The Cult of Actor Nick Adams as The Oedipal Rebel (Part One)

*contains spoilers

When I mention the name of actor Nick Adams (1931-68 drug overdose) to anyone and most people don’t know who I am talking about and cannot picture his face. Yet this is an iconic and troubled actor who was one of the first tv stars to get nominated for an Oscar for his movie work long before George Clooney (1961-) made the transition from television and won his Oscars for acting and producing.

It is just that Nick Adams definitely had a troubled heart and mind, something generated by the inner conflict between his original scene stealing roles as a geek or nerdish type, roles which were then transformed into a tough, cool and mean exterior and later, as he developed a weight-lifter’s physique, his possibly arranged marriage ended in acrimony and violence … leading to his apparent suicide at the age of only 36.

A young Nick Adams
Nick Adams as The Rebel

Nick Adams was a man of enthusiasm and vitality, if not charm, who cultivated his own legend about intimately knowing cult actor James Dean (1931-55 car crash). Nick also had an intense but short friendship with Elvis Presley (1935-77 heart attack), but, in the end, his heart was ultimately broken by Hollywood as his career fizzled due to violent domestic outbursts and increasing debt as, finally, disillusionment fell upon him after years of delusion about his ultimate failure and sullied reputation. He died abandoned… a mediated psychotic that perhaps he alone thought only a mother could love and he, neurotically, thought the same in return. There was a fatal flaw to his driven narcissistic Hollywood dream and with it came more than a hint of bisexuality which he would never publicly or privately come to terms or continue to live with as tinsel-town gossiped. He worked with flair though and with no contempt for the increasingly cheap movies he made. And so, here he is reborn today as a cult figure!

Also, Nick Adams was losing his hair in an era and profession where baldness wasn’t exactly a recipe for leading man success. He never lived to graduate to a toupee! But this son of a dirt-poor coal miner, who was once known as ‘The Leech’ in Hollywood for his hustling ways, did make some cult movie appearances beyond his hit television series The Rebel.

Using facts taken from an article by Peter L. Winkler and watching some of Nick’s movies and television appearances, I have created this look at a restless actor who seemed to fit the frame of tragedy and thus achieves iconic immortality…

From left: Elvis Presley, Natalie Wood and Nick Adams in the mid-1950s
A postcard showing a colliery in the coal-mining town of Nanticoke

Nick was born Nicholas Aloysius Adamshock in a Pennsylvania coal town in 1931 and was the younger of two sons. His father Peter Adamshock (1901-75) was Ukrainian while his mother Catherine Kutzmonish (1910-95), was predeceased by both her sons, including Nick’s brother Dr. Andrew Adams (1929-81 heart attack) who prescribed Nick one of the drugs which were a part of the cocktail that caused the actor’s mysterious death by overdose in 1968.

While Nick was still very young, his father’s brother was killed in a mining accident and his father obviously swore the same wouldn’t happen to his sons and so he moved his family to New Jersey. It was at the age of ten and wearing a flour sack with the product name not completely bleached out as a shirt that he felt his mother’s humiliation when a neighbour told her: “Why don’t you get your kids some decent clothes instead of flour sacks?” Nick cried in sympathy with his mother and swore he’d make a lot of money in his lifetime.

Actor Jack Palance was also the son of a Ukrainian coal-miner
The adolescent at the heart of Hemingway’s stories…

“What do you want to be an actor for?,” asked fellow actor of Ukrainian descent and also the son of a coal miner Jack Palance (1919-2006 natural causes) when the two met at an audition they made together with other aspiring performers at Carnegie Hall in the late 1940s.

“The money,” Nick told him, according to the legend which was spun by columnist Hedda Hopper (1885-1966 double pneumonia).

Further, it’s reported that Palance was the one who coined with Nick on the spot the name Nick Adams when he was introduced to those who could further his career, although Nick was probably using the Anglo-ised version of his name for much of his life. It should be noted that Nick Adams was also the name of an Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961 shotgun to the head) character created in the 1920s and 30s who appeared in short stories and vignettes by the author which were usually about initiation and adolescence. Nick’s actual birthday fell between the July dates of Hemingway’s birth and later suicide.

