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

*contains spoilers

It seemed to immediately go pear-shaped with his appearance as a bad-tempered lover in the unremarkable The Young Lovers (1964) which was nothing in terms of quality when compared to his earlier role in star-studded The Interns (1962). By this stage, Nick should have perhaps taken the hint and gone back to television which had been his bread and butter during the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was further illustrated with another framing role in sci-fi television series The Outer Limits in 1964. The episode was called Fun and Games.

“They must believe you’re innocent,” says an alien in another galaxy to Nick who has become involved with underworld murder and violence, while there is also the line: “The rewards of evil are yours even if yourself are not evil.” All very strange dialogue and related to lives under the influence of others or possibly alcohol… Nick’s character in Fun and Games tells himself: “Win or lose, I’m stuck with me.” We are getting a sense that Nick, in reality, was starting to become a tortured man, already haunted by his Oscar loss and a film career that was suddenly in decline. “I’d rather be any place, but in this cage,” says a teary and tense Nick about the personal hell inside his head.

It’s only The Outer Limits… as Nick falls into the watery and fiery pit as a part of Fun and Games
Nick ‘lies’ in bed in an episode from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

And the episode ends with Nick’s partner in the show saying, as Nick falls into a pit of watery and flaming hell: “I’m sorry, I knew you’d fall… You knew too, didn’t you?” Perhaps it was obvious to those in the industry and those who knew Nick that he couldn’t be saved and what troubled him was incurable and insoluble and that he was headed for a fatal fall in reality. The hint that he should go back to television and forget awards wasn’t taken and instead Nick pressed on with the dream of further big screen stardom.

This was also illustrated with Nick’s appearance in an episode of television show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea around the same time where his character returns after going missing and ‘lies’ in hospital bed: “What’s happened? Why can’t I remember?” to his girlfriend played by future Batgirl Yvonne Craig (1937-2015 breast cancer). It is a role which questions Adams as a possible villain who maybe lying or telling the truth… or is it really mental illness at the heart of his temper tantrums and later ignoring his partner Craig. The episode contains a dinosaur called something like an “Oedipal-a-saurus” which in the end symbolically eats Nick’s character alive. Once more if the frame fits… Nick didn’t seem to see the irony enough for self-effacement. He had possibly reached the point where he no longer had insight into himself enough to save himself… and deal with his anger.

The deceiving trailer for The Hook (1963)
NIck with Deborah Walley and Peter Fonda in The Young Lovers (1964). Nick wasn’t one of them.
Nick is centre with the cast of Young Dillinger (1965)

Nick’s next starring role was in Young Dillinger (1965) in which he plays the violent gangster John Dillinger (1903-34 shot to death). Produced by Russian born low-budget producer Al Zimbalist (1910-75), Nick was deluding himself that it was a major movie which would be worthy of immense praise. The Oscar dream was over, but not in Nick’s mind – along with his marriage which was said to be hanging by a thread by this stage.

Young Dillinger is an Allied Artists cheapie which was cashing in on the interest in gangsters kicked off by the success of the tv show The Untouchables (1959-63). Nick’s delusion as to the quality of the movie was obvious at a function room at Sardi’s where he described the movie as “a milestone in movie history” to gaping reporters. But it would be this lack of contempt for his later movies which would make them so transcendingly attractive. It was also shortly after this press conference that he announced his marriage was over on a television talk show… before even telling his wife! Then Nick, who once said that as a “Hollywood star” he “would never make a picture abroad”, ended up signing for the British horror/sci-fi film Die Monster, Die! (1965) as well as for the Japanese movies Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965) aka Monster Zero.

This later shot shows Nick and Elvis remained friends for a while
This letter shows Nick adored his baby daughter Allyson Lee

The thing is these films often reflected Nick’s personality in the title or dialogue but they were also considered utter trash by mainstream film critics… These films are kind of cool in retrospect and help form the true cult around Nick Adams. He wears a trench-coat in Die Monster, Die! opposite Boris Karloff (1887-1969 pneumonia) and furrows his brow sufficiently to remind us of the ageing beatnik of The Rebel, while in the Japanese monster movies he manages to keep a straight face amid the terrible special effects which frame these opuses. Nick gives these movies moments of unparalleled grace and dignity as a result despite their trappings.

Nick apparently demanded a cook and butler for his apartment in London for the making of Die Monster, Die! as he briefly reconciled with his family for this movie which was based on a story by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937 intestinal cancer). Despite a title which may have been the wishes of those who thought Nick a monster himself, this movie looks beautiful in widescreen thanks to reasonable effects and good work by prolific cinematographer Paul Beeson (1921-2001). Beeson that same year would also film, from a helicopter, the iconic scene of Julie Andrews (1935-) in the opening of the Sound of Music (1965) as she sings the title song of that movie.

