Before he was People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, before three Oscar nominations, before his infamous arrest mugshot, Nick Nolte was a Minnesotan.
For three years, the indestructible actor treaded the boards at Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, tackling such comedies as “Cactus Flower” and “The Odd Couple” while establishing a modeling career in Minneapolis and running up bar tabs at local haunts.
“It was more than three years,” said Nolte, calling from New York to promote his latest project, “Graves,” a series on the little-known premium channel Epix, his voice higher and scratchier now that he’s somehow reached the age of 75. “Well, it seems like more than three years. When I tell stories about my days there, Woody Allen’s friends fall out of their chairs laughing. They can’t imagine me in those kind of plays. I have to tell them that my voice wasn’t so gravelly back then.”
Nolte was hired in 1969 by Old Log founder Don Stolz as a “juvenile” actor, one with youthful energy and looks that could be relied on for a variety of supporting roles. In his off time, Nolte worked for the Minneapolis-based Eleanor Moore Talent Agency, landing gigs for Dayton’s and Northern States Power Co.
Nothing would get done whenever the new “hot commodity” popped by the agency. “I mean, the office kind of stopped,” Jane Noyce, who worked at the agency at the time, told Entertainment Weekly several years ago. “He had this charisma about him.”
Four years after leaving the Twin Cities, Nolte was cast in “Rich Man, Poor Man,” TV’s first blockbuster miniseries, setting the course for a string of film roles that capitalized on his mix of physical prowess and emotional vulnerability — the wide receiver in “North Dallas Forty” who learns painkillers can no longer numb him for the harsh realities of the game; the cynical cop who drops his shield for Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.;” the tightly wound writer unloading a whopper of a secret in “Prince of Tides.”
His latest character is Richard Graves, a once-fierce politician who wants a do-over after realizing he’s the most hated ex-president in American history. But Nolte was more interested in talking about his 14 years in regional theater, a journey that included stops in Phoenix and the Rockies before Stolz brought him on board for some of his most valuable learning experiences.
Nolte was downright wistful reminiscing about Ken Senn, an Old Log comic favorite whom the younger actor would admire from the wings.
“Ken would walk out on stage and, without doing anything, would get a laugh,” Nolte said. “The audience was so conditioned. They knew he was going to be funny.”
Nolte has never shied away from applying his own past to elevate his impact on screen. The 2015 film “A Walk in the Woods” would have just been a throwaway comedy if it weren’t for Nolte, playing an old schoolmate who abused his body with drugs and alcohol over the decades, huffing and puffing his way along the Appalachian Trail, trying to keep up with perennial golden boy Robert Redford.
In “Graves,” premiering Sunday, you instantly buy into his character’s reputation as an S.O.B. — Nolte’s on-set bickering with Julia Roberts during filming of the 1994 would-be rom-com “I Love Trouble” got more press than the finished movie — making his attempts to redeem himself in the public eye all the more dramatic.
Nolte can relate to Graves’ penchant for marinating in the past.
“You do that when you get into your 70s, you look back,” he said. “That’s part of the process I don’t like to get too heavy into, but you have to give your memory time to express itself. I get stuck on certain parts of my past, but I’m pretty fine with it.”
Nolte is not always the best narrator of his own story — his tendency to wander and mutter may be a significant reason why you rarely see him on talk shows — and there were moments in our half-hour conversation that were difficult to follow. But his focus was laser sharp when it came to recalling the late Don Stolz’s influence on his budding career.
“I had a tough time with the first few plays I did there,” he said. “I would think the plays were too light or too fluff. Don said to me, ‘Nick, you’ll never be able to play these characters if you judge the literature. You don’t have to like the play. Just do the best you can.’ That cleared it up for me.”
That attitude adjustment helps explain why Nolte is always worth watching, even in subpar material. “I’ll Do Anything,” James L. Brooks’ follow-up to “Broadcast News,” was shot as a musical with original songs by a number of high-profile artists, including Prince. The director eventually recut the movie into a more standard comedy, but Nolte’s nimble performance as an actor struggling for a break still moves to a fascinating rhythm.
Nolte’s extensive research included a phone call to his Minnesota mentor.
“I’ll tell you, Nick Nolte has been given a lot of bad publicity, but he was marvelous in our company,” Stolz told the website Broadway to Vegas in 2005. “He loved to rehearse and a lot of actors don’t, but he did. He came prepared. He was never late. He was never intoxicated. He was a perfect performer. He worked so diligently on the script. I picked up his script from time to time and he had everything out to the side — note after note after note to himself.”
“Graves” is not one of fall’s most high-profile projects, largely because it airs on Epix, a premium channel that is still striving to educate viewers on how to find it. To help draw attention to its first original sitcom, the seven-year-old operation is streaming the first two episodes for free at Epix.com.
Nolte said the script took four or five years to come together. The fact that its premiere lands in the middle of one of the wildest presidential races in history is pure coincidence.
“I think Graves would be just as appalled as most of us are by the shape of this election,” Nolte said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, and I go back to Roosevelt. This is strange politics.”
Despite all the wear and tear Nolte has inflicted on himself personally and professionally, he continues to push himself.
“I don’t have to, but the problem is I do have to,” he said. “I’m an actor and if the material is good, you have to do it. I’m trying to go with what’s interesting right now and that is: How do you die gracefully?”
In the past, Nolte has dismissed suggestions that his long goodbye would include a live performance, something he hasn’t done since a 2000 San Francisco staging of Sam Shepard’s “The Late Henry Moss” alongside Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson.
But all the talk of his Old Log days seemed to put Nolte in a different mind-set.
“It’s a possibility. I’m not ruling it out. I’m really not,” he said. “I started in theater and it would be great to have that immediate payoff again at the end of the evening. But it would have to be a limited run.”