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Interview with Nick Nolte

LOS ANGELES - "We could have started our own franchise," Frank Yablans is quietly observing to himself. Out on the rainy playing field, illuminated by the big movie lights, 55 professional football players are slogging through the mud, running down to the goal posts and back, so they'll sound short of breath in the next shot. They are not yet too short of breath to use words that will not make it into Yablans' movie.

On the sidelines, Nick Nolte and Mac Davis are opening cans of beer. A trainer is adjusting the tape wrapped around Bo Svenson's broken thumb. John Matuszak, the hero of the world champion Oakland Raiders, is remembering with a touch of poetry in his voice the first time he went to see a movie. It was "Rebel Without a Cause," he remembers. It was nothing like this.

Somebody asks Svenson, who once starred in a sequel to "Walking Tall," if he broke his thumb in a fight.

"Yes," says Svenson, "and then again, no. It's hard to say if it was exactly a fight . . . Say, you gonna get all muddy if you walk around like that." He asks the trainer to tape plastic baggies around the shoes of the sidelines visitors, who are already up to their ankles in mud.

"You can bust something real easy on this picture," Mac Davis says. "In the scenes we did last night, I took about six shots from Doug France. He's 290, I'm 175." Davis went off to talk to Bill Russell, who had arrived with a TV crew to do an interview about violence in sports.

The picture is "North Dallas Forty," it is scheduled to be released in August, and it is not going to be very popular with the people who own pro football. It deals with subjects they would like to see go away, such as the use of drugs and painkillers, and the fragility of the player's business relationship with his team.

Nick Nolte is the star of the movie, portraying a football player who has been part of the game every year since he joined a Pop Warner team as a kid - and now finds, near the end of his professional career, that the people who run the game are determined to shaft him. He has a line of dialog in the film, during an argument with the team's owner that sums up everything:

"Don't talk to me about the 'team.' YOU'RE the team. We're only the employees."

"North Dallas Forty" is an important picture for Nolte, who paid his dues working for 10 years in theater companies in the Midwest, who finally broke into the big time with an enormously successful TV miniseries and a hit movie, and who was then immediately dismissed by many critics as a good-looking sex symbol, a Robert Redford clone, an actor of little depth.

The TV series was Rich Man, Poor Man. After it was telecast, Nolte remembers, he spent a year out of work: "They didn't want me. The roles I was being offered were pure crap. Finally it was a case of doing something just to keep working. I had a choice between 'The Deep' and 'Damnation Alley' - remember that one? I took 'The Deep'."

He lit a cigarette, exhaled, took the top off a can of beer.

"The picture made a fortune, of course. But the reviews I got on that one hurt. Really. I didn't have depth? Hell, the movie itself was so thin in character...what could you do with it? I turned it down a couple of times before I finally took it. At least I'm not as upset about 'The Deep' now as I was when we were making it. It firmed up the whole bankability thing...after that, at least I was someone they knew they could put in a movie."

And in his next film, Nolte got his good reviews. The film was "Who'll Stop the Rain" only a moderate success at the box office but important for Nolte because he did display depth, and an emotional complexity far beyond what "The Deep" had revealed. "I'm pleased with that whole film," Nolte said. "They didn't sell the picture very well, which was a damned shame. But it showed what I can do."

Out on the field, the pro football players were lining up for a shot. The director, Ted Kotcheef (of "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz"), was talking with Mac Davis about the next scene, which would have Nolte, as the old pro, coming in with a last-minute play.

"We only have about four minutes of actual football in this whole film," Nolte said. "It's about the institution of football. Or about any institution. My character is a guy who's been playing since he was a kid, and it's hard for him to separate the reasons he likes playing football from the things that can make it a rotten business. The drugs, for example.

Frank Yablans, who used to run Paramount before he became an independent producer, walked over to join the discussion about drugs. "The book this movie is based on was written before the big pro football crackdown on drugs," Yablans said, "but when you show the book to a professional football player, he'll say this is wrong or that is wrong, but the part about the drugs is the only part that isn't over-exaggerated. There are still a lot of amphetamines, bennies...our character is asked in a subtle way to suit up and play and use allocaine to kill the pain."

"My character," Nolte said, "is a guy they've come to see as a troublemaker. They want to get rid of him, but they want to get rid of him in such a way that he won't turn up playing for another team and haunt them. They want to get him on a morals charge."

Yablans was asked about stories that the film was originally scheduled to be shot in Dallas, and moved back to Los Angeles area locations only at the last moment. Was that because the Dallas Cowboys management hated the book?

"Not at all. It was a simple case of finding that we could shoot faster here, and save a couple of million dollars, and not hurt the picture. Our picture is set in Texas, but not Dallas, specifically...although the team in our picture has some of that same absolute obsession with winning you find in Dallas. Here is a particular kind of team that looks at its players as so many gears, and Nolte plays one gear that is coming loose."

Yablans left for the 50-yard line to confer with Kotcheef. Nolte lit another cigarette. I asked him about "Heartbeat," a film he's already completed, which is also scheduled for release this summer.

It's a departure for Nolte, you could say, except that all of his film roles have been so different from one another: He plays Neal Cassady, best friend and mentor of Jack Kerouac, and the original on whom Kerouac modeled Dean Moriarty, hero of his beatnik novel On the Road.

"I was thinking," Nolte said, "of the comparisons between the Neal Cassady character and Hicks, the guy I play in 'Who'll Stop the Rain.' At the end of 'Rain,' Hicks walks down the railroad tracks...and that was lifted from a book about Cassady...and Cassady, the beatnik, and Hicks, the screwed-up war hero, were two sides of the same coin...."

His co-star in "Heartbeat" is Sissy Spacek, of "Carrie" and "3 Women," who plays Cassady's wife, Caroline. "Caroline wrote 'Heartbeat'," Nolte said. "I spent a lot of time with her, and with Allen Ginsberg and some of the other original Beat Generation people. We wanted to get not only the mythological side of Neal - this guy whose personality really kind of inspired the Beats - but also the personal side, the side she knew.

"I mean, here's a movie...and a story of a life...that takes place between the late 1940s and, say, 1960, when all of America is as straight as an arrow, and these...'beats,' they call themselves, define a whole alternative. Where did that come from? Too us, today, they seem mild enough. What did they do? Write poetry, smoke dope, lead bohemian lives...they weren't really even political, they were more into an experiment about life."

Nick Nolte had more to say about the Beat Generation, but it was time for him to slog out onto the field for the next shot. That left me on the sidelines, thinking about the strange ways we assign fame in our society, and then require the famous to conform. Twenty-five years ago the Beats were outlaws. Now they are in a period movie. Twenty-five years ago pro football players were heroes. Now they are revealed, amazingly, to be as human and fallible as the rest, to perhaps experiment with drugs, indeed, that the Beats knew nothing of.

And for the last 10 years Nick Nolte was paying his dues in regional theaters in Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and the smaller towns in between. Then suddenly his obscurity was replaced by an unexpected fame as a "matinee idol" - they call them "sex symbols" now - that must have seemed strange and unwelcome. To expand and change that image, he has played a disturbed war hero and a beatnik and now a football player discovering that his long adolescence is at last over. It is Nick Nolte's plan that this be the summer we discover what he was learning during his 10 years on the road.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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