Nick in trench-coat and with a quintessentially furrowed brow in Die Monster Die! (1965)
Die Monster Die! (1965) was one of Nick’s first colour movies
Lobby card for Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) with its Young Dillinger influence

When Nick moved on to Tokyo to do further monster movies, the actor was possibly drinking but keeping his body in shape by dieting. According to his co-star in Invasion of the Astro-Monster Yoshio Tsuchiya (1927-2017 lung cancer): “He wouldn’t eat any breakfast, lunch or dinner but only a cup of coffee in the night. In one session, he finally fell over.”

Still with his wife, Nick embarrassingly threw himself at his Frankenstein Conquers the World co-star Kumi Mizumo (1937-) at parties – she later denied they ever really had an affair – and Nick’s marriage with Carol ended although there was never a final divorce decree.

Frankenstein Conquers the World has Nick say almost in terms of his past and, possibly, present sexual adventures, which must have also troubled him: “The more research I do, the more I’m troubled with doubts.” This movie is the ultimate melding of World War Two atomic warfare, Nazis and the United States which has the heart of the Frankenstein monster itself taken by Nazi submarine to Hiroshima where it is irradiated by the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945. What results is a heart which upon being fed protein grows into a boy which is the Frankenstein monster and who quickly continues to grow into a creature of enormous proportions and the size of Godzilla…

This film is billed as the first American-Japanese co-production ever made… and what is true is that Nick shows no contempt for appearing in such films as these, as if his recent experience in England had opened his eyes to the freedom of working outside of the Hollywood system with its gossip queens and later, in Japan, which accepted violent inner conflict and resolution within the individual. That’s seppuku folks as opposed to That’s Entertainment! It was only natural.

Nick forever caught between two worlds and at odds with himself… seemed at home in Japan
Iconic James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)… “You’re tearing me apart!”
Nick in a scene from Monster Zero (1965). Now that’s entertainment!

There is a scene in Frankenstein Conquers the World where Adams briefly loses his temper amid a couple of Japanese scientists who are arguing like a mother and father over the ethics of whether they should mutilate the male ‘Caucasian’ child monster. Then there’s the line which could relate to Nick also as they talk above him: “He’s not human really, he’s more gorilla.” And then: “He had a heart and always thought like a human,” is the response as Nick then tries to bring the emotional argument to an end. It is again a possible argument which endlessly went on inside the mind of Nick Adams and ate away at his heart and conscience. Or he tried to suppress it and it would explode with moments of rage.

The final movie Nick made in Japan was the last in what was known as Toho Studio’s International Secret Police series The Killing Bottle (1967). Two previous entries had been edited together and dubbed by Woody Allen to make up his comedy What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966). In The Killing Bottle, a title which maybe a hint at alcoholism among other things, Nick has hit his stride in terms of returning to the type of comedy which he had a flair. Nick also shows he is a natural for buddy movies as he has fun with a “you’ll go blind” joke in what is a well-made tongue in cheek film. But the end was nearing…

Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) trailer
Nick has fun in The Killing Bottle (1967)
This promotional material pokes fun at somebody

Meanwhile one news report on the legal proceedings between Nick and his wife said that Nick “had choked her, struck her and threatened to kill her” during their marriage. The marriage had always been troubled and there were early reports of witnesses hearing Nick yelling at Carol down the phone line who is said to have baited Nick to begin arguing. To further complicate the marriage, the couple began their union and continued it by living in two separate time zones… Nick would be up at 4am and asleep by seven while his wife reportedly rose at noon and stayed up until midnight watching television. Some marriages can thrive under these circumstances when both are career driven and oriented… But I guess life on the ranch or in Beverly Hills with two young kids wasn’t the dream life of Nick’s partner as he instead remained obsessed with stardom and possibly philandered. There are reports he even used to call her Plain Jane while in reality he was no oil painting himself in terms of good looks. They were not the ‘beautiful people’ and he blamed her inability to help make it within the Hollywood social set as a possible reason his career was in tatters in the end. He seemed to forget his own reputation. Ultimately, they were not compatible or Nick had married for the wrong reason – the pressure of stardom and image as opposed to the security of true love as Nick became more insecure as the years progressed and his behaviour worsened. What was true was that Nick was prone to fits of temper which had led to a restraining order finally being served against him after he separated from his wife in October 1965.

