Nolte Beween the Lines

Nolte Beween the Lines

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Feb 8th 2018

Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines is the new memoir by three-time Academy Award® nominee Nick Nolte, who turns 77 today. It’s a birthday he also shares with the cultural icon and so-called “Beat Generation Merry Prankster” Neal Cassady (1926-1968), who, along with his second wife Carolyn Cassady, companioned and influenced the work of the legendary On the Road author Jack Kerouac as well as Carolyn’s later autobiography Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and [Allen] Ginsberg. Nolte’s apt book title might just as well apply to the free-spirited and free-loving Cassady, and, in one of those intriguing coincidental conceits that the universe occasionally arranges, Cassady also knew the iconic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, and through that connection, became friends with novelist Robert Stone. Following that convergence, counter-culture chronicler Stone conceived a powerful 1974 book called Dog Soldiers, and based the lead character of stoic survivalist Ray Hicks, a Merchant Marine who becomes involved in heroin smuggling out of Vietnam and into California, on Cassady. Dog Soldiers captured the 1975 National Book Award for Fiction and became a hot property for screen adaptation. While on location shooting The Deep (1977) for director Peter Yates, Nolte was approached by Yates’ friend, fellow director Karel Reisz (This Sporting Life, Isadora), who said he would be directing the screen adaptation of Dog Soldiers and that Nolte was his choice to play Hicks. Nolte writes: “But Karel wanted to say something before we parted. ‘You know, Nick, I’m going to ask you to find a real quiet place in yourself when we work together,’ he said calmly and very directly, ‘because you’re wasting energy, and we’re going to need to put that on-screen. If you engage with the crew too much, you give your energy to them and it doesn’t get on the screen. That’s just something to think about.” 

Months later, they met again. Nolte recalls: “As we talked at the hotel in the Hollywood Hills, he pinpointed the challenges that playing Ray…would present to me, then suggested techniques that would help me immensely in the end. ‘Hicks will require stillness,’ he calmly stressed that day. He was very aware of my tendency to make twitchy gesticulations, and he coached me on how to corral it. ‘Just sit there and talk. Don’t use your hands,’ he insisted – and he was right. He taught me to focus my attention on a visual spot, then transfer it to a single thought. It sounds simple, and it might be for some, but it wasn’t for me. I worked at it, and eventually I could pull it off as the cameras rolled. In turn, I introduced Karel to Topanga Canyon, a real Dog Soldiers kind of locale. Mountains separate the San Fernando Valley from Los Angeles County’s beach communities. Tucked into the middle, Topanga Canyon and its residents were considered the mountains’ soulful epicenter by many who knew and loved the place. Others referred to it as a hippie haven or called it the ‘commune corridor.’ In the novel, Robert Stone describes ‘canyon consciousness’ that includes some pretty shaky morality, and he wasn’t wrong. Stone’s character Ray Hicks is neither a druggie nor a believer in the counterculture. His rebellion comes from a simple fear of being forced into a box that doesn’t fit him – more than a bit like me.” The result, co-scripted by Stone and Judith Rascoe, and also starring Tuesday Weld, Michael Moriarty, Anthony Zerbe, Richard Masur, Ray Sharkey, Gail Strickland, Charles Haid and David Opatoshu, was the intense and startling thriller Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), renamed for the Creedence Clearwater Revival song featured on its soundtrack. Though a box-office underperformer, it has grown in esteem through the decades and remains a particular source of pride for the rebel named Nolte. 

And the Cassady connection was forged even more tightly two years hence, when he got to play Neal Cassady (opposite Sissy Spacek as wife Carolyn and John Heard as Jack Kerouac) in writer- director John Byrum’s underseen and critically dismissed Heart Beat (1980), about which the actor has juicy memories and divided feelings. With what The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called “a hard Lee Marvin look and a few grudges of his own,” Nolte later contributed a juicy supporting performance as the menacing honcho of an Arizona backwater from hell in director Oliver Stone’s psychedelic-style neo-noir comedy thriller U Turn (1997). For a open-hearted, crackling good read, check out Nolte’s Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines here: To experience the art behind the rebellion, turn to the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of the birthday celebrant’s Who’ll Stop the Rain (lowered 33% off original list in our current MGM Promotion) and U Turn (available here: