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Poor Man, Rich Man Reflects on 'Rich Man, Poor Man' and a 45-Year Career in Film and TV
July 26, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
 

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif -- After just a few hours, the press conferences at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association take on the familiarity of a well-worn talk show. A parade of guests make their way through a carousel of hour-long press conferences in a bid to talk up their new shows and try to convince as many potential viewers as they can to watch.

The watchword of the hour is "new." What's new, what's worth watching that I don't know about yet.

Every so often, though, a familiar face from the television past peers through the crowd of alarmingly thin starlets and airbrushed matinee idols all vying to become the next Cybill Shepherd or Bruce Willis. (Moonlighting aired from 1986-'89, one of the golden ages of television.)

That is why, when Nick Nolte (top) appeared before critics earlier this week to talk up the second season of his EPIX comedy Graves — about a much-reviled former US president who, 25 years after leaving office, tries to make amends for the wrongs of his administration — it was only a matter of time before someone with a memory that goes back beyond last weekend's outing of Game of Thrones brought up Rich Man, Poor Man, which aired a good decade before Moonlighting.

Nolte is an old hand from the big screen, familiar to anyone old enough to have seen The Prince of Tides (right), The Deep, Under Fire, The Player, Cape Fear and Down and Out in Beverly Hills in the theater and not on DVD or Netflix.

Nolte was already familiar to sharp-eyed viewers of the small screen prior to Rich Man, Poor Man, though, with walk-on parts, guest shots and cameo roles in the likes of Gunsmoke, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, The Rookies and The Streets of San Francisco.

Rich Man, Poor Man was different, though. Nolte was not just the lead actor, alongside Peter Strauss. Rich Man made him, if not a star exactly, a household name, which is arguably more important to a long career. Even more importantly, Rich Man, Poor Man itself marked a seminal moment in one of the golden ages in television. Adapted from the 1969 bestselling novel by Irwin Shaw, Rich Man aired in 1976, two years after QB VII — a personal favorite of mine — proved there was an audience appetite for miniseries, two-hour episodes run consecutively over the course of several days or weeks. It seems quaint now but Rich Man, Poor Man signaled a new way to watch TV; together with QB VII, it was the forerunner of other, even bigger miniseries adapted from literary works such as Roots, Shogun, The Winds of War and seemingly everything ever written by James Michener.

Nolte, as "poor man" Tom Jordache (right), brother of "rich man" Rudy Jordache, played by Peter Strauss, found himself at the center of a tectonic shift in both the business end of television and viewer habits, which — as we know now — can change virtually overnight, and rock the entire industry to its core.

Nolte himself came from modest means. He was a farmer's son born in Omaha, Nebraska. His father had run away from home and nearly dropped out of high school; his mother was a buyer for a local department store. Nolte himself was expelled from high school when, as the kicker for the football team, he was found to have hidden beer before practice. It's a matter of debate whether he was expelled for hiding the beer before practice or for drinking it during practice; either way, it was decided he was not college material.

Whoever decided that, of course, was wrong. Nolte enrolled at Pasadena City College, and then attended Arizona State University on a football scholarship. His grades were never good, though; he washed out of college, worked briefly in a brewery in Omaha and then, on a lark, tried his hand at acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Stella Adler Academy in Los Angeles. He modeled, did some regional theater across the country, landed some bit roles in the aforementioned TV shows — and then scored the co-lead in Rich Man, Poor Man.

The Nolte who appeared this past week in Beverly Hills was in a solemn and reflective mood, looking as if he had lived every one of his 76 years hard and to the fullest, and then some. DUI charges, a self-admitted fondness for GHB, a stint in counseling, recent cataract surgery, and a lifetime of hard knocks, figurative and literal, have all taken their toll.

The man can still act, though, as Graves and the recent Broadchurch remake Gracepoint show.

And when, trying to appear relaxed in a summer suit, open-necked blue dress shirt, and sensible shoes, he began to fade, his Graves co-star Sela Ward (top and right with Nolte) gently touched his hand and rubbed his shoulder as he reminisced about the past and reflected on the present.

The past:

"(Rich Man, Poor Man), that was Irwin Shaw's. ABC was the lowest network. Fred Silverman took it over, and he said to me, ‘We're going to do novels for television, good novels. And they'll be three two-hour movies.' I said, ‘Great. I'll audition. I'll test. Whatever you want.' I tested for it with Peter Strauss. I told Peter when we left, ‘I'll see you when we start shooting.' He said, ‘You don't know that.' I said, ‘Yes, I do.' ‘You don't know that.' ‘Yes, I do.' Peter was just out of Northwestern. I had been running around the hinterland doing theater for 34 years. I was about 42 when I did Rich Man, Poor Man. The material was so good that after a period of time, I was called into (producer) Frank Price's office, and he said, ‘We're going to cut this into half-hour shows.' And I said, ‘Well, Frank, that's not what I signed up to do, but you guys know better than I do. If you want to cut up half-hour shows, you cut it up into half-hour shows.'"

In hindsight, he was glad they didn't.

On the more recent past:

"Cataract surgery is really quite an ordeal. It's rather fun and scary at the same time because they wipe out the retina with a laser. So you see it go "blook," and that part's gone; "blook," that part's gone, and then it's black. And then you can't see anymore out of that eye. That's why they do one eye at a time. They separate them by a month. And then they start fitting in these lenses that they have made to get the right type of focus. And it's rather a miracle because you come out and all of a sudden you have 20/20 vision, where maybe, at best, I had 20/50 or something like that. For a while, I could read newspapers out of that eye. In the final end, though, it's not quite so good. It keeps shifting on me. I can't read as well, so I have to go back in for a tuneup. I don't know how they tune up an eye, but they can do that with the laser by touching it and shrinking it or bend it and make it sharper vision. So it's a modern medical miracle, which I think, in New Mexico, is covered by the Health Care Act. Obama's.

"It won't be covered by Trump's.

"These are little things. See, I'm about 80. I like to go around to these clinics they have in New Mexico. Overall population, economics is low. So they have most of the treatments that we can't get in L.A., unless you want to pay a lot."

On the present:

"The way television is working now, bringing it back to Graves, the writing, the work is top notch. This is because we've lost most of our play theaters and movie theaters and we're not making as many movies, unless they can be blockbusters. I was part of that movement, too. The Deep was a hundred-million-dollar film, gross. So was Jaws, and so was Star Wars. Maybe that was a terrible thing to do. But it's just the nature of media. There's so many outlets.  There's streaming. There's cable. There's all this. As actors, this is what we want to get into, because we can put real substance in these shows."

Graves is, if nothing else, topical.

"As we see," Nolte said, "the presidency has a lot of relationships right now that are quite dysfunctional. A good president has functional relationships, too.

"These are quite functional relationships here."

He fumbled with a pair of dark glasses he had brought for the harsh stage lights of the press hall at the Beverly Hilton, and suddenly, quietly and gracefully, so naturally that hardly anyone noticed it, Ward quickly reached over and held his sunglasses for him. It was a kind and benevolent gesture, done without forethought or calculation — one of those human moments that remind, however briefly, how behind every performance there's a living, breathing actor who is his or her own person. Nolte has experienced rough times, and will probably experience rough times again in the future. On this day, though, Sela Ward had his back.

 
 
 
 
 
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