When Nick started out as an amateur actor he was going through a breakdown. A crack up. But he saw it as a self inflicted coming of age ritual and one of the best things that happened to him.
Like the insect that undergoes a process of metamorphosis into a flying creature Nick was in a state of Chrysalis.
It was a crack in his armour to let the truth out. Shedding fictions and building new skins. We either get renewed or we’re dead. And at the time he wasn’t ready to be dead, he wanted to act.
Nick never considered before that an actor had to know more, imagine more, then simply the words the playwright had given him to speak. That he could use his imagination to create an entire life for the character, then slip inside it and try it out.
Having a mentor such as Bryan O’Bryne who had been a successful character actor for many years encouraged Nick to focus on acting as a method of studying the human soul. ‘Where did that thought come from?’ He would ask of the character Nick was reading. ‘Why does he feel the way he does?’
Bryan’s own acting philosophy centred on scene study and repetition in the manner of the legendary Sanford Meisner with the repetition in acting, like prayer, bores one’s ego into complacency, a trick that lowers an actor’s guard and enables them to bare themselves in front of an audience.
That’s why Nick believes the most vulnerable often make the finest actors. But humility doesn’t guarantee success or revelation, only the possibility.
With repetition and the conquering of ego, Bryan was convinced an actor can become open to pain, humiliation and degradation – all risks that one must open themselves to in the performing arts.
In his early days Nick was a Rebel. Sleeping in a jail cell. Convicted of a federal felony and escaping a life of imprisonment by the skin of his teeth. He’d bounced from one junior college football program to another, then began bouncing his head against cars in order to receive pent up stress.
But throughout, his mentor Bryan managed to install in him an intense interest in acting that Nick begun to read, then reread every book he could find on the theory and practice of acting.
His first stop was Phoenix little theatre, being offered a role in the company’s upcoming production of The ‘Hasty Heart’ a play by John Patrick. Nick didn’t have to audition to prove to the director that he had talent; the director simply heard something in Nick and must’ve seen something too.
Nick’s first time on stage was giving him access to act opposite a highly respected professional repertory company in a major American city – yet an hour prior to the curtain coming up on opening night he panicked.
He understood that an actor – a real actor – must drag himself out there, whatever the baggage, whatever the cost. By the time the curtain was raised that night his stage fright had transported him into a kind of blank space – a zone in which thinking and feeling disappeared and were replaced by the opportunity to briefly become someone else. Instead of flooring him, that blank space actually felt pretty good.
And when the curtain dropped he had no clue about what had just transpired onstage. His new cohorts, after the play, assured him he did well and thanks to the director Nick had a hell of a reason to get out of bed every morning and for the next few years was cast in dozens of roles that allowed him to learn, to stretch, to grow as an actor every time the curtain went up.
Nick was also commanded to read every play by the talented crop of American playwrights which opened his eyes to how powerful theatrical drama could be, and how a brilliant performance of a fine play in front of a rapt audience was perhaps the finest artistic experience a collection of people could have.
He was taught that acting is a precarious endeavour, one where the actor walks a razor’s edge between preparation and surrender. Something about acting made it seem precious a well – vital and worthwhile in the best sort of way which aided Nick with stories that he could inhabit to explore sides of himself as yet undeveloped.
Like most newbies Nick’s inclination was to shout his lines in hopes that they would reach the last row of the big, thousand seat space. But yelling took him out of character and made him sound spastic while destroying any poetry in the piece.
He was taught a simple trick of raising his energy level and letting it carry his voice. But he never felt truly comfortable in a big house like he was in an intimate theatre and perhaps that explains why he ended up in film.
Nick never regretted not finishing his football career because he had found something that provided adrenaline as well as the exploration of his creative and sensitive being. He understood that the stage is a world that is predetermined in many ways, on in which art shapes and gives meaning to what is otherwise terribly mundane or difficult.
For Nick, acting had already proven to be wonderfully therapeutic because real life was hard for him. Sometimes really rough.
At phoenix college he enrolled in some acting classes and his teacher gave him a backhanded compliment when he suggested he should drop his method acting and simply do the directed deed, and that the interior motivation be damned.
He went on to say more to the point ‘step away from technique with this and just sing it out. Just physically do this.’ Nick never considered himself a method actor and saw himself coming from the whatever it take to resonate with a character school. His dyslexic challenge with reading turned line learning into a hellish ordeal.
He learned that creative pursuits require both space and the ability to forget what one thinks they know. We always need new eyes before we can rebuild anything. Later on he was approached by a colleague to join a new theatre company called the Actors Inner Circle. The promise of risk taking productions and unconventional concepts. The plan was to mount twelve productions a year.
Then an opportunity came along from Walt Disney to star in an episode of his series Walt Disney’s Wonderful world of colour. Nick who hadn’t done any TV work was curious and took the job. The shoot went on for two gruelling months due to having to work with animals that refused to do as they were told.
