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The Time of Nick Nolte

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IN RETROSPECT, THE SIGNS OF HIS broad-spectrum appeal were written on the wall in January at Hollywood’s 49th annual Golden Globe Awards. “Ooh, he’s sexy…very sexy!” cooed Married…with Children nymphet Christina Applegate, all of 20.

“Yeah, he’s attractive,” agreed Beverly Hills, 90210‘s Shannen Doherty, also 20, “in a strong, sexy, hunky sort of way.”

Added junior heartthrob Luke Perry: “I’d pay $7 just to watch him walk down the street.”

But the final imprimatur came from a truly unimpeachable source. Said a gallant Warren Heath: “He’s got much more sex appeal than I do.”

As if we didn’t know.

With his big-guy manner and rumpled-bed looks, Nick Nolte, at the age of 51, possesses a charm well-nigh universal in its appeal—and peculiar to the times. He has tousled blond, aging-surfer locks (occasionally slicked back à la GQ moderne) and heat-seeking eyes, and his image is one we hold dear: the big-lug Adonis with the heart of gold—sometimes known as the Bad Boy Reformed.

For years, Nolte drank and drugged his way through a panoply of screwed-up character roles, playing troubled souls just a shade too authentically. On the set of the forgettable 1985 movie Grace Quigley, his costar, Katharine Hepburn, told him not to worry. “Nick,” she said, “Spencer had a lot of problems too.”

But through the worst of them, Nolte’s talent never waned. “Down the line, I think, my drinking would have been death,” he said not long ago. Now, finally sharp-eyed, slim-hipped and clearheaded, Nolte is emerging from his knock-around days into what must, to him, look like the stratosphere. He is the star of two concurrent hits, Cape Fear and The Prince of Tides, which combined have grossed $140 million. Furthermore, in his role as Tides’ wounded bird, Tom Wingo, a man strong enough to exorcise the demons of his past, Nolte’s onscreen persona appeared to dovetail with his private life: As a sensitive soul defended by a hard-guy demeanor, he seems a quintessential sex symbol for the ’90s.

He won this year’s Golden Globe Best Actor prize, and is now the odds-on favorite to follow it with an Oscar come March 30, which for Nolte would be a first. “I think it’s clear that he’s reached his prime,” says JoBeth Williams, his costar in 1984’s Teachers. “Now we’re getting the best of him.”

And the best of him is very good. “Everyone knows that there’s a great deal behind him—the booze and all that stuff,” says Joanna Cassidy, who played opposite Nolte in 1983’s Under Fire. “It was hard to see the real Nick then. But he’s allowed a lot of compassion to emerge now. And as a man that makes him very sexy.”

He certainly has all the elements, not the least of which is intensity. Nolte’s seriousness as an actor, and his obsessive preparation, are legendary. For his part as a Vietnam vet in Who’ll Stop the Rain? he learned to strip and reassemble a combat rifle, blindfolded, in 19 seconds flat. For his role as Down and Out in Beverly Hills’ seductive bum, he forsook bathing and a toothbrush for a month. And in one particularly memorable Down and Out scene, the by-then-odoriferous actor was supposed to look as if he were eating dog food. “A lot of actors would have put hamburger in the bowl,” says Tracy Nelson, who played the household’s anorexic daughter. “But Nick ate the dog food.”

Which is not to say that Nolte cannot step outside the Method. While making 1989’s Three Fugitives, costar Martin Short asked Nolte what he’d do if faced with an egomaniacal snit. “I said, ‘What if I weren’t leaving my trailer?’ ” says Short. “He said, ‘I’d come in there and drag you the hell out. It’s a war doing these films, and we don’t have time to f—around.’ ”

Beneath that rakish, tough-guy exterior, there must also be vulnerability, which Nolte has in spades. On location for Tides in Beaufort, S.C., he endeared himself to the locals by agreeing to address an early morning high school assembly. Afterward, according to basketball coach Tom Horton, “we went on to one first period class. And what was funny was that he was nervous about talking to 25 ninth graders. Like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ ”

Sensitivity beneath the Big Star exterior is a killer every time. Screenwriter Suzanne O’Malley, mother of 7-year-old Zack Greenburg, who will appear with Nolte in the forthcoming Lorenzo’s Oil, vividly remembers her first power-broker meeting with the actor at a New York City restaurant. “Zack fell asleep during the meal and rested with his head in my lap,” she says. “At the end of dinner, Nick took him in his arms and carried him home in the cab.”

