NEW YORK -- Those in the know say he's the man to beat on Oscar night: Nick Nolte, star of the critically acclaimed hits, "The Prince of Tides" and "Cape Fear."
He was nominated for a Golden Globe as best dramatic actor for "Tides." The Los Angeles Films Critics Association also voted him best actor for "Tides." The movie was No. 3 at the box office last week, having grossed $40.1 million.
Many experts predict an Academy Award as best actor as well, for his role as Tom Wingo, the unemployed Southern football coach in the Barbra Streisand-directed film. Others say his turn as uptight lawyer Sam Bowden in Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear" is equally memorable.
Mr. Nolte, 50, reacts to the Oscar talk with a typical shrug of his shambling shoulders; likewise the back-to-back releases of "Tides" and "Fear." "It's not by my design," he said during a recent interview. "It's just an accident that both films are coming out at this time."
In "Cape Fear," Sam Bowden is unable to confront the schism in his marriage to Leigh (Jessica Lange), the smoldering sexuality of their teen-age daughter, Danielle (Juliette Lewis), and the threat of psychopath Max Cady (Robert De Niro). His character in "Tides" copes with his sister's attempted suicide, and comes face to face with her psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Ms. Streisand) and his own painful childhood. While he portrays Southerners in both "Tides" and "Fear," each role is distinct, said Mr. Nolte, who has a house between Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"There's a tremendous difference in that Sam Bowden is a man not willing to deal with the past or any of that persona. He's more of a man who is in control and has to be in control and likes the world of male-control attitude, whereas Tom Wingo knows that this is a peculiar type of existence of always needing control, always competing. . . ."
In "Tides," Lowenstein helps Wingo talk about his abusive father, the death of his brother and the trauma of one particular Southern night. While the two fall in love, Wingo is torn by his love for wife and family back in South Carolina.
Born in Omaha, Neb., Mr. Nolte won a football scholarship to Arizona State University. For 14 years starting in 1962, he worked in regional theater from San Francisco to New York City. His role as a killer on death row in a Phoenix, Ariz., production of the William Inge play, "The Last Pad," which was taken to Los Angeles where it played for six months in what became the Westwood Playhouse, launched his career. His performance gained attention in the show business community and landed him his first national role in ABC-TV's 1976 miniseries "Rich Man, Poor Man."
Mr. Nolte made his motion picture debut a year later in "The Deep." He has been lauded throughout his 20-year career: as a disillusioned Vietnam vet in "Who'll Stop the Rain"; as a burned-out football player in "North Dallas Forty"; as a crusty cop in "48 HRS"; and as a homeless person in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills."
In "Tides" and "Fear," Mr. Nolte's characters are surrounded by a world of women. In real life, Mr. Nolte has attempted to understand this world, albeit not always successfully. He is separated from his third wife, Becky Linger, with whom he has a son, Brawley, 5.
"My own past with women -- and I've been involved with women all my life," he laughed, then added, "Certainly, being a male, I don't understand women entirely. . . . But I've been very satisfied with my relationships with women."