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Actor Nick Nolte speaks about growing up in Iowa Zachary Boyden-Holmes, DesMoines

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The deep, puckered furrows and wispy creases on Nick Nolte’s face tell the story of his life.

It’s a life lived hard and fast — deliberately. A life of childhood football dreams turned into a career of Hollywood nights.

A life that started in the Iowa woods, when his skin was taut and his memory less worn by a string of addictions and decades of inhabiting other people’s stories.

Like the lines on his face, Nolte’s life has never followed a straight path, as I found out when I spoke with him for the Des Moines Public Library Foundation’s Iowa Author Award Dinner.

Nolte, who, by his count, has appeared in more than 200 films, was being honored for his recent memoir, “Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines.”

During our wide-ranging interview, Nolte wandered far from the questions I had meticulously prepared after three readings of his memoir and a weekend watching his oeuvre. He eschewed whats and whens and whys and hows for an evening of stories, perpetually losing himself the metaphorical woods of 78 years of living.

Nolte often got lost in the natural woods near his childhood homes in Ames and Waterloo, too. Hopping on his bike and riding 10 minutes in any direction, Nolte would come to a green “paradise,” he said with his trademark timbre that resembled a grinding garbage disposal.

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“I look at it geologically, you know,” he told me. “I look at the Missouri and the Mississippi as being two rivers that dump great, fertile land in between.”

In that Iowa land, Nolte fell in love with imagination — a devotion encouraged by his mother, who always said school was optional.

"I didn’t go to school, you know, and if I did, my mind wasn’t in the room," he said. "There’s too much space in Iowa; you just can’t stay in a room."

So Nolte ambled, escaping to a self-created reality of Tom Sawyer-like tall tales and half-truths.

In acting, which he came to as a 20-something, he found a vocation where escaping one world and diving into another was a prerequisite. But, in classic Nolte style, he took occupying other personalities to another level.

"This whole thing about actors, you know, is that they just can become these things. Well, you don't just become anything," he said. "… To do that, you have to really be involved, really be passionate, and the way to get into that is to find out what the circumstances are.”

For his role in “Cannery Row,” an adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel in which Nolte played a marine biologist, Nolte slept next to the tanks of the octopuses being used in the film.

For his part as a homeless man saved by a rich couple in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," Nolte lived on the streets for three days. Never able to get into a homeless shelter, Nolte got poison oak and another skin rash that resulted in pustules all over his body.

The poison oak he quickly gave to his wife, he said, and the other pustules went away a few weeks later after soaking for hours in a "Muslim herbal bath."

Nolte’s life is best described as a loosely connected series of "Wait, are you for real?" moments.

Like when he was a teen selling fake draft cards to underage kids — until the night he partied too hard and rolled his car off a hill onto the ninth hole at a local country club. The trunk opened in transit, scattering the faux draft cards all over the course.

Nolte left both the cards and his car, which, after checking the registration, led the FBI straight to him. A lenient judge kept the teenager out of prison.

Which brings him to this other prison story:

When he was playing football at a small community college in Arizona, he was driving his little convertible too fast for the locals. A judge, tired of complaints, struck a deal with the football coach.

Nolte would go to class in the morning, practice in the afternoon and spend every night at the local jail. A few days in, he befriended the cops and ended up spending more time on patrol than in prison.

Which brings him to another way he once got out of something:

While filming "Cannery Row," Nolte was called to dinner with the director and co-star Debra Winger. When the conversation turned to him being a bad colleague, Nolte grabbed handfuls of spaghetti from his plate, rubbed noodles and sauce all over his face and silently walked away.

For my generation, Nolte may be best known for a viral mugshot capturing him with a Hawaiian shirt, disheveled hair and a confused stare. He claimed to have been taking GHB — commonly known as “the date rape drug" — to bulk up for a role.

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But a glance at his IMDB page paints a different picture. His career has been a mishmash of roles and genres.

From comedy (“48 Hours,” “Tropic Thunder”) to suspense (“Cape Fear,” “Affliction”) to romance (“The Prince of Tides,” “Jefferson in Paris”) to dramatic postcards from other sides of life (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Warrior,” “North Dallas Forty”), there’s no one way to define Nick Nolte.

The only connection from credit to credit is the actor's gut feeling that that film's story had to be told, that there was a message lying between each line that people needed now.

"Marlon (Brando) said we act to save our lives," Nolte said.

"In other words, I think life was an experience that was difficult, and he knew the amount of pain that you have to assume, knowing you will lose your parents and your siblings and others," Nolte said. "But if you can play around with life in the subtext of a story, then you'll have salvation."

About halfway into our conversation, I realized trying to reel Nolte back around to my questions wasn’t going to get us anywhere. Nolte communicates in stories — and even he isn’t sure exactly where they are going to take him.

Earlier on, after starting to talk about riding a cart down the pipes leading to the L.A. river basins, he paused, looked at me and said, “I think I left out some parts.”

I’m sure he did, but not many in the audience seemed to care. We’d immersed ourselves in his stories.

And we were happy to take an ambling walk in the woods of Nolte’s life.

COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, is a recovering Type-A personality constantly trying to "go with the flow." Her favorite Nick Nolte movies are "Hotel Rwanda," "Blue Chips" and "Warrior." You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or ccrowder@dmreg.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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