Nolte’s own childhood reads a little less blessed. Born Feb. 8, 1941, in Omaha, to Frank Nolte, an itinerant irrigation-pump salesman, and his wife, Helen, shy, skinny Nick moved with his parents and older sister Nancy to places like Waterloo, Iowa, and Joplin, Mo., before returning to Omaha in time for high school. Nolte majored in sports and minored in small-town delinquency until, at 20, he discovered acting and spent the next decade on the repertory theater circuit. In 1973 he opened in William Inge’s Last Pad in Los Angeles—the same week, coincidentally, that the playwright committed suicide. Three years later, at 35, Nolte, a self-described late developer, landed the role of black sheep Tom Jordache in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, and convincingly played a 17-year-old. Along with his acting talent, he exposed a smooth-skinned he-man physique that endeared him to legions of tuned-in female fans.

Throughout his roustabout career, partying, for Nolte, was never an amateur sport. Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson remembers that in North Carolina during the filming of 1987’s Weeds, Nolte and a handful of fellow actors decided, for reasons that remain obscure, to “moon” an audience of well-heeled local theater patrons recruited for a scene. When the moment of truth came, though, Nolte was the only one who carried out the prank. Says Hudson: “He was just looking at everyone, like, ‘How could you leave me hanging out here by myself?’ ”

“Nick’s a lot of fun whether he’s drinking or not,” says friend Peter Cent, author of North Dallas Forty, which was adapted for a 1979 film starring Nolte. “But he’s one of those classic guys who just gets funnier and funnier when he drinks. I think when he stopped drinking it made everybody a lot more unhappy than he was.”

Along the way there were two marriages (to Sheila Page in 1966 and Sharyn Haddad in 1978) and a seven-year live-in affair with Karen Eklund, which ended in a palimony suit settled out of court. Then, in 1984, Nolte wed model Rebecca Linger, a doctor’s daughter from Charleston, W.Va., whom friends credit with helping the actor to sober up. “”I real I think, along with a lot of other people,” says one, “that Becky saved his life.” The marriage, which produced a son, Brawley, in 1986, has not been without rough spots. In autumn 1990 the couple separated, but by this past Thanksgiving had reconciled at her parents’ West Virginia home. “They’re together now,” says a friend. “Hey, it’s one day at a time.” Indeed, while Beatty and other actors worked the media to boost their Oscar chances, Nolte and his wife were in Spain, making an effort to rekindle their marriage.

Yet if push ever came to shove, most agree, the true love of Nolte’s life would be his 5-year-old son. “I remember Brawley running into the room one day with a bucket of crabs,” recalls one Beaufort resident, “and Nick would just melt when that kid came in.”

There are a few aberrant types who seem at least partially immune to the Nick Nolte appeal. Bette Midler, for one, starred opposite him in Down and Out and still remembers Eau de Nick. “I don’t have a ‘thing’ for Nick Nolte,” she joked to the press corps assembled at the Golden Globes. “I’m not developing one, either, and I’m sure he’s not developing one for me.” Even Nolte’s 77-year-old mother told a journalist that her son is “nuttier than a fruitcake.”

But by now the others, the multitudes, have fallen hard for him. And in what may be his sexiest attribute of all, Nolte makes clear that the feeling is mutual. Asked not long ago what, specifically, he finds appealing about women, Nolte didn’t hesitate. “Oh, you know,” he said, in characteristically minimalist chic. “The whole deal.”