With some change in his pocket Nick returned to theatre and kept on performing and learning his trade. In one of his rehearsals a director punctuated his response with words that Nick would never forget saying that as long as an actor judges their characters they’ll never understand them. This remark cured Nick of his egotism instantly and for the next three years he learned teamwork, puncutuality and sacrifice and he’s never been tempted to try to steal the show in all the work he’s done since.
It was early in 1972 when destiny stepped into his life and he was offered a role in a play titled ‘The Last Pad’ which was set in a prison’s death row on a night when a young man is scheduled to be electrocuted. The success of the play moved on to LA and opened at the prestigious Contempo Theatre now the Geffen.
By the second week of the run, a good buzz made sure the show was sold out for dozens of weeks to come. Agents as well as actor began to swarm around. But Nick wanted no part in the praise due to his shyness.
Bryan his mentor meanwhile started bombarding casting directors with the great reviews the play was having and people wanted to see what Nick looked like on film. He eventually gotten cast in some TV roles in which he played mostly parts of a hippie.
It was his role as Tom in ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ that fundamentally changed Nick’s life as an actor. He’d been offered a fine part and created a character who was rebellious, hyperactive, irresponsible, yet filled with overpowering emotion. After thirteen years as a professional actor he was pronounced an overnight sensation and was immediately in demand for an array of intriguing new roles. But he was also wary of losing himself in the falsehood of fame and so retreated to his childhood sanctuary of keeping a low profile.
Offers poured in and they were mostly crap. Studios attempted to lure him with a succession of three picture deals but Nick was smart enough to know that muti-picture contracts were career killers. So, he just bided his time waiting to find a piece with real artistic merit and there were three upcoming films he had his eye on. The first was Slap Shot, the second Sorcerer and the third was Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now but he struck out on all three.
Eventually he agreed to star in ‘The Deep’ opposite Robert Shaw even though he didn’t want to do it but thought filming in the British Virgin Islands and with the pay check he’d be getting it wasn’t too bad of a deal. Spending six months in a virtual paradise.
Following its release ‘The Deep’ became a smash hit despite being panned by the critics saying Nick was just a blonde cutout, another pretty boy and an actor with no depth – pun intended.
Luckily his next film project ‘Who’ll stop the Rain’ based on the novel ‘Dog Soldiers’ even though a modest success at the box office, it was an important film which enabled Nick to display some depth as an actor and a complexity far beyond what ‘The Deep’ had revealed.
The eighties brought an array of hits to Nick’s front door including films such as ’48 hours’, ‘Down and Out in Beverley Hills’ and ‘Weeds’ to name but a few.
The only issue Nick had when living in L.A was that coke wasn’t a rarity and taking it mimicked a certain kind of creative fire that ultimately burned him out and narrowed his awareness rather than expanding it.
Eventually Nick started using harder drugs to close off his pain and suffering of life – in other words to escape life. And for a long time he was able to convince himself that all coke did was make him a better creator, a better actor, as well as intensify his experiences and crank him up in ways he’d enjoyed since his school days.
Much later he learned when the addict finally gives up drugs and goes clean, the whole world opens up emotionally, because he had closed himself down so much.
Nick went on pursuing his love of acting and made further pictures only accepting roles which he saw in a story worth telling, a character that he wanted to explore, or a challenge he hadn’t encountered. These were opportunities for him to stretch, grow and liberate him from his own shyness.
He took storytelling seriously and turned down many roles during his career and was sometimes called an asshole for doing so. Yet he always followed a couple of his own rules. The role he was offered must be significant somehow, it must have substance to it and post a challenge. And secondly, the story must be worth telling. If one is going to be an actor then one must be into literature, historical events, and life stories.
Having appeared in ninety nine credited roles in TV shows, and feature films he had been very busy telling stories and had an extraordinary run by anyone’s measure. Reflecting on all of these roles it feels like a meaningless exercise unless it offers something to the present moment, to the present act in which he encountered himself and the world around him.
As an actor one becomes a student of people and that process of observing them is, in a way, a psychological relief from having to live one’s own life. One may die five or six times onstage or on the screen, and one thinks it teaches them something about dying. But it isn’t until mothers, fathers, friends start dying that one truly does begin to make sense of the way in which death rather miraculously gives meaning to life.
Here’s the thing: it’s a rare and precious opportunity to live profoundly in the moment – something that very few people get to do. It’s an opportunity to give everything one has to our imagination which to a certain degree is reality.
Nick doesn’t say that acting is not living. It is living! In fact, it’s entirely possible that one is never more truly alive than in the moments and hours when one imagines and immerses in a character.
Nick has believed for so long that real life causes him trouble that he failed to recognise that acting is conscious living at its most profound.
Acting and living therefore are processes that require constant flexing, changing, growing, evolving. It’s our nature as human beings to be adaptable and pliable, and to be self aware and self confident enough to let ourselves come truly alive in our imagination is a tremendous feat.