Nick Nolte lives in a treehouse in Malibu. It’s an actual house. In a tree. A tree runs through the bedroom. He built it on the property he owns, a rustic 2.5-acre lot on which there are several small houses and an organic fruit and vegetable garden and dogs and cats running around. And every morning the first thing Nolte does when he wakes up is reach out and put his hand on the tree. And he feels the tree’s pulse. And he says to himself, “This is so cool. It’s alive.”
Nolte, who is receiving a star Nov. 20 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, bought the property, within faint earshot of the Pacific Ocean, about 40 years ago, 10 years after he moved to L.A. to become a star. The semi-remote location (Kevin Dillon is a neighbor) is something that Nolte relishes; the fresh smell of dirt and grass, the cool shade from the trees. He walks around the grounds in casual shorts and crumpled Hawaiian shirt, sporting a woven brimmed hat and full, bristly beard. At one point during our interview, one of Nolte’s dogs, a rambunctious Labrador puppy named Charlie, bites on Nolte’s sleeve, ripping it apart, and the actor responds with his signature laugh — gruff yet jovial.
His is the home of a wildly creative person, with unfinished DIY projects at every turn, including a library, filled with books, all alphabetized according to author (Kurt Vonnegut is a favorite). There’s a large rock and chisel on one table — “I’m working on carving that stone, but I’m not sure what I’ll make of it yet,” he says — and a glass blowing studio located by the main house, a single story, two-bedroom structure made of pale-colored stones in which Nolte loves to pass the hours making original works of art.
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“It’s just enough away from the noise,” he says of the eclectic estate, plucking a ripened raspberry off its thorny vine and popping one in his mouth. “They have to fall right into your hands. Taste it, there are no bugs on it. That’s some whacked-out sugar.”
While globally renowned as one of the most accomplished actors on the planet, noted for playing moody, tortured souls, and earning Oscar noms for his roles in “The Prince of Tides,” “Affliction” and “Warrior,” stardom came relatively late to Nolte.
Born in Omaha, Neb., and not much interested in academic pursuits despite hailing from a long line of college professors, Nolte’s early aspirations were to become a professional football player.
“From a little kid up I was an athlete,” says Nolte, who was a punter and kicker for a series of community colleges, including Phoenix College and Pasadena City College, but never made it to class. “You couldn’t get me to sit in a classroom. I just wanted to play football.”
When his parents moved to Hollywood — “They were living off Gower Street,” he says — Nolte followed. A couple of his friends were theater actors and they introduced Nolte to the works of such playwrights as William Inge and Tennessee Williams. Nolte, in his early 20s at the time, was hooked.
“Acting became a sort of replacement for everything,” he says. “Now I had to start reading and writing. That was a metamorphosis, and it took about five months. I was 220 pounds when I first walked into [the theater] for the first time, and I had a sort of mini-breakdown going from an athlete to an actor. I didn’t necessarily do it — decide to become an actor — something did it to me.”
When his parents moved to Phoenix, Nolte, without a job or money, moved with them, honing his craft on the local stage. He was about 35 years old when he was cast as a rebellious, working-class boxer in the 1976 TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” based on the bestselling novel by Irwin Shaw. It was one of Nolte’s breakout roles — along with Richard Compton’s “Return to Macon County,” released the year before — officially planting him on Hollywood’s map.
Nolte would spend the next decade turning in sharp, memorable performances in such movies as “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” “48 Hours,” “Teachers” and Paul Mazursky’s satirical comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” In the Golden Globe-winning film, Nolte plays a philosopher-vagrant who upends the lives of a wealthy bourgeois couple (Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss) and their two self-absorbed adult-age kids. If Nolte’s commitment to acting were ever in doubt, consider this: he really ate dog food during the now-famous scene in which he coaxes the family’s anorexic dog, Matisse, to end its three-day hunger strike.
But it was on the set of Sidney Lumet’s crime drama “Q&A” that Barbra Streisand came calling, casting Nolte in the role that would land him his first Oscar nom.
“She approached me in such a unique way,” he remembers. “Our first AD said, ‘Have you read Pat Conroy’s ‘The Prince of Tides?’ And I said, ‘No. I have not.’ He said, ‘Here’s the book, you should read it.’ So I read the book and got hooked right away and said, ‘Is there a reason you gave me this book?’ And he said, ‘There’s a script.’ So I read the script — there was no author on it — and the script was very good. And I said, ‘Is there someone I’m supposed to talk to a bout this?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you’re supposed to talk to Barbra Streisand.’ So I went to her apartment and she gave me a glass of wine and I drank it standing up, and she was nervous the entire time — her apartment was all white and she thought I was going to spill the wine.”
Streisand was a gifted, hard-working, highly competent director, says Nolte, but there were moments of stark creative differences.
“One day we had worked so hard, we had done all our main work,and she said, ‘Let’s just rehearse tomorrow’s scene,’ ” he says. “And then she decided, ‘Well, why don’t we just shoot the scene now?’ And we all just went, ‘Oh, man.’ And she thought that was men pushing their will over women by rebelling. So she called me late and said, ‘Nick, you guys intimidated me. Tomorrow you’re going to have to apologize to the whole crew.’”
Granted, Nolte would cultivate a reputation for doing far more destructive things — of which drug addiction and alcoholism were the primary causes.
“This is a place where you have to get sober,” he says of the entertainment industry. “You get carried away. That’s what happens. Same thing with rock and roll. That’s the problem a bit with art in general, even painting: you want to celebrate the painting so you go from bar to bar. And then you get into a fight.”
But today, Nolte, who admits that “real life is what’s difficult for me,” seems to have settled into a relative peace. He is nothing if not authentic, more concerned with the books on his shelves than the material trappings of Hollywood. But the desire to act still burns hot. He’s finished production on Jonathan Sobol’s “The Padre” and is starring in season two of the Epix TV series “Graves,” playing Richard Graves, a repentant ex-president who sets out to correct the mistakes he made during his White House tenure. Perhaps not intentionally, there is a definite symmetry between Graves and Nolte, both successful, powerful men whose contrition leads to soul-searching and positive internal change.
“He’s never left the presidency, frankly, and he feels he’s committed sins,” says Nolte of Graves, who, he says was partially modeled on Lyndon B. Johnson. “And now he’s facing the final frontier. So there’s this exaggerated behavior to him, but it’s really beautiful because he wants so badly so exorcise his faults.”