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NICK NOLTE: ONCE A BAD BOY...

Currently enjoying a well-deserved comeback, this gifted, volatile actor has been there and done just about everything he could do to destroy his career--think drunken driving, crazed babbling. But, in the tradition of happy Hollywood endings, he's just been Oscar-nominated for his compelling supporting-role performance in "Warrior." My interview with Nolte took place following the opening of his powerful vehicle "North Dallas Forty" in 1979.--Guy Flatleyenminated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscarstformance in "Warrior." For a loohiDallas Forty." --Guy Flat
"I was a narcissistic guy, bursting with power and rage, and full of screaming," says blond and burly Nick Nolte, grinning nostalgically into his Irish coffee in a sober suite at Mathattan's Sherry-Netherland Hotel. "I needed to work out the unresolved conflicts in my life, and like most struggling young actors, I was never subtle. The more explosive I could be, the better I liked it."

At 38, Nolte has presumably smothered the demons that lashed him through his fiery youth, through the bust for boozed-up driving, the five-year's suspended sentence for peddling fake draft cards to under-age guzzlers, the impetuous early marriage, the decade of impecunious toil in ramshackle summer stock, in remote repertory groups and tacky dinner theaters. Joyful proof of his artistic maturity was offered earlier this week with the opening of "North Dallas Forty," a raunchy, ferociously irreverent look at the brutal realities of professional football.

As Phil Elliot, the broken-boned hulk of a boy-man who balks at surrendering his spirit to the computer-souled managers of his team, Nolte scores a spectacular career touchdown sure to win the super stardom denied him by the fumbles of the shallow but commercial "The Deep" and the nobly bleak, virtually undistributed "Who'll Stop the Rain?"

The role of the gently rebellious roughneck in "North Dallas Forty" hooked Nolte the instant he read Peter Gent's gutsy novel in 1973. "Football has always been tremendously important to me," he says, sinking into a plush sofa and lazily massaging his big bare feet. "In high school, back in Omaha, football's all I ever thought about, the only thing I cared about, and I went on to play for five college teams."

Academically speaking, he failed to make the "A" team, entering each new school as a freshman. His last stab at playing Joe College was at the Pasadena City Junior College, and it was there, with the help of a drama-student buddy, that he made the astonishing discovery of a deeply buried desire to act, to toy with words and emotions rather than passes and body-blocks. "When I played football, it was for the joy and fun of the game," he says, his clean-shaven face flushed by the memory. "But there were coaches--certain disciplinarians--who felt I shouldn't be having such a good time. Phil Elliot plays for the fun of the game too, and one of the film's themes is collectivism vs. individualism. Elliott can't accept being just a piece of equipment in the hands of multi-million-dollar businessmen."

Football heroes, it's rumored, command heroic sums of money. "I read in the papers that so and so is getting greedy because he's asking for $350,000, but that sort of reporting never puts things in the perspective of the millions made by the team's management and by all the various franchises. The salaries of the players add up to about four per cent of the profit pulled in by the industry. And with all the hits, the punishment taken by his body, the average player's life on the field is a fast four years. After that, he's all through."

Far better to mine for gold on the silver screen than on the bloody gridiron. "An actor's salary is in decent proportion to that of the executives--if he happens to be among the 10 or 15 elite actors, out of the 30,000 across the country, who've been declared bankable. But the average actor earns a ludicrous $1,500 a year, and if he's lucky enough to go out to Hollywood to read for a part, he's likely to wait for two weeks or more for the thrill of hearing the part went to somebody else. Naturally, he views his failure as a reflection on his talent, but the truth is that he might well have lost the part because of nepotism, or because of a blacklist. At the television networks, for example, I'm quite sure that lists circulate, lists made up of the clients of favored agents, and if you're not on those lists, you're just not considered a viable property."

Luckily, Nolte was not kayoed by a blacklist when he auditioned for the high-voltage role of Tommy Jordache, the charismatic rascal in the enormously popular mini-series "Rich Man, Poor Man," though a blacklist could have been a blessing in the case of "The Deep," an epic whose most animated performance was given by Jacqueline Bisset's soaking-wet T-shirt. "At first, I turned down that part, deciding to wait for better offers," Nolte says. "But none came along, so I went with 'The Deep.' On the acting level, it turned out to be sheer hell, because there was simply no story to tell and no character to play."

Nolte shakes his head sadly and takes a slug of Irish coffee. "I remember Robert Shaw jabbing me and saying, 'This piece will not allow you to act,' and I got mad at him for not trying. In the end, we sat up every night drinking vodka and reading Robert's novels aloud--I'd read a few pages, and then he'd read a few. The upshot is that movie fell just short of making $100 million. The name of the game, you see, is show 'business'."

Nolte, who'll next be seen as the hard-driving, romantically defiant beatnik poet Neal Cassady in "Heart Beat," will not be forced to take a rush dip in questionably "deep" waters again. "My regret is that there was no personal fulfillment on that project. If you can't come out of a game and say, 'Man, I put everything I had into that game,' you're bound to feel short-changed. Robert Shaw knew that feeling, in one piece of garbage after another, but there wasn't much he could do about it--he had nine kids to support. Robert was a prolific sucker--not only in writing and acting, but in life."

Nolte has yet to sample fatherhood, though he and his bride of several months, Sharyn Haddad--a sometimes singer fondly referred to by her hubby as Legs--have engaged in serious baby talk. "I'd like to have a kid," he says, dreamily sipping his Irish coffee. "After all, I'm reaching my upper ages. This gypsy life is getting to be a drag--I've been in and out of more towns than I can count over the past 20 years. It's time to settle down."

Karen Eklund got the idea that Nolte was settling down with her, and was apparently dumbfounded when he locked the door on their long-time liaison. But not too dumbfounded to enlist the services of Marvin Mitchelson--the flamboyantly crusading lawyer who made Lee Marvin wish he'd never met Michelle Triola. If Eklund's day in court has a happy ending, she'll walk off into the Hollywood sunset clutching $4.5 million, the sum she feels would be adequate compensation for her contributions to her former lover's career. Would Nolte care to comment on this new-fangled phenomenon known as palimony?

"I don't know what that word means," he says, looking genuinely puzzled. "I only know what relationship means. It is curious, though, that the only figures affected by it are Hollywood figures. People say that the element of emotionality is what's involved in palimony, but it looks more to me like the element of money. All I know is that I went with a girl for two or three years and she turned around and sued me. Well, my financial situation is so exaggerated that I don't know if Mitchelson will even want to bother with me. He's got Bianca Jagger, and Mick is much richer than I am."

Mick Jagger may be richer than Nolte, but he can scarcely measure up to him in the jock-image department. It would be a rare reporter indeed who could pound out a story about Nolte without dragging in such terms as "macho," "stud" and "sex symbol."

"Those are journalistic phrases," he sighs, possibly a trifled piqued. "I'm not in the business of marketing sex; I'm in the business of establishing a relationship with an audience."