NICK NOTE SCUFFED IMAGE, POLISHED CAREER Actor disputes the picture the media have built up of him over the years

PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH -- "Yeah, all that 'up from the ashes' stuff," he rasps while shoe-horning himself onto the trailer's window seat, his feet, fancy in black brogues, dangling.

TC point by point the latest media interpretation of his career:


*On his fabled inability to read: "Obviously I had gone all through high school and into college, and you don't do that not knowing how to read."

*His athletic prowess: "That's part of the 'North Dallas Forty' myth, because I was never big enough or fast enough to play professionally."


Some facts, however, stand on their own.

*His felony conviction for selling fake draft cards in the '60s.

*His three failed marriages.

*His reputation as one of Hollywood's most charismatic drunk and disorderly.

On the other hand, there's his three years on the wagon, the decade he spent working in regional theater, his 20 films, his 4-year-old son Brawley.

And his prodigious work ethic.

Mr. Nolte, like Mr. De Niro, is known as a method actor of exhaustive physical preparation -- for the role of the drifter in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" he slept on heating grates and didn't bathe for weeks. And, indeed, "Cape Fear" is a marked contrast to "The Prince of Tides," which opens Wednesday. The adaptation of Pat Conroy's best-selling novel, it features Mr. Nolte as a troubled Southern football coach seeking to unburden himself of a tortured family history with the help of a sympathetic psychiatrist played by Ms. Streisand.

At Ms. Streisand's urging, Mr. Nolte dropped 30 pounds to play Wingo; on his own, he incorporated many of the theories espoused by John Bradshaw, author of the book "Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child."


Mr. Nolte describes "The Prince of Tides" as "the integration of a family. I don't care how much of a cliche it is, these relationships go on. While I didn't experience the kind of physical abuse Tom Wingo did, abuse is abuse, and I could take parts of my own childhood experience and use that. Everybody I know is still messing with their parents one way or another."

He was born in Omaha in 1941, the second child and only son of Helen and Frank Nolte -- a proverbial cornfed Midwestern family of Irish and German farming stock, whose tall, handsome,

athletic blond son was "a kid for whom everything came easy," recalls Jerry Koch, Mr. Nolte's former baseball coach at Omaha's Westside High School. "Nick was one of those people who if he used all the talent he had, could have had a great college career as an athlete and a student."

Mr. Nolte, according to those who know him, was something of a squanderer, a bright student who had a reading disability and sold fake ID cards, a skillful athlete who was bounced from the team for drinking.

"It was the '50s," says Mr. Nolte of his childhood, spent first in Iowa and later in Nebraska. "It was a very deprived decade, a relapse of the '40s, when everything had a lid put on it, everything was stifled. Schools were uniformly run, there were -- curfew laws, women wore girdles. Living in a small town, one of the keys to survival was your imagination."

Mr. Nolte played football at a succession of colleges, supporting himself by selling fake draft cards. Eventually he was arrested, convicted of a felony and given a five-year probation. Any hopes for a professional ballplaying career were gone, and Mr. Nolte spent the next year holed up in his mother's home, reading, mostly plays, and contemplating becoming an actor.


He spent several years in the late '60s and early '70s working in regional theaters and summer stock before he landed in Los Angeles in 1973 with a New York production of "The Last Pad," by William Inge. When the playwright committed suicide on opening night, the production, and Mr. Nolte, received more than the usual attention. Within three years, the actor was playing Tom Jordache in the hit miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man."

In the years to come, drinking and womanizing only added to the slightly scuffed luster that Mr. Nolte brought to a set. But that scenario changed abruptly, three years ago, when Mr. Nolte gave up alcohol. The actor is characteristically vague about the exact reasons why.

"Drinking was integrated into my life, and I didn't have problems with it until it was time to change," he says. "Fifty seems like a good age to change anyway."

Friends say the decision had to do with his marriage to third wife Becky Linger, and their son, Brawley, who was increasingly a witness to the effects of the drinking.

Ironically, the one casualty from Mr. Nolte's newfound abstinence has been his marriage. He is currently separated from Ms. Linger, trying to work out custody of their son -- a devastating rupture, say friends and colleagues. "Nick drew a lot on his breakup in 'Cape Fear,' " says co-star Jessica Lange. "A lot of personal history went into that role."