Before he started acting, Nick was noted as being a pool hall hustler and there are uncorroborated reports that he hustled on the streets using his body too. Anyway, he supposedly dropped the ‘real’ hustling friends to concentrate on acting and was a cheeky self-promoter. When he slipped his picture into a frame which had contained one of John Barrymore (1882-1942 pneumonia) on the wall at Carnegie Hall where he worked as an usher… Two plains-clothed policemen turned up later after being called by the manager who was upset by the stunt and the fact the photograph of Barrymore was valuable. At 17, scared and sorry, he returned the picture and was forgiven.

Nick Adams appears to be brooding
Virginia Grey was Clark Gable’s longtime lover but never his wife
NIck’s first role was uncredited in Somebody Loves Me (1952)

Nick then hitch-hiked to Los Angeles to follow his dream of being a star actor, where he ended up as an usher at the posh Warners Theatre at Beverly Hills and earned $18 dollars a week in 1950. He got fired when his penchant for self-promotion and possible stardom angered the manager when Nick had the words “with Nick Adams” painted on the cinema marquee which had read “Preview tonight…” Such is the legend.

His savings then ran out and Nick couldn’t pay the rent and washed dishes where he told Hedda as a part of his image: “I was the only straight guy working there”. A little later, it was while Nick was working as a fry cook at Stripp’s Drive-In that actress Virginia Grey (1917-2004), who was one of Clark Gable’s (1901-60 heart attack) lovers, walked in and Nick did his Jimmy Cagney (1899-1986 heart attack) impression and routine… Grey referred him to some agents and he was accepted. Nick would later appear in the Gable movie Teacher’s Pet (1958) as a young hero-worshipper. It was around this time he made one of his first movie appearances in Someone Loves Me (1952) which was directed by Irving Brecher (1914-2008), who had the shared experience of also having worked as an usher in New York in his teens. A possible favour?

It was during this period the legend of Nick meeting James Dean was born and the ‘fact’ the pair hustled together to pay the rent is attributed to retrospective gay sources. Both actors were born the same year. The possible truth being that Nick continued to almost starve as he went into acting classes helmed by Arthur Kennedy (1914-90 brain tumour).

Nick possibly had reason to admire Clark Gable. Teacher’s Pet (1958) trailer.
Lobby card for Mister Roberts (1955). Nick is centre with a cigar and red parasol.
Director John Ford

“My career was at a standstill,” Nick said about his inability to even get menial jobs in Hollywood because he had been fired from so many of them. But fate intervened and he was drafted into the Coast Guard in January 1952. A couple of years of service possibly instilled discipline into Nick and when his boat was docked in Long Beach harbour in June 1954, he had the confidence to play a sailor in the upcoming film version of the play Mister Roberts (1955 )… Somebody liked him and he got the audition in front of John Ford (1894-1973 cancer) where Nick again did his Cagney impression (Cagney is in the film too) and Ford was impressed by his “spunk”… Ford yelled orders at Nick like an officer and Nick responded quickly like the drilled sailor he was. When Ford signed him up, Nick said: “I almost cried”.

It was 1955, and it would be a big year for Nick as well as his ‘pal’ James Dean. They would both appear in Rebel without a Cause (1955). While Dean was the star, Nick did his best at scene stealing in the small part he has as a gang member named Chick wearing a distinctive hat. If you look at the movie you can see that Nick’s part seems to have been truncated as he kicks the car Dean drives away in. The scene had begun with a shot of the back of Nick’s hand and Natalie Wood (1938-81 drowned) commenting about Dean: “It’s a new disease.” Nick’s reputation for scene stealing is also apparent in his short appearance in another film that year Picnic (1955) which starred Kim Novak (1933-) and William Holden (1918-81 bled to death) as another not quite so cool character. They are tiny but memorable roles in major movies.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) actors Adams, Wood and Hopper watch an arrest
Nick and Natalie Wood muck around. They were close.
Nick scene-steals from Susan Strasberg in Picnic (1955)

