From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
He's a hunk who can act, and his fans include Katharine Hepburn

There was a time after his socko Rich Man, Poor Man miniseries broke on ABC when Hollywood rubbed its manicured hands over the potential of Nick Nolte. This was the real McQueen, the next big thing in blue-eyed box office beefcake. But Nolte gave warning of the sort of hunk he really was when he turned down Rich Man, Poor Man, Book II as "exploitative." Not exactly the dumb blond the industry may have figured him for, he also rejected Hanover Street, Orca and even Superman. Just recently, he spurned a $1.4 million pile to play in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon-backed Inchon. "I just didn't like the project," says Nolte of a Korean War movie that Laurence Olivier himself was not above working in.

This is not to suggest that Nick is canonizable—or certifiable. He did succumb to Peter Benchley's The Deep, a $110 million grosser which he dismisses as "a surface film," no subterranean pun intended. He concedes: "A movie like that makes you bankable, and only when an actor gets an audience does he have the possibility of doing another kind of thing." By another kind of thing he obviously means last year's powerful Who'll Stop the Rain and his current North Dallas Forty. The former, the most underrated of the Viet Nam films, might, with shrewder marketing, have won Nolte an Oscar. The latter, a satire on the sinister side of the NFL (the sport's crippling injuries, management manipulation of players and overuse of pills and painkillers), is simply the strongest football movie ever made. "I found tremendous parallels between North Dallas Forty and the relationship of the actor to the movie industry," says Nolte of the film based on a roman à clef by ex-Dallas Cowboy receiver Peter Gent. "In both there's a success syndrome. Actors are very vulnerable, and the clubs pretty much own ballplayers flat out."

North Dallas, which has grossed more than $20 million in its first nine weeks, has only increased Nolte's autonomy and made him one of the Most Valuable Players in his league (not to mention a fatter target of palimony paladin Marvin Mitchelson). Yet, characteristically, it pains Nick that Katharine Hepburn, an admirer of his work, had been having trouble getting money for a black comedy she wants to do with Nolte. "She's one of the finest performers ever," muses Nick, "but all they care about are established money-makers. They don't get excited about her name in a movie, yet they are interested in mine. I don't grasp that kind of mentality."

For now, Nolte, 38, has called career time-out. Among other things, he wants to be with his bride, Sharyn "Legs" Haddad, 24, an aspiring actress-singer seen briefly in the jock bacchanalia of North Dallas. "Our relationship is based entirely on sex," deadpans Sharyn, whose jibes goad and delight the laid-back Nolte.

They were married 17 months ago, shortly after meeting at Carlos 'n' Charlie's, a Sunset Strip eatery. Noticing Nick sitting morosely with some cronies, Sharyn told her tablemates: " 'Watch, I'm going to get him.' So I walked over to his table," she continues, "and said, 'Smile, sucker.' Then I had to play hard to get for about two hours," Sharyn remembers. "But that was it. He took me home and we never left each other." Nolte denies they lived together, but nine months later they wed while Nick was scouting Southwest movie locations. He proposed by telephone with a casual "Let's go for it." "I didn't believe him at first. I thought he was drunk," relates Sharyn. "He did say he was in jail and told me to come bail him out. I got real hysterical." Still, she flew to Phoenix and met a "grubby" Nolte who had been up for two nights. They chartered a plane to Las Vegas, then drove around while agonizing over the decision. The charter pilot and his girlfriend then served as witnesses for a $70 wedding in Vegas' Chapel of the Bells, once their courage returned. "It's something you feel," says Nick, whose 1966 marriage to actress Sheila Page ended in divorce five years later. "The relationship with Sharyn couldn't go any further without getting married."

Nick's celebrated live-in relationship with actress Karen Eklund, 33, never reached that point. After their 1977 split, Eklund sought solace in a $5 million suit against Nolte brought by attorney Mitchelson. The case is still pending. "It's a hassle," admits Nick. "In an odd way, these 'bedroom agreements' invalidate marriage," he says cryptically.

