He's No Teachers' Pet, but from His New Wife, Bad Boy Nick Nolte Wants a Good Conduct Award
"I've just now got up off the ground," Nolte says. "You wouldn't have wanted to know me two months ago...I didn't give a —— for love or money. I'm an actor and I'm melodramatic, so I may have exaggerated a little, but something like that makes you question your whole life." He is sitting in the unkempt living room of his three-bedroom Malibu house, chain-smoking and recounting the dark days. Becky Linger Nolte, a calm blonde who still carries 20 pounds of the 70 she gained during her eight and a half months of pregnancy, is at his side.
"I did a lot of praying," Nick continues. "You don't know if something like this happens because of your past sins. Everybody thinks that maybe God's getting them at times like these, and I'm not sure it isn't the truth."
But Nick Nolte is not Job. His career is flourishing: Teachers, a comedy in which he plays a nonconformist who bucks the public school system, is getting high marks at the box office and has plumped his bank balance by $2 million or so. The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, a black comedy with Katharine Hepburn, is being readied for release, and he is preparing for Red Herring, a comedy-thriller that begins shooting next month. The drinking binge prompted by his daughter's death is over, and his marriage is still in the cooing stages. "He says I'm the best thing that ever happened to him," Becky says shyly. "I'm probably the first good influence he's had."
According to Becky, the Nick she met at a 1983 party in her hometown of Charleston, W.Va. was committing "slow suicide." Their courtship was hardly a storybook affair. A doctor's daughter and sometime model, Linger left her job in her father's Charleston office to live with Nick in September 1983. At that point Nolte was shooting The Ultimate Solution in New York. Her family was worried—"Here I was off with some married guy who looked like a wild man," says Becky—but she was besotted. "He had this animal magnetism underneath it all, even when he was looking bad."
With his second divorce final and Becky five months pregnant, Nick took a recess from shooting Teachers in Columbus and headed for the altar. Recalls Becky, "He rented a Lear jet and we flew to Lake Tahoe." Their marriage has helped Nick tame his beastly bouts with the bottle. "He was drinking after we lost the baby," Becky admits, "but he still wasn't drinking as much as he was when I met him." Observes his mother, Helen, an antique dealer in Arizona: "Nick seems happier to me. Anybody will tell you that."
Like Nolte in his current hit, his mother's parents were teachers, but Nick himself was never at the head of the class. Born in Omaha to a housewife and a semipro football player turned traveling salesman, he was a hyperactive child; his parents would dose him with a sleeping pill when he woke the household at 4 a.m. The family, including sister Nancy, 47, moved every three or four years, hop-scotching through the Midwest. Nick found his anchor in athletics—and alcohol. By high school the talented quarterback was nipping booze from a lab flask stashed in his locker. In four years as a tramp athlete at five colleges, he distinguished himself primarily by being jailed for reckless driving and getting tossed off the squad.
After Nolte dropped out of school, his behavior worsened. In 1962 he was convicted in Omaha of aiding and abetting the making of false identification papers—a felony that netted him a three-year suspended sentence. Later he drifted into acting, languishing in regional theater and episode TV before the 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man propelled him out of obscurity.
Since then his career has moved on greased skids. In 1977's top-grossing The Deep he held his own against the spectacle of Jacqueline Bisset's wet T-shirt. First-rate performances in Who'll Stop the Rain and 48 Hrs. gave him a credibility that even occasional duds like Heartbeat couldn't destroy.
Domestic tranquillity has not come so easily. "There haven't been many women who've been able to live with me very long," Nick says. "I'm an extremist." At 25 he married an older divorcée, Sheila Page, an actress with a Phoenix repertory company he'd joined, but they split after five years because acting kept him a nomad. "She had two children," he says, "and I didn't realize it was her responsibility to raise them and not hit the road with a crazy husband."