It was around the time of Rebel Without a Cause that Nick shared a house with another star who had a small appearance in that film, the up-and-coming Dennis Hopper (1936-2010 prostate cancer). It is said that Adams moved out after Hopper laughingly fired a Magnum pistol round through the wall of the house. Nick also apparently shared a flirtatious teasing relationship with star Natalie Wood who also had a Russian background. The pair would roll around laughing until they were in tears according to a Wood biography but it was unlikely that they were lovers. It could have been true love. There was again that question mark over Nick’s sexuality. Dean was supposedly bisexual and there is a coded gay character in Sal Mineo (1939-1976 stabbed to death) in Rebel Without a Cause… Both Dean and Nick were also relatively short and around the same height as they both stood at around five foot seven or eight inches tall.

Nick (centre) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). James Dean on left.
James Dean and Nick appear enjoy each other’s company … or is Nick scene-stealing?
Nick possibly embellished his relationship with James Dean. Here at Dean’s grave.

James Dean was killed instantly in a speed-related car accident in 1955 and the legend that he and Nick were close friends was fostered by fan magazines and articles contributed by Nick. It all started after Nick dubbed Dean’s voice at the end of the incomplete Giant (1956) upon director George Stevens’s (1904-75 heart attack) suggestion. There was even a photograph of Nick visiting Dean’s grave which only further ingrained Nick’s nickname as The Leech. Nick said he took to dangerous driving perhaps in hero-worship and in a vain imitation of Dean and later said he received so many speeding tickets that he was put on probation.

It was Elvis Presley’s obsession with Dean which led to the short but intense relationship between Nick and Presley shortly after the latter’s appearance on the Hollywood scene and the pair met on the set of Love Me Tender (1956). When Elvis and Nick got together, it is even reported by the ‘Memphis mafia’ or Elvis’s inner circle, that Nick’s mother and Elvis’s mother Gladys Presley (1912-58 heart failure) met and discussed their sons and their bright futures and the fact they could not live without them. Elvis’s adoration for his mother ended with her death in 1958 which possibly spared his life as a mother’s boy.

Nick with friend Elvis Presley (right)
From left: Elvis’s parents Gladys and Vernon Presley with Nick’s mother
Nick’s account was finally published in 2012

Nick’s friendship with Elvis was immortalised in Nick’s first-person diary account which was discovered by his daughter Allyson Lee amongst some effects and published in 2012 as The Rebel and the King. One of Nick’s other dreams, apart from being an actor, was to be a writer, something which may have led to his possible murder. More later.

Nick would later approach Elvis to sing the theme song for his hit television show The Rebel but it didn’t happen perhaps because of contractual obligations. Elvis was apparently attracted to Nick’s outgoing personality as they cruised Los Angeles on their Honda motorcycles with Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn (1934-) during those heady days of 1956.

“I thought he was very troubled,” said actress Olive Sturgess (1933-) about Adams. “It was the manner he had – that was the way he was in real life, always brooding.”

As for Gladys Presley, she had the last word attributed to her shortly before her death when she said of Nick: “He sure is a pushy kind of fellow.”

“People misunderstood Nick,” wrote director Mervyn LeRoy (1900-87 Alzheimer’s disease) who directed Nick in one of his first successes No Time for Sergeants (1958). “Every nickel he made he sent to his brother” to help him study medicine and possibly even to his parents as well. It was LeRoy who fought for Nick to be selected for his comic role in No Time for Sergeants. The movie comedy No Time for Sergeants helped forge the career of its main star Andy Griffith (1926-2012 heart attack) as well as comedian Don Knotts (1924-2006 lung cancer). Griffith is a country bumpkin who is drafted and befriends Nick’s bespectacled fellow rural type as they face the rigours of basic training.

No Time for Sergeants (1958) trailer
Nick as he appeared in No Time for Sergeants (1958)

“You mean you couldn’t tell she was a woman?,” Griffith asks Adams when they run into a superior officer somewhere during the movie. It’s a kind of star-making performance by Nick which showed the actor had promise even if he wasn’t a totally natural comedian like Griffith. There’s echoes of Harold Lloyd (1893-1971 prostate cancer) and British comedian Arthur Askey (1900-82 after legs amputated) in Nick’s appearance.

