BrooklynFans Of Books: Nick Nolte, Hollywood “Rebel”

Rebel: My Life Outside The Lines

By Nick Nolte

William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

A Hollywood acting legend, Nick Nolte has turned in a virtuoso performance in his debut as an author.

In his memoir Rebel, Nolte delivers a candid, unvarnished close-up of the man, the career, the loves, and the life, with many never-before-seen photos.

In a career that has spanned five decades and hundreds of roles, Nolte has become a true Hollywood icon.

It is no exaggeration to say Nolte has been through it all and back again.

After enduring a difficult childhood in the rural Midwest, Nolte went on to leading roles and a trio of Oscar nominations, and through it all, he has been celebrated and vilified, survived marriages, divorces, and a string of romances, was named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine, and suffered public embarrassment over his addiction issues, which included a drug-influenced trip down the Pacific Coast Highway that resulted in his infamous arrest.

Despite these ups and downs, Nolte has remained true to the craft he loves while portraying a diverse range of characters with his trademark physicality and indelible gravelly voice.

The 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man launched him to stardom when he was 35 years old. Nolte never learned to play by Hollywood rules, and he became a rebel who defied expectations and a committed actor willing to go to extremes for a role.

Nolte has been in major films, he wasn’t driven by box office success. His motivation came from him personal, edgy projects.

“I had become an actor because real life was hard for me,” Nolte said. “Sometimes it was really rough. Acting was different from real life, yet it gave me the chance to search for complex stories that helped me understand and cope with what I encountered away from the stage lights.”

Nolte has starred in such big films as 48 Hrs. (1982), Another 48 Hrs. (1990), The Prince of Tides (1991), Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), Afterglow (1997), Affliction (1997), The Thin Red Line (1998), The Good Thief (2003), and Warrior (2011).

One of his earliest movies was North Dallas Forty in 1979, a semi-fictional account of life as a professional football player, loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys team of the early 1970s.

Nolte writes about the film, “Making North Dallas Forty over the next year was both a nightmare and a dream. In my experience, sometimes these things are either luck or karma, and other times you must make change happen – remaining true to your own instincts, taking your own advice, and forging ahead to achieve what you believe is important.

“I knew what a brutal business football can be – both on and off the field. And by now I could see parallels between how ball players and actors were often treated by people whose power over them could profoundly limit their options and sometimes even wreck their lives. I couldn’t help but believe that one of my life’s important undertakings was going to be getting North Dallas Forty to the screen – who better than me, after all? – and somehow, I was pulling it off. Paramount had committed to the movie, I would choose both the producer and the director, and the legendary Sue Mengers was now my my side. I felt like I had just scored on a ninety-nine-yard run from scrimmage.

“I would play Phil Elliott in North Dallas Forty, a character largely based on Pete Gent himself. As producer, I chose Frank Yablans – a guy who was as tough a motherfucker as they come. Yablans had been Paramount’s president until he’d tried to throw the studio’s owner, Charlie Bluhdorn, out a window one day when the two had encountered what you could call a substantive disagreement. Frank fired away at me from the get-go, declaring, ‘I’ll be the goddamned owner of the franchise! I don’t give a f–k!” For a split second, I thought he was auditioning for the role of the team owner in the film, but then I caught his drift. Frank didn’t care who he had to run over. Whatever it took, he was going to get the picture made.

“Ted Kotcheff was the director I selected from among those Paramount offered for the project. I had seen his film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, with Richard Dreyfuss, which had won the Golden Bear at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival. It’s an excellent picture, and I was already comfortable with the idea that Ted would direct us, but he won me over entirely when we first met and he confessed, ‘Nick, I don’t know anything about football.’ That was exactly what I wanted to hear, and I told him the movie was much more about fighting corrupt institutions – any institution – than it was a sports film, and he had proven his chops as a dramatist a number of times over. What I didn’t immediately tell him was that he was taking on an impossible job – not simply directing the picture, but also attempting to find some common ground between Yablans and the rest of us…

“Even though we were shooting Pete Gent’s own fictionalized story, I felt I really needed more consultative input from an NFL player – and a wide receiver specifically – than Pete alone could offer. As I initially read the novel, I kept imagining the legendary Oakland Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff as Phil Elliott physically. Biletnikoff wasn’t big or fast by NFL standards. Instead he used guile, guts, and a remarkable pair of hands to overachieve his way into the Hall of Fame. He was a student and great practitioner of the game. When I reached out to Fred, we talked about the correlations between the art of film and the art of sports, and once he was convinced of my commitment to excellence, he agreed to become a consultant.

“Fred looked more like a chain-smoking used-car salesman than your usual image of a football player. Yet he was a well-grounded, detail-oriented, nuts-and-bolts workaholic. But he could be a little far-out, too. ‘Don’t carry the route in your head because a cornerback can read your mind,’ he coached me. Forget where you’re going until you get there. Improvise precisely.’ His understanding of the wide receiver position was extraordinary, and I took every cue from him I possibly could as I created the film version of Phil Elliott.

“Fred didn’t wear knee pads and so neither did Phil. Fred yanked the middle flaps out of his shoulder pads to increase his chances of making overhead catches, and so did Phil. I made sure that Phil taped his arms up precisely like Fred did before each game. And on-screen I also imitated Fred’s final act of preparation before every game, lying on his back and meditatively tossing a football toward the ceiling. Fred coached me through every scene we shot, and the film wouldn’t have been the same – or nearly as good -without him.

“The NFL did its best to torpedo the film once its administrators got word that we were in production. They hated the idea that we might tarnish their image if we demonstrated what second-class citizens its players were – regardless of their race – and how terribly crippled almost every veteran became. It was a wild ride, but with Pete’s great story, Fred’s inspired consulting, and wonderful performances from actors like Mac Davis, the country singing sensation who made his on-screen debut in the film. I felt confident we were creating something special. Mac played Seth Maxwell, a character based closely on the colorful Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, and Mac simply sparkled on camera.

“He couldn’t throw a football to save his life, but we were just making a movie, after all; Mac only had to pretend he was a quarterback, and I was happy reviewers gave him glowing notices when the film premiered. You can imagine how sweet it felt when the film was a financial success and a critical one as well. It was my film; I’d fought for it and bled for it and given it my all. I’ll never forget the afternoon when Sue Mengers pushed a New York Times review of North Dallas Forty under my nose. ‘The uncontested star of the show is Mr. Nolte,’ it read, ‘who may surprise a lot of people who had the ill fortune to see him in The Deep and the even worse luck to miss him in Who’ll Stop the Rain. His performance in Who’ll Stop the Rain was altogether stunning; this time out he’s engaging and full of surprises. Either way, he’s something to see.”

In a memoir befitting the man, Nolte is very revealing with going into his personal tale of art, passion, commitment, addiction, and his quest for personal enlightenment.

Rebel is a must-read if you like Hollywood tales, especially from an American original like Nick Nolte.

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