He and Sharyn have not been totally hassle-free. "We were just down in the Caribbean," reports Nolte, "and she got mad at me and said, 'I'm going home.' So she got on a plane and flew home. Two days later she flew all the way back again. I wouldn't argue with her on the phone." Shayrn nods agreement. "He'd hang up on me. So I'd say, 'Don't you love me?' And he'd say, 'Yes, but I'm peaceful. I don't want to argue. I've got to go now.' " Nick laughs, "It's a good thing she did come down and get me—after weeks in the Caribbean, I didn't want to come home at all."

That's somewhat understandable. A brushfire last year burned the carriage house on his five acres in mountainous Agoura, 50 miles from L.A. Nolte is doing the carpentry repair work himself and wants to add solar-heating panels (a Robert Redford touch). The place is not yet habitable, partly because of vandals who carted away everything from the wreckage but the largely self-educated Nolte's treasured library. His isolated retreat is accessible only by fording a creek. "I don't dislike Hollywood at all, but I'd just rather not live in town," says Nolte. He convinced Rich Man, Poor Man co-star Peter Strauss to move in down the road apiece, and the Noltes' temporary shelter is a rented $1,000-a-month house a few miles away on Malibu Lake. "We're drifters," grins Nick. "That's us—gypsjes," chimes in Sharyn.

Nick certainly understands the nomadic life. The 6' shrimp of an outsized, sports-minded family, Nolte was born in Omaha to a housewife (now an antiques dealer) and a 6'4" semi-pro footballer turned irrigation pump salesman. Nick and his older sister, Nancy, moved with their family every three or four years to places like Ames and Waterloo, Iowa; Joplin, Mo.; and San Luis Obispo, Calif. in a middle-class life that he describes as "outdoors, small town." They wound up back in Omaha where he first made his name in 1959 as the quarterback of Westside High.

Determined to make the NFL, he bounced around as a tramp athlete at five schools—Arizona State, Eastern Arizona Junior, Pasadena City, Phoenix City and Colorado State—picked, he says, because academics for him "were only a sideline." His independence, though, suspiciously resembled that "bad attitude" of the character he depicted in North Dallas. Once Nick was actually voted off a team for being "obnoxious." Another time he was sentenced to 30 nights in jail for reckless driving and served it after football practice. By the time he realized he wouldn't make it as a pro, Nolte had gotten hooked on the stage by Bryan O'Byrne, an actor-teacher he met at Pasadena. "I started acting as a self-indulgent, self-exploration thing," says Nick. "I was very intense, and I got to work out some of my problems."

Rejecting New York and L.A. "as no places to learn," he started his career in Phoenix and played the small theater circuit of the Midwest for 10 obscure years. Then agent Mimi Weber spotted him in a 1973 L.A. production of William Inge's The Last Pad that attracted special attention because the playwright committed suicide four days before the opening. Recalls Weber of her first reaction to Nolte: "I knew that smile could take him anywhere." It helped get him his career-making role in Rich Man, Poor Man.

North Dallas Forty may be his biggest payday—he is reportedly getting 10 percent of the net—but Nolte still finds security elusive. "Secure? With a burned-out house?" he hoots. "Got a few bucks in the bank, I suppose, so instead of a baloney sandwich, you go for a Big Mac. I don't seek too much security." He still keeps a '62 Ford pickup, '49 International truck and Land Rover but drives his Datsun 280Z through the chaparral of the Santa Monica mountains near his ruined homestead. He recently bought the Datsun from his car salesman father-in-law, and the two of them have taken to playing golf with Sharyn. (But Nick is doing nothing else to shed the 30 pounds he put on to play the paunchy 205-pound pro in North Dallas.)

But like the self-reliant men he prefers to play, Nolte remains a loner whose life seems perfect preparation for his next movie appearance. In the already completed Heart Beat, Nolte plays the legendary Neal Cassady, boon companion to Jack (On the Road) Kerouac and later a role model of the rebellious youth of the 1960s. After all, Nolte escaped the draft in that turbulent decade himself because he was on probation for selling forged draft cards. "I wouldn't have gone [into the Army] anyway," he notes, "but I was fortunate I didn't have to break my own arm or go to Canada."

Nick has put that, and a lot else, behind him—but not the core of integrity that marks him as one of Hollywood's best. "The only people who ever called me a rebel were people who wanted me to do what they wanted," reflects Nick Nolte. "I was only doing what I wanted."