It was after this that Nick would make the transformation from the nerdy bespectacled country boy in that film into his iconic role for the television series The Rebel (1959-61). Nick formed a production company Fen-Ker-Ady with writer Andrew J Fenady (1928-2020) and director Irvin Kershner (1923-2010 lung cancer). Fenady would write the pilot episode of The Rebel while Pennsylvania born Kershner would direct many episodes. Another director who worked on the series was Bernard L. Kowalski (1929-2007) who made Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959) and was of Polish descent.

The Rebel set: (from left) Fernady, Nick and Kershner
Nick’s fictional mother gets between he and Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
A blonde Carol Nugent with Nick

This change of character for Nick from No Time for Sergeants to The Rebel was one that the producers of The Rebel wouldn’t believe he could carry off… But he got the role. The first thing was an image change and in May 1959, as the series was being prepared, Nick married former child star Carol Nugent (1937-) who was six years younger. She was an actress who would appear in the second episode of The Rebel and who would then promptly retire to give birth to and raise Nick’s two children Allyson Lee (1960-) and Jeb Stuart (1961-). Further ‘image’ tweaks had Nick appear in a mother dominated homophobe type role in the Doris Day (1922-2019 pneumonia) and Rock Hudson (1925-85 AIDS) movie Pillow Talk (1959) where Nick plays a Harvard honours student who vainly tries to get Day drunk to get her into bed or the back seat of his car. It was never going to happen and Nick should have taken the hint as to his possibly true lack of powers in seducing the opposite sex and kept a faithful marriage with his wife Carol.

Pillow Talk premiered the same week that The Rebel first appeared on television in October of 1959. The Rebel was a hit and suddenly Nick was a star of the small screen and he bought a ranch in the San Fernando Valley to build upon what appeared to be a promising career ahead. Nick’s cool role of Johnny Yuma in The Rebel had him as some sort of ‘beatnik’ in the 1860s who kept a journal and a shotgun. The Rebel also had a cool title song sung by Johnny Cash (1932-2003 complications of diabetes) which Nick also covered as a 45rpm single.

Nick’s cover version of The Rebel theme. Co-written by Fenady.
Husband and wife during their honeymoon period of The Rebel
Nick and his young family

The character of Johnny Yuma was the son of a murdered miner and Nick says in the first episode of the post-Civil War series: “There’s wars that don’t end… There’s wars that go on inside.” And among the outbursts of Johnny Yuma’s/Nick’s temper there is a wise saying from a character played by actor John Carradine (1906-88 multiple organ failure), who says: “Stay ignorant John… ignorance is the greatest comforter a man could have.” It is suggested that Nick and Johnny Yuma possibly went too far and sowed the seed of self-destruction instead of wisdom.

The year of 1959, also saw Adams appear in the movie The F.B.I. Story (1959) which was also directed by Mervyn LeRoy and Nick is impressive in a short dramatic role as a man who would kill his mother for money – or in this case take out insurance and then blow up the plane she’s on. Was it hinting that Nick would even sell his own mother or do anything for stardom? It’s perhaps the first time Hollywood would cynically cast Nick in a role which matched his possible true nature. It also hinted again at Nick’s Oedipus complex or the possibility he could still shed it. His character was still one that was at odds with itself.

Conflict within Nick’s mind is hinted at in this frame from The F.B.I. Story (1959)
Nick with Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes (1962)

With his image sufficiently ‘butch-ed’ up in The Rebel, it was possibly during this period that his marriage started to fall apart. There were rumours that Nick saw himself as some sort of lothario and would try to have affairs with his leading ladies. But I guess they were mainly the ones who appeared in The Rebel as his movies otherwise were very male-centric… Then The Rebel, despite its success, was suddenly cancelled for some reason in 1961 after only a couple of years… But Nick already had the idea in his head, despite no other major award nominations to his name, to be the first actor who had a television series to win an Oscar. He got signed to make Hell is for Heroes (1962) where he played a Polish refugee soldier mascot caught up on the front-line of World War Two action. It also stars Steve McQueen (1930-80 mesothelioma) who would make the transition from the small screen to the big screen and get an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for The Sand Pebbles (1966). It also stars Bobby Darin (1936-73 after heart surgery), who would be a rival to Nick in the Oscar stakes the following year. Darin says as clear as a bell to Nick’s character, who is called Homer, on the battlefield: “Hey, homo, how did you get here?” Only a director like Don Siegel (1912-91 cancer) would keep in the reality and subtext of such a line in the final cut.

