Nick Nolte knows a tough guy when he sees one.
The 75-year-old actor, with his iconic scowl and voice like a gravel truck with two broken axles, would’ve made a great contestant on SNL’s “Who’s More Grizzled?”—the game show that “finds out who is the roughest, toughest, most hard-bitten old-timer around.” In the early ’90s, Nolte crossed paths with self-proclaimed “tough guy” Donald Trump, then a mere real-estate heir in dire financial straits, at the tony Central Park restaurant Tavern on the Green. According to Nolte, the two got into “a half-hour argument” about their hair.
“He grabbed my hair, which was long and blond, and said, ‘Oh your hair is no good. This is baby-fine hair,’” Nolte recalls. “So I grabbed his long, reddish-blond hair, and said, ‘Oh, this is coarse red bristle. This is no good.’ He had just married Marla Maples and was on to his second wife, so I poked fun at him for that, too.”
But Nolte, who came from a blue-collar family in Iowa, wasn’t too impressed with the entitled New York City rich kid. “He’s not a tough guy. He tries to act tough by saying his dad only gave him a million dollars to start his business. Give any American a million dollars and that’s a huge leap,” Nolte says. “I’ve seen rich families and poor families, and the rich are not something that appeals to me.”
In the new Epix series Graves, premiering Oct. 16, Nolte plays a man firmly planted in the 1 percent: Richard Graves, a former Republican president. Graves’s hyperconservative, war-heavy tenure in office is regarded as one of the worst in American history (sound familiar?), so one evening, while poring over online articles blasting his administration, he has a come-to-Jesus moment and decides to right the ship. With the help of a new trusty aide (Skylar Astin) and a freewheeling hippie (Callie Hernandez), the ex-president abandons his schedule of pandering speeches in favor of connecting with the American people.
Graves was supposed to be a Lorenzo’s Oil reunion, with Susan Sarandon starring opposite Nolte as former first lady Margaret Graves—but the uber-liberal actress dropped out of the project (replaced by Sela Ward) because, as Nolte says, “she just decided it was too risky in the political arena for her.” When I spoke to Sarandon about the show last year, she claimed that the character of Richard Graves was based on former President George W. Bush. Nolte begs to differ.
“That was Susan’s take. I could pick from Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and others,” he says. “I didn’t really have to study past presidents. I kind of had the feelings of where I wanted to go if I wanted to evoke sentimentalism or the horrible guilt that comes with making decisions for all. Johnson was someone to look at, as far as his anxiousness about inheriting the presidency from Kennedy. That was something I could go with. But there wasn’t any one specific guy.”
In addition to going AWOL, Graves seeks to salvage his legacy by changing his position on a variety of issues, from cancer treatment to immigration. At one point, he appears on a CNN-like program and renounces his anti-immigration stance, inviting any and all undocumented immigrant families out to his ranch—with comedic results.
Like Graves, Nolte is pro-immigration, and says he’s been very disturbed by candidate Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric—including his desire to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and erect a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“He’s insane,” offers Nolte. “The crash would be enormous in the agricultural field. Most of the people who come across the border to America are just looking for work. They’re not ‘drug-dealers’ or anything like that. The statistics show that, too. You don’t need a wall.”
In person, Nolte is quite the yarn-spinner. “They had a hard time corallin’ me,” he says of his halcyon hell-raising days growing up in the Midwest. There was the time a local know-it-all accused a teenage Nolte of trying to kill him after he jokingly shoved the “asshole” kid into Snake River; his pal’s father who used to intercede in fights on his son’s behalf when Nolte was whoopin’ him; and that time when, while doing summer stock, a priest in the company offered to drive the two down to the march in Selma only to have Nolte demur, choosing to focus on his lines instead (“I often regretted that,” he says).
He remembers meeting his frail father for the first time when he returned from World War II—a 6-foot-6, 150-pound man plagued by crippling cases of malaria and PTSD. He and his sister would go upstairs and “see him sit in a rocking chair and watch a skeleton breathe.” The experience, he says, taught him a lot about the lasting effects of war.
Nolte lost his own military eligibility when, in 1965, he was arrested selling counterfeit Vietnam draft cards. He received a 45-day jail sentence and $75,000 fine. For years, he’d tell friends and reporters that he couldn’t vote due to the felony conviction, but it was merely his way of avoiding political discussions and washing his hands of political commitments.
“I can really vote,” he says. “They said I couldn’t, so when I started getting presidential invitations, I’d always like to say, ‘Oh, you don’t want me to come. I’m a felon. You don’t want the president to be seen with a felon!’ And they’d say, ‘You’re a felon?’ and I’d respond, ‘Oh, the draft card thing in Vietnam.’ Then they told me, ‘Oh, you were put on the Youth Corrections Act, that’s all wiped off!’”
The Oscar-nominated actor broke his self-imposed presidential ban to meet former POTUS George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush at the Malibu home of film producer Jerry Weintraub, but has much fonder memories of his run-ins with the late Princess Diana. Two of Nolte’s films—Farewell to the King and The Prince of Tides—held royal screenings for Lady Di, and during the latter, Nolte recalls being warned by Di’s secretary that she was in a rather “frisky” mood. And sure enough, Nolte says Di approached at the premiere and said, “Last time we were together you were naked,” referring to his nude scene in King. “Di had a lot of fun,” he laughs.
Nolte says he’s tried his best to keep up to speed with the 2016 election, but, like so many Americans, is exhausted by the state of U.S. politics—and Donald Trump.
“This is the craziest election I’ve seen by far—and I think they’re going to be crazy for a very, very long time,” he says. “The assumption that you could run for the presidency off of a business career that you know hasn’t necessarily been aboveboard, and you know they’re going to find out about it, that takes a tremendous amount of hubris.”
He delivers a heavy sigh. “And I don’t even know how to tweet!”