This Is How Nick Nolte Says Hello

GQ correspondent Chris Heath’s profile of the 70-year-old actor in our new January 2012 issue is so mesmerizing that we’re just gonna post the first 1000 words right here below, because we know if you read ‘em, you’ll read the rest of the piece straight through to the end. Our second favorite part—not shared here, but available for your reading pleasure at—is Nolte’s account of the insane bender he went on (remember, this man is 70) before filming even began on Warrior, his most recent film. And perhaps even better is the not-at-all-amused viewpoint of his director, Gavin O’Connor, on that same drug-addled incident. Anyway, take it away, Chris Heath:

"When you start thinking about death more than sex," reflects Nick Nolte, "you know you’re getting old." Nolte, who is 70, sits at a table in the garden of his Malibu home, mulling it over. "At 70, you crest that hill. In the sixties you’re still thinking you could do something about this slow disintegration of the body. As Katharine Hepburn used to say to me: ‘Aging, Nick, is boring.' Now I know what she means.”

Aging is boring, but there are ways to distract yourself, and Nick Nolte has long lived the kind of life in which boredom struggles to get a fair shake. Some of the more notable and extraordinary of his past diversions, we’ll come to. Right now, aside from various hobbies and distractions (glassblowing, esoteric science literature, his organic-vegetable garden, a new pet crow whose cawing resounds intermittently from its living room cage), and his soon-to-be 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, who comes by periodically during our conversations, petitioning for fatherly attention, Nolte is preparing for an impressively long list of upcoming film projects, as well as his ongoing role in Luck, the new David Milch–Michael Mann HBO series set in the world of horse racing. “I’m quite busy,” he notes. “A little more busy than I hoped to be. Much more.”

The principal catalyst for all this activity seems to have been his much praised appearance in the film Warrior, a raw depiction of an alcoholic father trying to make what little amends might still be available to him. “All of a sudden,” he observes, “it’s this rediscovery thing.” Nolte says this quite amiably, in the accepting tone of a man who has watched such tides go in and out long enough to know what little influence he has over their motions. “I never went away, you know,” he shrugs.

But these are good days, and though he says that he rarely agrees to take time like this with a reporter to look back, when he does…well, it’s best to hold on tight. A conversation about disappointment at Warrior’s surprisingly modest box-office performance (“This last week I had to deal with people who were very depressed”) reminds Nolte of the method he used in the old days to predict film grosses—with, he insists, impressive accuracy. He had a pinball machine, and on a film’s opening night he would play it, and whatever his score would be, that would be the gross. “The surprise was 48 Hrs.," he remembers, "because I didn’t think 48 Hrs. would do anything.” But the pinball machine suggested $120 million and, according to Nolte, the pinball machine was very close. That, in turn, reminds him of why he believes the 1982 movie, Eddie Murphy’s first, did so well—because it came out during a small window when there was an appetite in the country for a black-white dialogue in which racial prejudice was expressed openly in either direction: “And then, within a year, all of that was politically incorrect. You couldn’t say any of that. But there was a necessity right at that time.” This, in turn, reminds him of a term he wanted Eddie Murphy to call him in the movie—”banana skin”—which Murphy refused to use because he had never heard of it and how it was a term Nolte would hear in his youth—”Hey, banana skin, where you goin’?”—when he used to visit the black side of Omaha in search of good music. Which reminds him, coming back to that pinball machine, how he and his buddies would use it to decide something else. Whoever’s score was the lowest, it was their turn.

"Had to take off their clothes, jump on the motorcycle, ride naked down to the highway," he remembers. Nolte didn’t lose often, but he lost sometimes. "It was like freedom, you know," he says.

Anyway, just as long as you don’t come unglued, there’s a lot to be said for what can happen when you’re not winning: “You don’t learn anything from success. You know, it’s comfortable, it’s nice, it’s warm, but success just leaves you kind of feeling a little bloated.