Hardly the shower scene from Psycho… Natalie Wood and Nick were suited once upon a time.
Nick’s persona in Fever Heat (1968)

Nick appeared in an Iowa shot movie called Fever Heat (1968) in which he wears an ill-fitting hat most of the time. It beat Elvis Presley’s similar cult movie Speedway (1968) to the cinemas by a month but isn’t really worth the price of admission as Nick is dealt a jacket with the number 22 and the hat reminiscent of the past glory of Chico in Rebel Without a Cause. The end of the film has the name Hills Garage obscured to read “ills …rage” although Nick is dealt a happy ending despite a beginning where he runs someone off the road in their car for no apparent reason. It was probably popular at country drive-ins.

Previous to this he had a small appearance in the Disney tv feature Mosby’s Marauders (1967) but the result is negligible. It starred a young Kurt Russell (1951-) who had kicked Elvis in the shins in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and who is dressed almost like a junior The Rebel just to rub it in. Adams was Russell’s second, third or fourth fiddle in this one. Certainly, Nick’s future in terms of quality productions lay in possible international productions and once more again on television… There was still some hope left.

New guns in town… Kurt Russell (centre) echoes Nick’s The Rebel in Mosby’s Marauders (1967)
NIck worked out later on for Mission Mars (1968)
Another candid shot with Natalie Wood

So, with two households and two children to support at private schools and divorce proceedings bleeding him of legal fees, Nick is said to have begun to drink excessively. He did keep busy on television and made one last movie which is worthy of a mention. It was called Mission Mars (1968) and it was released after Nick’s death. He obviously worked out for this futuristic sci-fi movie as he has a great set of guns or biceps. His receding hair line which had been concealed a little in his previous few movies in a kind of Donald Trump fashion was modestly revealed as Nick seemed to be more confident and relaxed in the role of a B-movie hero instead of a possible Oscar contender.

There was a report in gossip columnist Rona Barrett’s (1936-) biography that Nick, towards the end of his career, was captive to a group of nasty homosexuals who admired Nick and pushed him away from his wife. In Mission Mars, he plays a geologist who has trained for two years to go to Mars with a couple of other astronauts “just to pick up a few rocks”. There seems to be a homosexual sub-text which relates to rock/Rock Hudson who was well known as gay in Hollywood at that time and may have even been acquainted with the network who influenced Nick towards the end of his life…

Nick dons a wig and enjoys his bejewelled comic role as Prince in an early episode of Wild, Wild West
Rock Hudson in Ice Station Zebra (1968) aka I Sailed to the Arctic with an All-Male Crew
Nick was at his physical peak for Mission Mars (1968)

“Yeah, but what rocks!,” says fellow astronaut played by Darren McGavin (1922-2006 heart disease) enthusiastically, who also uses for the first time his iconic The Night Stalker “item” routine which he says on a tape recorder before relating ‘the facts’ in Mission Mars. Veteran actor McGavin had already given in to baldness and was wearing a toupee in Mission Mars while Nick may have been pondering suicide should he ever have to wear one! Nick had playfully worn a wig in a 1966 episode of Wild, Wild West where he was the Prince of the Coral Islands and he played it with that rare and affectionate broad comedy to which he was best suited. It didn’t take and a later role in the same series in 1968 had him as a bad guy sheriff who has something to do with a gym and a gang called the Vipers who wear effeminate glittery masks. As the end of the episode predicted in life, Nick falls from a great height to his death for being associated with these people. There’s even a murdered character at the gym with Nick’s middle name of Aloysius which once upon a time meant hero warrior.

There is the line in the Florida shot Mission Mars: “Don’t be a hero” which echoes in Nick’s mind and which seems to be at odds with his dreams of success against possible happiness in reality, after he has a troubled phone conversation with his fictional wife on Earth. It is something which seems to reflect the tense ones he had in reality with his spouse. If there was any hope for Nick it was contained within his ruined marriage but in the end, it had become an almost a sado-masochistic arena for the actor to perform in off-stage as an extension of the apparently certifiable maniac which Nick occasionally became and which was also the undercurrent of his established tough on-screen persona… To finally end the marriage would also be like admitting defeat or that the whole thing was never really love but simply performed for ‘image’ sake. He couldn’t quite divorce, or so it would seem and Mission Mars with its dated pop song No More Tears by Sturg Pardalis and its words: “We’ll live again for a little while… All this hurt and crying our kisses will erase” and there is a sense of the Adams’ reconciling and breaking up again like the sad cliché of the violent male partner and abuser in a relationship. It seems that Nick’s life as a geologist who has a troubled relationship with his wife in this movie is at odds with his fascination with rocks/Rocks or the gay band Rona Barrett mentioned. It was perhaps one of the keys to the brooding James Dean, whose intelligence, if he had lived, may have saved him from the humiliation and personal conflict which destroyed Nick Adams.

