better to be naughty than nice. What are you going to say when they talk to you about a film? “We all worked very hard on this; we all love each other”? I would enter the interview with my beer and I would tell them about my third wife and how I met her in the circus, the highwire act. Then, of course, I’d say, “I lie.”
I still tell lies, so some of it will be true and some of it won’t. I’m really not good at real life — to sit around and do nothing is really not something I tolerate at all. I get too anxious. I need to be goal-oriented. I’m not considering retirement. I’m going to work if there are good stories. I’m going to work until I can’t.
JW: Now you’re going to play a man suffering from Alzheimer’s in Honey in the Head. Do you find that a little unsettling?
NN: I admit that, at first, I was leery to get too near to it. It gets scary because as you age, you do forget things. I saw it in my family. My mother would call my grandmother “charmingly vague.” We knew about dementia, but Alzheimer’s wasn’t really discovered yet. By the end of the movie, my character forgets everything. I wanted to go observe in a home but I didn’t want to intrude. There are a lot of videos online with people showing their relatives, and I’ve learned that way.
It’s great that my daughter, Sophie, will be playing my granddaughter. The director of the film saw the way we interact and he asked me if she could do the part. Soph right away said, “Yeah. I wanna do it. We’ll have a lot of fun hanging out together.” She is kinda like this little grown-up. Sometimes she calls me Grandpa instead of Daddy because all of her friends’ fathers are young. I’m pushing 80. My son Brawley is in his 30s. He did some acting, but that’s not what he wanted. He’s studying to be a doctor.
JW: How would you describe yourself as a father?
NN: I’m real tolerant. Probably not the best thing in the world, but I bond heavily with my children. Being a parent is my most important responsibility. I do get in trouble with their mothers. My mother and father allowed me freedom. They allowed me to fail. They allowed me to get bruised. They didn’t hold onto me so tight. By failing, you get a chance to learn.
You grow into your own individualism. It takes a while to find it. I think in general, in this culture, you go to high school, you go to college, you get married, you have a baby. Wow. That’s a recipe for disaster.
As for being old, I don’t regret it at all. I’m not having much difficulty with age. I’m really kind of comfortable with it, knowing that there’s one more big adventure to do. It’s kind of spooky, but I accept it. You fight like hell right up until the last. I think you just have to keep moving and keep doing it.
An abridged version of this interview appears in the May/June 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
—Jeanne Wolf is the Post’s West Coast editor