Weiser's Bud

The Best Actor nomination which Nick Nolte garnered last week for his superb star turn in Paul Schrader's Affliction (see page 63 for review) is a boon not only to his career, but to the career of Mel Weiser. The Valley-based writer's new tome Nick Nolte: Caught in the Act is set to hit the stands in early March, just in time to take advantage of Oscar fever.

It's not always remembered that Nolte began his acting career here in Phoenix. The Omaha, Nebraska, native went to ASU on a football scholarship, and while his college career was abortive, it was here that he found his true calling.

Weiser, a New York playwright and director who moved to the Valley in the late '60s, was part of this discovery. He was in the process of co-founding (with Michael Byron) a company called Actors Inner Circle, when an actor named Burke Rhind introduced him to Nolte. "Burke came to me, and said, 'There's a new guy in town; I just met him.'

"I said, 'Is he an actor?'
"He said, 'He wants to be.'
"I said, 'Any experience?'
"He said, 'None at all.'
"I said, 'Well, what's the recommendation?'
"And he said, 'He's on fire.'
"And I said, 'That's good, we need fire.'"

Weiser agreed with the diagnosis after meeting Nolte, and cast him, without an audition, in a production of Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night. After several years with various regional theaters in Phoenix and elsewhere, some trouble with the law (draft-card counterfeiting) and some inauspicious films like Return to Macon County, Nolte broke through as a major star with the lead role in the popular TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976.

Nolte and Weiser's friendship had, by Weiser's own account, its ups and downs. Still, they remained close enough for Nolte to offer Weiser a job as his historical research assistant on the 1995 Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris, in which Nolte played the title role.

Weiser's book focuses on what he observed of the minutiae of Nolte's work habits--and foibles--during his tenure on the Paris set of Jefferson. As such, the book may be of the most interest to students of acting or film. Those searching for amusing dish on the notoriously private, publicity-shy actor, however, will not be left altogether wanting--there are comically detailed accounts of Nolte's struggle with "anal lesions" (according to Weiser, stress-induced), and of his tantrums and paranoia. Weiser recounts with slapstick relish an incident in which Gwyneth Paltrow, who played Jefferson's daughter in the film, depantsed the star at his request, for the nonsalacious reason that he had gained weight, and couldn't get out of his costume on his own.

The most bizarre behind-the-scenes episode that Weiser describes, however, is how Nolte--after hearing how a scene depicting an obscene (but historically accurate) puppet show had the producers worried about the rating that Jefferson in Paris would receive--used his own penis as a puppet, drawing a face on it and "costuming" it with his shirttail. Writes Weiser: "A remarkable conversation took place between Nick's penis and all the women in the room [including Paltrow]. . . . They were actually talking to it! They'd completely forgotten all their earlier statements about obscenity. They'd been taken in entirely by the magic of his 'puppetry.'"

In light of all this, it may not be surprising that, at least according to Weiser, Nolte was unenthusiastic about the project. "He opposed the book," says Weiser of Nolte (who could not be reached for comment). "He was very upset at first."

So does Weiser think Nick Nolte: Caught in the Act might damage his friendship with Nolte?

"Not at all," the author opines. "I think the book will please him in some respects, and distress him other respects. Assuming he ever reads it."

And, as he's already the author of two novels, Weiser hastens to add: "Everything in it is true. Nothing is made-up."

--M. V. Moorhead