He has earned three Academy Award nominations and has four decades’ worth of box-office hits and critical darlings under his belt, but Nick Nolte’s intense preparation and commitment to his craft have largely gone unheralded over the years.
Nolte already had real-life football experience when it came to his breakout role in North Dallas Forty (1979), having played the game at the high school and college level, but he also spent extensive time with NFL players. For his role as the vagrant Jerry Baskin in 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Nolte spent several days living as a homeless person on the streets of Los Angeles. For Blue Chips (1994), Nolte shadowed college basketball legend Bobby Knight — and wrote a 200-page novel from the perspective of his character, Pete Bell.
So it’s no wonder Nolte elevates every project, and that includes his latest film, the action threequel Angel Has Fallen. Nolte brings unexpected emotional heft to the story as Clay Banning, the estranged father to on-the-run Secret Service agent and series hero Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who has been frame for attempting to assassinate the president (Morgan Freeman).
In our latest episode of Role Recall (watch above), the gravelly voiced 78-year-old actor — and one-time People's Sexiest Man Alive — shares stories from across his accomplished career, including how bad intel during a three-day cocaine binge almost steered him away from working with Eddie Murphy on the hit buddy-cop film 48 Hrs. (1982), how Barbra Streisand got nervous when he arrived at her apartment wearing lifts to meet about The Prince of Tides (1991) and why Paul Newman didn't want to play Nolte’s father in Affliction (1998).
On the time 48 Hrs. director Walter Hill dispatched Nolte to New York to meet Saturday Night Live star Eddie Murphy, who had yet to act in a film: "I flew to New York, and I got to 48th Street, and I knew a black saxophone player there. And I got up to his apartment, and in those days there was a white powdery substance running around that was abused badly, and I sat in that apartment for three days. And I said to him finally, 'Hey man, I gotta get over to meet this guy at Saturday Night Live.' He said, 'The black cat?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Oh, you can't use him. He's a base freak! You can't go near him.' I said, 'Oh, in that case, I'll go home then.' So I went home and told Walter that Eddie Murphy was a base freak. And he said, 'Eddie Murphy? ... You didn't meet him, did you? That's the last time I'm sending you out.' Then I met Eddie when he came to California, and I saw why [Hill said that]. He was 18, very young guy, he didn't go near any substances. [My friend] was talking about Garrett [Morris], the other guy from [earlier seasons]." (Morris has been open about his "serious" drug problem" during his years on SNL.)
On living as a homeless man in preparation for Down and Out in Beverly Hills: "I was out there maybe a good six days. It only takes 24 hours and you're a space cadet, you're just gone. … I got poison oak all over my body, and I had welts. … And Bette Midler came to work about 5:30, 5:45, and she saw those welts and she freaked out. She called up to [Disney executive] Jeffrey Katzenberg and said, 'Is it contagious? I'm not working with this guy! Have you seen what's on his body?' She didn't want to touch me, she didn't want anything to do with me."
On how he convinced Martin Scorsese to cast him as prosecutor Sam Bowden opposite Robert De Niro in Cape Fear (1991): "I had worked with Marty on Life Lessons [one of the shorts from the 1989 anthology New York Stories], and Marty knew me as a 240-pound fat painter. So they weren't interested in me. … They were interested in I think Dennis Quaid was the top guy up for it. I knew they were holding a film party for Goodfellas, so I said to Billy Cross, my assistant, 'Let's put on our lawyer suits, ties and everything, and we'll just stand around the wall like we're two lawyers. A little while later, Marty walks by. He looks, then he keeps on going. Then he looks back. And he goes, 'Nick, is that you?' So he goes and gets Bob De Niro, who is one of the shyest, humblest men in the world. ... But he wouldn't have thought of me unless he had seen that."
On working with Barbra Streisand on the hit drama The Prince of Tides, which earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Nolte, but saw Streisand snubbed for both Best Director and Best Actress: "Barbra is really something. When she came to me, I was doing Sydney Lumet's Q&A. … In Q&A, I was 6-foot-4 or 5, I had [big] lifts in my shoes. And I had them tilted so I'd be in peoples' face[s]. … So I got up [to her apartment in New York], she offered me a glass of wine, and I took the red glass of wine, and I stayed standing up, and she was worried that I was going to spill the wine on a white carpet. … But it was a greet meeting, and I got along with her real well. … The difficulty was when it came to [Oscar] nominations, she wasn't nominated for director. And that was a bitter experience for her, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. There are some politics involved in these awards."
On why Paul Newman didn't want to play Nolte's cold and domineering father in Paul Schrader's dark drama Affliction — a role that eventually won James Coburn an Academy Award, while Nolte was nominated: "Coburn was brilliant in it. … I had asked Paul Newman to do it, and Paul had an interesting answer. Paul said, 'I don't think my audience would accept me in this role. He said, 'I'd love to do it … but they won't accept me, and the story will be weakened by that.' And it took me quite a few years to understand what Paul was really saying. Because Paul had a certain charm to him that was just natural to him, and that went into all the roles. He didn't rely on it or anything, but that would be in there, and that couldn't be in the father."
On how he avoided stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton while playing their recovering alcoholic father in Gavin O'Connor's Warrior (2011), which notched Nolte a third Oscar nom: "I said to Gavin as we were talking about how to deal with Tom and Joel as an outcast father. 'We're gonna have time on our hands, should I associate with them, or should I not?' And I said, 'You know, Gavin, I don't think it's gonna do us good for me to hang out with them. Because it breaks that illusion that they've got distance between them. So he said, 'that’s' probably a good idea.'"
Angel Has Fallen is now playing. Watch the trailer:
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