At the age of 70, Nick Nolte is hot all over again. He’s just been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as the heartbroken father in Warrior, and on Sunday he’ll be back on TV, where he first drew attention in the mid-seventies ABC series Rich Man, Poor Man. This time he’s entering the prosperous kingdom of HBO, starring with Dustin Hoffman, Joan Allen, and Dennis Farina on the new racetrack series Luck. Naturally, we wanted to know more about all of this, and, naturally, Nolte obliged.
Congrats on the Oscar nomination! How did you find out about it? What was your reaction?
I think I got a call around 6 a.m. telling me, and I just went, "That's great," and I went back to bed. It was good news, but I've been nominated a couple of times. You get a little used to it. It's new and scary the first time, but you get more relaxed and just go with it as you get older. But it doesn't change the fact that nobody knows who is going to win. People do all these calculations, and place all these odds — people gamble on this in Las Vegas! But the calculations are no better than conspiracy theories, even if they are in your favor. I'm in no position to run from it, but it's better to run in the middle of the pack than be the favorite. I think the two times I was nominated before, I was pretty strongly in the lead, I was the favorite, but I remember, Robert Altman told me, "If Jimmy Coburn wins as Best Supporting for Affliction, you won't get it," because historically, that's what happens. So when he won, I knew it was over. I was very happy for him, and then for me, because I could relax a bit. Although this time, you do have two older actors nominated [Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow], and there's this kind of sentimentality that runs throughout the Academy to honor past work, so the older ones have more of a shot at it.
At least your nomination will give some love to Warrior, which could have been a bigger film when it came out — it could have been a Rocky.
That's exactly what Arnold said to me! I ran into Arnold Schwarzenegger in an elevator the other night, and he said to me, "Man, you could have had a Rocky on your hands. How come that didn't happen?" And I said something dumb, like, "How come you didn't become governor again? How come that didn't happen?" He didn't respond to that. But I think everybody feels that they couldn't figure out the marketing on that movie. I don't know if it's the studio's fault or not, because trying to predict the public is like gambling too. Even with all the advertising and the audience Q&As, there's no way to tell. But that's why I balk at studio heads.
How have you balked at studio heads?
I remember on Mother Night, a friend of mine who was a producer on that, Ruth [Vitale], she told me at one point, "Nick, I'm having a screening tonight, you have to come," and it was one of those things where you cannot say no. There were only ten people at the screening, and halfway through it, I realized she was showing me this other film to say she was going to have to support that instead. It was Shine, with Geoffrey Rush. So the lights come up, and I tell her that she has a great film on her hands, and she tells me that she's going to have to bail off Mother Night. And they did bail off. But Mother Night was based on a Kurt Vonnegut piece and the reviews were good, so I asked the studio, "Please treat us with respect and don't drop us in the ads." But sure enough, in the second week, the ads were dropped. So I called the New York Times and the L.A. Times to see how much a quarter of a page ad would cost on the weekend, and I think it was $50,000 at the time. So I was going to take out the ads, but then the studio head starting reading me the riot act: "You can't take out ads!" He claimed it was a mistake about the ads being dropped, said he'd put them back, but he was grumbling about it, because he thought he was losing money. I thought that was hilarious. That's what the film industry is about! You make some, you lose some — it's a gamble.
I remember when film budgets were around 15 to 20 million dollars, and ever since then they've been climbing. It makes me nervous, but I can't really complain. I mean, The Deep was one of the first films to gross 100 million. I didn't really want to do The Deep, but it was the first film I could get after Rich Man, Poor Man. I came close to getting Apocalypse Now, I almost got Slap Shot — those were the first films I went after, but I couldn't get them.
How close did you get? How did you get out of the rut?
On Apocalypse Now? Pretty close. Talia Shire called me the night before shooting started and said I had the role. And then they announced Harvey Keitel had it. And then Harvey was replaced with Martin Sheen. And then Martin Sheen had a heart attack on it! It must have been an intense experience, so I'm actually glad I didn't do it. But a year went by with no films, so I took The Deep, and being a young actor then, I was a little bit of a dick on that film, because I didn't want to do that film. But it was such a success that I finally had some luck and I could set the course of the films I wanted to do. Michael Eisner, who was head of Paramount at the time, he let me pick my scripts. He let me do North Dallas Forty, when no one else would pursue it, as long as I picked from a list of five or six Paramount-approved producers and directors. I picked, he said it was a go picture, and I called my manager and I said, "You're fired," and I called my agent, and I said, "You're fired." Jeffrey Berg, who now runs ICM, came to me and said, "I know we screwed up. What can we do?" "Can you pursue the stories that I want to tell?" "Absolutely." And that was that. So I felt like I could stay in the film industry for a while. I didn't want to stay if I couldn't tell the stories I wanted to tell.
A lot of gambling going on — which brings us to Luck. One of your cast members is Kevin Dunn, who was in Warrior with you ...
You know, I didn't even make that connection until the premiere! I saw him there, and I realized that. I was stunned. We were doing Luck before we did Warrior, you see, because they held the film for a year. They were hoping that Tom Hardy would break through and become a movie star, because he had the Mad Max role, and then Mad Max fell through. You can't really wait around for someone to break though, either — nothing's a bigger gamble.
Your character Walter Smith has a way with horses.
Not only that, but horses have been a part of my life forever. My sister Nancy and I have a farm, right at the end of New York state, and my sister's been jumping horses for 50 years. I keep telling her, "You've got to get some horses that aren't so damn wiley!" Did you know that horses run to elect their alpha male? They want to run. You just have to train them a bit to run in a way that's peculiar to their nature. But you don't want to use the whip. That only startles the horse and he doesn't know why he's being hit, and he won't react favorably. I think for the second season, Walter should wear caps and spurs, but Michael [Mann] doesn't want me to dress anything like a cowboy. He wants me to be a Kentucky gentleman, and in the stands, not down on the track. The way the show is, you might think the trainers don't ride the horses, but they do. We had a scene that we shot of me riding the horse to see the lawyer, and then riding to the stables, but they cut that. That was the only time I got to be on a horse for the show. Mostly I talk to the horse, like the old man is telling him a fairy tale.
I think for next season, Walter should have a brush with death. I don't want him to die, but maybe freak him out a bit, because when people go through that, they really come out alive. So when David Milch asked me, "What do you think about the old man for next season?" I told him that. I don't talk to David at length — you're going to get to a certain part where you don't understand what he's saying, because he's so knowledgeable and it'll be out of your realm. But I told him my idea, I said I'm thinking about a brush with death, cancer, and he said, "Wow, that's perfect." I said, "I've written this scene, where the man gives a speech to the horse," and he said, "This is great. Can you continue it?" "Okay — give me ten minutes." So I backed up the scene to the night where he's gotten the diagnosis, and followed through to the operation. I don't know if he'll use it, but who knows? Maybe I'll be one of the writers this next season.
When do you start shooting?
We start in mid-February. We only have nine episodes for this first season, and next season, we'll have twelve. So we'll be shooting from February to October — that's a long run!
And then what?
Then I hope to do A Walk in the Woods with Robert Redford. There's only so many old actor friends he could use for that, and I'm kind of the asshole of that class. [Chuckles.]