A Letter to Nick Nolte on His 80th Birthday

It’s important for people who do valuable work to know they are valued. Photo: United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

King. That’s the middle name on your birth certificate. February 8, 1941. Nicholas King Nolte. The King. That’s you. Embrace it. Since you’re turning 80 today, I thought you should know that a lot of folks, myself included, consider you one of the finest actors this country has produced.

You don’t have an Oscar yet, though you’ve been nominated three times — for The Prince of TidesAffliction, and Warrior. I’m sure it felt good, that official recognition. But you never seemed like somebody who got hung up on that kind of thing. You’ve lived a big life, and most of it we’ll never hear about. You’ve struggled with addiction and made it through. We’ve heard the stories, we’ve seen the mug shot, we’ve read the arrest reports and rehab accounts, we’ve heard you talk about your demons in interviews. You always seemed like a weird fit for Hollywood. You clean up nice, but let’s be real: When people think of Nick Nolte, they think of wild hair and stubble. There was a long stretch when you wore surgical scrubs everywhere because they felt good. In his review of Nick Nolte: No Exit, a documentary in which you interview yourself — what a Nick Nolte thing to do! — Roger Ebert said, “I’ve interviewed him several times, including at Telluride, which he attended in a bathrobe, and at Cannes, where we did a Q&A that was light on the A’s. I enjoyed his company. Can’t say that he confided many secrets.”

Nevertheless, it’s important for people who do valuable work to know they are valued. I hope sometime soon the Academy gives you an honorary Oscar or a Governors Award or whatever the hell they see fit to substitute for the recognition they should’ve given you a long time ago. But who cares, really? If you’d kicked off before your 50th birthday, you’d have left one of the greatest legacies of any American leading man. But you lasted three decades past that, and you’re still going strong. Now you’re deep into the character-actor phase of your career, which is maybe a funny way to describe it, considering you always were — like Burt Lancaster and Jeff Bridges and Montgomery Clift — a character actor who just happened to be blessed with a movie-star face. It’s a treat hearing your voice come out of that stubby little Ugnaught, Kuiil, on The Mandalorian, whom you play like a friend you’ve known forever.

I’ve been sitting here for the past hour looking over your film and TV credits, and while some of the projects turned out better than others (and we both know that’s how it goes; what can you do as an actor, really, besides trust the script and the director and the process?), I’m hard-pressed to find one where you didn’t seem to be in there doing the best you could, trying to make it real even if the movie wasn’t giving you much help. There’s a life force in your best work that’s indescribable. I know from reading up on you that Marlon Brando — a fellow Nebraskan — encouraged you when you were starting out. From the beginning, you had a Brando kind of energy but more focused and intuitive, and you never lost it.

So which Nick Nolte movie should I watch to celebrate your 80th birthday? Where to begin? I’m tempted to watch 1978’s Who’ll Stop the Rain, your first “Who the hell is that guy?” movie role, in which you play a veteran and drug dealer who’s like a post-Vietnam Hemingway character. Or I could skip ahead to the ’80s to that remarkable run — one of the best any American actor has had. 48 HRS. Under Fire. Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Extreme Prejudice. A dark-horse candidate is Weeds — one of my favorites, a prison drama, a great meditation on acting and redemption. I could go off-brand and watch Farewell to the King, a wild action picture in which you play a character who’s part Rambo, part Tarzan, part Rudyard Kipling adventurer: Writer-director John Milius got high on his own supply with that one. You were 48 when you shot it, and you were ripped. How did you manage that in the same year as “Life Lessons” from New York Stories, in which your character looks as if he’s been subsisting on nothing but beer and Chinese takeout for decades?

Speaking of Martin Scorsese: the 1991 remake of Cape Fear. Top-ten Nick Nolte. Maybe top five. Few actors are better at dramatizing the gnawing anxiety at the prospect of having hypocrisies and compromises unveiled. You know, you could’ve played Max Cady in that one — switched roles with De Niro, just for kicks. I think the movie would’ve been just as strong, maybe stronger, because, as The Prince of Tides (1991) and so many other movies have proved, you’re 100 percent credible as a Neil Young–style Southern Man, a prisoner of certain conditioning. I still laugh thinking about how you cap that horrifying Gothic nightmare flashback in Tides, bellow-crooning, “And that’s what I love about the Souuuuuuuth!”

How about 1997’s Afterglow with Julie Christie, a rare love story in which characters pushing 60 get to be sexy? That’s one more people should see. I don’t know if I’m up for Paul Schrader’s Affliction, also released in ’97, right now. Like rolling around in a bathtub full of thumbtacks. The tooth-pulling scene! And the revelation at the end of the thing — your sorrowful face, that stricken look in your eyes, as though your character’s soul were cratering.

That same year, you were in another dark one, but at least it was funny: U-Turn, the Oliver Stone neo-noir in which your character is so ebulliently evil that I half-expected you to turn into a wendigo and chew Sean Penn’s face off. If I’m in the mood for a three-hour Emersonian meditation on war, I could go with the following year’s Terrence Malick war epic The Thin Red Line, in which your by-the-book officer rages impotently at Elias Koteas’s man of conviction for daring to insist that he won’t lose lives just to prove a point. Or 2003’s Northfork, a parable/fantasy in which you play a priest ministering to a fallen angel.

I first heard your name when you were on the ABC miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man back in 1976. I didn’t watch it the first time it aired. I was just a kid, and decades-spanning family sagas about class struggle weren’t my thing. But I remember my mother and stepfather talking about it — specifically about you. My mom had a crush on you. My stepdad sort of did too. Who wouldn’t? Your character, Tom Jordache, is the “poor man” of the two brothers, a rebel and sometime boxer who keeps getting entangled with parasitic people who bring out his self-destructive tendencies. In other words, the Bad Boy part. You nailed it.

And filmmakers noticed. Then came a period when it seemed like Hollywood was trying to figure out how to turn you into a matinee idol. You had the looks. Rugged, lean, blond hair, blue eyes. The whiskey-and-cigarettes voice added a note of instability and hardness, but still, the industry kept trying to turn you into something you weren’t inclined to be. It’s probably for the best that you didn’t break through to anything like mainstream recognition until your late 30s. It burned a lot of the superficiality out of you, I’m guessing, and made you skeptical of enticements that younger actors craved. 48 HRS feels, in retrospect, like your first character-actor part — the ignition of a slow fuse that would finally detonate in the 21st century with roles like the (alleged) Vietnam vet in Tropic Thunder (2008), the world-weary alcoholics in Off the Black (2006) and Warrior (2011), Robert Redford’s friend in the outdoors drama A Walk in the Woods (2015), and the horse trainer in the Luck series, who seems to have a mystical communion with his steed.

What’s next? Whatever you do, I’ll see it. That’s always been true. I’m thrilled that you’re still challenging yourself in every role, in every scene. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done. Happy birthday, King.

A Letter to Nick Nolte on His 80th Birthday