On the heels of that separation he took up in 1970 with Karen Eklund, now 39, a would-be actress who lived with him at his Agoura, Calif. ranch. Seven years later, after an acrimonious breakup, she unleashed Marvin Mitchelson and subsequently, Melvin Belli on him. She filed a $5 million palimony suit, and although Eklund now claims she received nothing from Nolte, Belli says there was a settlement. The enmity rages on. Scoffs Nick, "She got on TV and said, 'Nick was a good old friend of mine. We've always been friends.' " Counters Eklund, who subsequently opened Luigi's Modeling School in Minnesota, "I could get Nick back in a minute if I wanted to, but I don't want that responsibility. Taking care of him is a full-time job. I'm into me now."
Nolte's second brush with matrimony came in 1978, when he wed Sharyn ("Legs") Haddad, a 23-year-old dancer; she booted him six years later. Although they never speak to each other, Nick sends Haddad a hefty monthly alimony check. "It just wasn't working out," he says. "I think I was more ready to settle down than she was."
Indirectly, Sharyn brought him to Becky. Legs' father was from Charleston, and Nolte frequented the town during the summer. After an encounter with Becky, Nick called her from New York and asked, "You want to come up here?" Recalls Nolte, "I was going through a divorce; Becky was living with me in one room at the Mayflower Hotel, where guys were yelling in the street below, 'Help me! Help me!' Becky got pregnant, I'm working with Hepburn...chaos!"
Typically, Nick managed to attract the sympathy of a surrogate mother—albeit a crusty one. When he showed up on the Solution set an hour late, Hepburn (who plays a dowager who hires hit man Nolte to hasten her death) gave him a lecture. Nolte does his raspy Kate imitation: "She said, 'You're irresponsible...You don't care...' I said, 'I'm sorry', and she said, 'I don't want to hear, da, da, da.' Later, she said, 'Nick, Spencer had a lot of problems too. You've got to have sleep. I have some Thorazine.' " Of course she was joking. "That's the sense of humor she has—Thorazine would knock you out for a week," continues Nolte. "And I said, 'No, no, no, thank you, Katharine.' And she said, 'I'm just concerned.' "
Other colleagues have fretted over Nolte, too. "There are times when you want to say, 'Nick, take care of yourself,' "says Teachers co-star JoBeth Williams. "The man does know how to drink. He's a real good-time guy, but underneath it all I felt there was a danger—that sense that he might explode." Adds buddy Gary Busey, "I wouldn't say Nick has a drinking problem. I see it more as a drinking opportunity. It gives him an opportunity—through drinking—to see the best in life."
The troubled artiste act is part of Nolte's shtick, and it has served him well. Like pals Busey and the late John Belushi, Nolte makes a point of brandishing his neuroses. "I have to create an internal off-balance," he says. "The more off-balance I can get, the sharper my concentration." Sometimes that entails knocking back a few beers before a drunk scene. For Who'll Stop the Rain, he reports, "I said to the director, 'I'm going to the bar stool on the set, and I have a pint of this Ten High whiskey and a six pack, and I'm going to sit all day long, and maybe by this afternoon I'll be in the perfect mood for the scene.' I sat and sat...my butt hurt, and I got a headache from that Ten High. But it worked fine."
As Nolte tells it, the real trouble arises when he's idle. "Because the minute I hit those streets, there's a lot of—— going on," he says. "I'm a little kid, I like to celebrate. The craziness came when I would go out on the streets and I had no purpose. I'd end up in East L.A. three days later."
These days Nolte is keeping his devilish impulse at bay by laboring over a Heathkit computer he is assembling in a spare bedroom. "It's something that keeps me locked up," he explains. "But you can only build so many." Accordingly, four months ago he and Becky paid $100,000 for a five-bedroom hilltop retreat near Charleston, where they plan to live between projects. The move was prescribed by Dr. Linger, Becky's dad. "He said, 'Nick, you gotta have a lot of special places so that if your environment is chaotic you can get out,' " Nolte reports.
Still, Nolte is a man who carries chaos with him. He is looking to the future, and he is saying things like, "I've changed," and "I want a family" and "It's time to do something that isn't pretend." The delivery is good, and one is tempted to believe him. But the edge is still there, and nobody knows it better than Nick.