NIck’s inconclusive death certificate
Elvis Presley in February 1968 with wife Priscilla and baby daughter

It is said that when Nick died, he was planning to write a book which would lift the lid on the sexual mores of Hollywood, something which may have included James Dean’s bisexuality. There’s a scene in Mission Mars on the spaceship where Nick is writing some sort of journal and Darren McGavin is watching him studiedly as if he is almost pondering what Nick had in mind in terms of writing in the future.  Nick’s ‘mysterious’ death and possible murder have been attributed to the possibility of this book and he had written the Elvis diary pretty well, so he was no slouch at the typewriter. The question of murder was left open on his death certificate which said it was an overdose of paraldehyde, which was something given to alcoholics to stop the shakes and promazine which was an anti-psychotic or sedative which Nick was possibly taking for his temper. Paraldehyde had been prescribed by Nick’s brother and Nick was found one evening by his lawyer and ‘friend’ Ervin Roeder (no info-1981 shot dead) slumped dead and fully clothed against the wall of his bedroom in his rented Beverly Hills house. There were reports that Roeder was ripping Nick off and may have inadvertently given an upset Nick the overdose. The coroner wrote “accidental; suicide; undetermined” which has added to all the conjecture to this day. There was talk of the side effects of the two medications taken together being lethal … and there were also reports that there was no alcohol in Nick’s bloodstream. This was early February of 1968.

Nick had just returned from Italy where a spaghetti sci-fi movie in which he was to appear suddenly got cancelled and had vanished into thin air leaving the actor at a loose end. It would have been the ultimate rejection and reminds me of the story about actor Ward Bond (1903-60 heart attack) who was so difficult to get along with and disliked during the making of the tv series Wagon Train that he was once told to meet the cast and crew for a party at a certain rural location… but when he arrived – no one was there! Bond had died shortly afterwards.

The gang from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) once again
Nick’s best big screen performance was in The Hook (1963)

Actress Susan Strasberg (1938-99 breast cancer), who had appeared with Nick in Picnic back in 1955, said she bumped into Nick in Rome at a bar shortly afterwards and that he was bitter and dejected just before his fateful return to Los Angeles.

It is interesting to note that Nick and Elvis would both die prescription related deaths and that Nick took his life a week after Elvis’s first and only child was born in February of 1968. The day Nick died was also the day before James Dean’s birthday. All a bit iconic.

In the midst of researching this article I had a dream almost as if I were Nick and I was forever dreaming I would win an Oscar despite the fact my parents tried to physically hold me back from the stage because they knew I would never win one… I was a child of ill-repute… and then the dream gets weird as I’m dressed backstage in a costume of a ‘mutant’ from This Island Earth (1955) – released the same year as Rebel and Picnic and ignored by Oscar – and lowered on wires onto the stage where Oscar is to be presented at the theatre… but the Oscar is not for me/Nick… and then there’s a ringing in my ears as small tears start to form in the corner of my eyes as I realise I am forever to be a sacrificial lamb or ‘loser’ suffering for a crime I no longer relate to or did not intentionally commit due to possible psychosis or being easily led… and I awaken with these tears. It’s been an interesting article to research.

A mutant between scenes from This Island Earth (1955). A big year for Nick’s stardom.
Nick and Elvis are forever cool in this snapshot
The legend of being a rebel took hold of Nick Adams… and destroyed him

Nick was buried in a grave which has his image in silhouette as The Rebel on the back of the stone which reads: “Nick Adams, The Rebel and actor of Hollywood screens”. The song from The Rebel series had rung out: “Johnny Yuma was a rebel… he wandered alone…” Meanwhile on the front of Nick’s gravestone, his family have noted his broken heart with the line: “May our merciful father God open for you the gates of the greatest Academy Award: Heaven.” Perhaps that little boy in the flour sack just wanted to make his mother proud but, in the end, he had lost sight of the real prizes in life.

Mission Mars also has the line, which may have been added after Nick’s death: “You don’t know how much he drove himself to be in this programme…,” says his fictional wife about his dream to be a hero on Mars. “He might do something foolish.” Nick dies a hero in the movie but in real life…?

The madness which finally drove Nick Adams had ended tragically and I salute this broken-hearted ‘loser’ and icon whose mind never really recovered or found peace due to assenting to pre-meditated youthful folly and dreams and believing too much in that place which can cause so much misery and heartache instead…That glossy place named Hollywood, or as Nick’s serendipitous friend Jack Palance called it, with deliberate irony and affectation in the movie Baghdad Café (1987): “Tinsel-town”.

P.S. Let me add my admiration and respect Nick’s children in helping to establish his legend but I think that by showing both sides of his nature is the best way to tell his story and let nature take its course rather than paper over and try to forget certain aspects of this slightly complex and neglected human being.

For a further look at the H.P. Lovecraft inspired Die Monster Die! PRESS HERE.

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