The question mark of The Hook (1963) poster
Kirk Douglas and Nick in a scene from The Hook (1963)

Then came the movie The Hook (1963) which was directed by George Seaton (1911-79 cancer), who had directed Nick in the Gable film Teacher’s Pet. The Hook featured Kirk Douglas (1916-2020 no cause given) who appeared to be coasting it script and movie-wise that year while he fostered his appearance on Broadway in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that year. The hook is also a question mark.

“Okay big man, go ahead, you’re over with the fags,” says Douglas to Adams in one scene in The Hook, which suggests the male politics in terms of sexuality and machismo within the movie.

Again, there is that hint that Adams was already known for his drinking and possible violent outbursts with his wife during this period as his character is a violent drunk who is blackmailed into behaving … The Hook is another male-centric World War Two movie about honour amongst those who serve their country and those who only serve themselves. Ultimately, Kirk was in reality the immigrant son with the bigger production company and the wisdom and stronger drive compared to Nick, but he lets Nick have a couple of great moments and we really see the potential of Nick as an actor. The trailer of the movie shows Nick’s performance out of context and is misleading.

“When I’m drunk, I’m the killer. You wouldn’t think to look at me but when I’m loaded, I go crazy. I can kill… I can kill with these,” says Nick in one of the memorable scenes from The Hook. In fact, this scene with Robert Walker Jr. (1940-2019 no cause given) as well as another where Nick is teary as he cradles a gun is some of the best acting he ever did. If he deserved an Oscar, or any award, it was for The Hook and not for the other film he made around the same time, which earned him his solo notable award nomination, Twilight of Honor (1964). It’s just that The Hook isn’t a classic movie and neither is Twilight of Honor. It is said that Nick used $8000 of his own funds to take out trade ads to help win his Oscar nomination for courtroom drama Twilight of Honor…

Nick was Oscar nominated for his role in Twilight of Honor (1963)
A scene from Twilight of Honor… Nick was getting older and angrier
Nick with one of the only awards he actually received… from his fan club

And once again the Hollywood machine/community frames Nick as a killer type as he is put on trial by actor Richard Chamberlain (1934-) who was enjoying success with the tv series Dr. Kildare (1961-66) and who would later be outed in a magazine for being gay. Sadly, Twilight of Honor is bland but Nick secured the Oscar nomination – but money and hype will never buy you a win! Some children and adults are marked early and never win any type of award possibly due to their perceived character, bad behaviour and reputation.

As it turned out Nick was up against Bobby Darin for his appearance in Captain Newman M.D. (1963) when both were nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1964. They would both lose to veteran actor Melvyn Douglas (1901-81 pneumonia) for his role in the classic movie Hud (1963) and perhaps rightfully so in terms of paying your dues and garnering respect.

It is said that Nick’s best scenes were dropped in Twilight of Honor and that he also practised to go skipping up the podium with his wife to collect his Oscar… All legend along with the differing accounts of the look on Nick’s face when the announcement was made that Melvyn Douglas won the award. One report said the look on Nick’s face was one of a heart breaking in two while another said: “Nick looked like instant murder.” Perhaps it was a bit of both as Nick would never reach the heights again in terms of major film appearances or award status. Nick was almost totally ignored in terms of award nominations before and after Twilight of Honor. His behaviour in the wake of his loss seems to have destroyed a promising career. Some said the loss led to a vacuum in terms of film offers.

Nick makes a few cult films despite a career downturn and ultimately meets tragedy in PART TWO.

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