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Nick Nolte as an Ex-President? Yup.

The name of the movie was "I Love Trouble." It starred Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte. It has become semi-legendary for the principals' dislike of each other.

Nolte, said Roberts, can be "charming and nice. He's also completely disgusting." To which Nolte countered "It's not nice to call someone 'disgusting.' But she's not a nice person. Everyone knows that."

Neither is Nolte, who hits TV this weekend in a "dramedy" on the Epix Network called "Graves." I can attest to Nolte's personality from personal observation. In the era when I went on film preview trips before movies opened, I encountered Nolte three separate times.

The vibes made me uncomfortable every time. Though many shared their affection for Nolte's outrageousness at every opportunity -- he was known to do interviews in pajamas and bedroom slippers -- I always found something a good deal less than appealing about him.

Before Walter Hill's "48 Hrs." he seemed to be to be padding his creative role in the film when he tried to convey how integral he was to building up Eddie Murphy's part, thereby allowing Murphy to steal everything stealable about the movie. Any director who had the common sense God gave a rhubarb would know from the gitgo that Murphy was electrically funny and poised on the lip of major fame, if left to his own devices.

Nolte had top billing in the film but not in the hearts of everyone who saw it. Murphy was the star. And Nolte clearly didn't like it and tried to make himself responsible for it.

Before the release of Oliver Stone's "U-Turn," he and a chummy future filmmaker in the press corps sat around smirking and snickering at other members of that press corps. From both star and fellow professionals, it seemed rude at the very least and possibly even pitiable.

Before the opening of Scorsese's "Cape Fear," Nolte made sure -- as with Murphy and "48 Hrs."-- to tell the press corps that a lot of camera tricks had to be done to make Robert DeNiro look larger than Nolte, lest anyone think they were physically the same size. It was important to Nolte that everyone register how much smaller DeNiro was than Nolte. It seemed like something an insecure man would say, especially one playing the relatively bland good guy role in a sinister thriller.

Even with all of that, I have always loved Nolte onscreen. When he was young and handsome, he seemed to epitomize middle-American jockdom. (See his roles in TV's mini-series "Rich Man, Poor Man" and "North Dallas Forty.") When the years brought him escalating public drug and alcohol problems -- including a truly immortal DUI mug shot -- he sometimes seemed a majestic ruin.

One of the joys of the critics trade has been the opportunity to describe Nolte. Here's one of my more recent forays: "Nolte, at the age of 75, looks so old (not to mention unkempt and disreputable) that he plays the older brother of Liam Neeson, who's 62. Nolte now sports a long, white beard, like a very bad Santa, and long, cactus-dry white hair which, in one shot, was revealed to be in a pony tail. He's carrying about 70 extra pounds from when he was in his prime. But that voice -- as if he'd just finished gargling with broken glass-- is still wonderfully disreputable."

It always was a gravelly rasp. It can sometimes sound like bacon frying in the pan.

Last Sunday on "CBS Sunday Morning" he was interviewed by Lee Cowan and we heard notes from a whole new Nolte creeping into what he said. It was a Nolte I had never seen or heard before but one that didn't surprise me in the slightest.

He was frail. The voice still rasped but it was higher and softer and faltered from weakness. We saw what he does for fun these days, which is glass-blowing in his garage. And we saw him almost break down into tears when the interview ended with him talking about how important acting was to him in his old age.

All of this was done was to publicize the new series "Graves" whose first three episodes I've seen and enjoyed.

They're calling it a "dramedy" because it's not a straight sitcom but it's not "The West Wing" either. For one thing, each show is a half-hour like "Veep."

It's about a Republican ex-president retired to New Mexico who gets the eccentric idea that he ought to do his best to make up for history's verdict that he was the worst president in American history. Any relationship to any ex-president living or dead is, of course, accidental.

Graves, though, is hard on everyone who works for him and even harder on himself. Sela Ward plays his wife, now being recruited by party operative Nia Vardolos to run for the Senate. Bill Richardson and Rudy Giuliani have cameos. So does Jake Tapper of CNN.

In his hour of spiritual crisis, the ex-president wanders around his neighborhood. He vandalizes his own presidential library in self-disgust on a day that it's closed to the public. He spends time hanging out with his admiring new assistant and a young diner waitress in town who gets him to loosen up and smoke weed with her.

His most pointed coup is to tell a TV interviewer that all illegals from across the Mexican border are invited to camp out in front of his compound until scoring real U.S. government Visas.

It's a new variation on Warren Beatty's terrific "Bulworth" in which Nolte decides to make up for eight years of political worthlessness through a new life of good works.

It was created by Joshua Michael Stern, who gets all the thanks due him for figuring out something new for Nolte to do as the most glorious onscreen wreck we have.

And, in truth, maybe we've ever had.


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