9 Milestones in the Evolution of Nick Nolte

In this weekend's Warrior, Nick Nolte assumes his most personal role to date: that of a recovering alcoholic who can't seem to redeem himself in the eyes of his sons, or at the end of the day, himself. How did Nolte transform himself from a strapping TV miniseries rebel to a gravelly-voiced vet actor mirroring his own notorious demons onscreen?

You can always trace a direct line through a few important roles to illustrate what led to an actor's current success. As such, let's look at nine pivotal performances that track the evolution of Nick Nolte.

Rich Man, Poor Man (1976)

After studying acting with Stella Adler and honing his craft at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Nebraska native landed a number of bit television roles (Gunsmoke, Barnaby Jones, etc.) in the late '60s and early '70s before scoring his breakthrough role in the ABC miniseries adaptation of Irvin Shaw's best-selling novel. Here, Nolte played Tom Jordache, the rough, rebellious Jordache (in contrast to his "rich man" entrepreneur brother) who supported himself through boxing after World War II. For his part in this popular miniseries, Nolte earned his first Emmy nomination.

The Deep (1977)

Nolte's career gained momentum with his first major role in a feature film, The Deep, opposite Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Shaw. As one half of a beautiful, vacationing couple who discover buried treasure off the coast of Bermuda, Nolte proved he was capable of a solid lead performance -- even if this averagely-reviewed Peter Yates drama would be remembered mostly for Bisset's wet t-shirt scenes.

48 Hrs (1982)

After portraying real-life Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady in Heart Beat, an aging NFL player in North Dallas Forty and a marine-turned-heroin smuggler in Who'll Stop the Rain, Nolte took his first comedic role with 48 Hrs. As the hard-nosed badge to Eddie Murphy's wise-cracking convict, Nolte has said that he and his co-star (in Murphy's feature debut) improvised most of their scenes together. This Walter Hill film would be the most successful box office performer for Nolte and would go on to be considered the first "buddy cop" movie.

Fighting Dirty

48 Hrs.


Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)

But it was in Down and Out in Beverly Hills -- which holds the distinction of being the first R-rated film released by Disney -- that critics, including Roger Ebert noted a transformation in Nolte. As Jerry Baskins, a Shakespeare-spouting bum sleeping in the 90210 zip code, his character is taken in by a kind family (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler) after he tries to drown himself in their pool. It is in this role, as a bearded street walker-turned-confidante to the wealthy that Nolte was able to distance himself from his "rugged good looks" and as Ebert said, "emerge as a weathered, older, attractive actor [who had] the materials to become a big-league star like Cooper or Gable." In related trivia, Nolte allegedly spent five weeks as a homeless person to prepare for this role.

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  • admin says:

    It's nice to see the evolution of Mr. Nolte.

  • Jo Horn says:

    No mention of Lorenzo's Oil? A great film and convincing role.

  • Adi says:

    No Hulk? Seriously?
    Granted, we can endlessly debate whether it was a thoughtful arthouse popcorn movie or just pretentious Freud 101, but either way -- Nolte gave a funny and frightening performance as the father figure, and remember Hulk was still early in the superhero boom. If he were cast in it now, it would be seen as "unconventional" and "inspired" casting. But 03 just a damn good actor getting a good part in a big studio flick.