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Nick Nolte, 'national treasure,' fights on in 'Warrior


MALIBU, Calif. – A crow nearly the size of a hawk acts as sentry to Nick Nolte's home.

Nolte found the bird six months ago, grounded with a broken wing. He caught it by hand, brought it home, housed it in a 6-foot-high cage and gave John David Crow II free rein.

Nolte doesn't coo over the bird or try to teach it tricks. He doesn't keep the cage locked. The crow, he says, has had too rough a go of it to be a pet on display.

And yes, he gets the parallels. "He could leave anytime he wants," Nolte says. "But he keeps to himself. I think he feels at home."

So does the 70-year-old actor, whose career — which spans four decades, more than 50 films and one wretched mugshot — hasn't slowed with age.

If anything, Nolte is in overdrive. He has seven projects on his plate and has been making the cameo rounds in commercial films like Tropic Thunder and Zookeeper.

His next movie, though, is anything but a pop-up role. Opening Friday, Warrior is earning Nolte talk of his third Oscar nomination and is as close to autobiographical as he gets on screen. His character, Paddy Conlon, is a hard-drinking father struggling to stay sober and reconnect with his sons, who are competing in a mixed martial arts tournament.

Though Nolte says he never took his drinking out on his own children, he connected so deeply with the character that he waited three years for the role, which was written for him by director Gavin O'Connor.

"I've never been all that comfortable in real life," Nolte says. "Acting can be cathartic, and Gavin and I decided we were going to explore some real issues in my life."

Those issues include his battle with binge drinking, which led to his arrest in 2002 for driving under the influence — and the infamous mugshot of a scowling Nolte with bed-head and loud Hawaiian shirt.

Not that he's offering Oprah-style mea culpas as his movie nears. He isn't proud of his arrest, but he keeps the mugshot on his website. And Nolte doesn't see the role as a comeback: He didn't go anywhere.

"Hollywood is all made up, anyway," he says. "Especially the stories and angles that people want to pin on you."

That includes O'Connor, who hopes that Warrior does for Nolte what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta and The Wrestler for Mickey Rourke.

"He's the only one who was going to do this part," says O'Connor, a friend and neighbor of Nolte's. "I hope this brings him back and gets him recognition as a national treasure."

Nolte grins at O'Connor's praise. He's surprised O'Connor is still talking with him: Nolte was to play in the director's 2008 cop drama Pride and Glory but dropped out just weeks before shooting for knee surgery. At least that's his public reason.

"Normally that would end your relationship with a director right there," Nolte says. "But he knows me well. And he knows I wasn't the most…stable then."

He's not always stable now. Nolte acknowledges hitting the booze hard when the first week of filming began in Pittsburgh earlier this year.

He admitted the regression to O'Connor but told him not to stop shooting, that he would take care of his problem. He visited an old friend, a former vice cop Nolte refers to only as "Jimmy from Pittsburgh." The cop talked bluntly to Nolte and pressed him to join a local campaign against gun violence.

And that was the end of shooting hiccups, Nolte says. "If you get yourself in a hole, you dig yourself out."

Despite box-office hits like 48 Hours, Prince of Tides and Cape Fear, Nolte is "the most un-Hollywood guy you could meet," O'Connor says.

That doesn't make the 6-foot-1, gravel-voiced actor any less intimidating, says Warrior co-star Joel Edgerton. Nolte intentionally avoided Edgerton and Tom Hardy during shooting to make the parental distance authentic.

"I had heard about him being as intense as De Niro; I'd seen the mugshot," Edgerton says. "But I also had this canon of his great performances in my head. Some of the more emotional scenes, it seemed like Nick was just turning himself inside out. I'd go farther than saying he's as good as De Niro."

Again, Nolte demurs: "It's easier to go somewhere if you've been there before."

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