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Why I'll Miss Nick Nolte's Burned-Down House

11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As part of my ongoing effort to keep the public informed about celebritykind, I frequently visit the homes of famous people. Sylvester Stallone lives in a faux-Mediterranean castello high above Beverly Hills with a Rocky statue guarding the pool. Robert Redford's Napa Valley residence is, like the actor himself, a vision of weathered grandeur. Singer Josh Groban has a suit rack in his master bedroom that rotates like a dry cleaner's.

Nobody, however, had a house like Nick Nolte's. The actor's Malibu home burned to the ground Tuesday after an electrical malfunction set his private office ablaze. Flames spread to the kitchen and living room and soon a plume of black smoke mushroomed above Zuma Beach. The L.A. County Fire Department is estimating the damage at $3 million.

We are told -- in fact, it is part of my job to tell you -- that celebrities are just like the rest of us. But that wasn't the case with the way Nolte lived here. For starters, it wasn't just one house but six separate houses on a six-acre compound by the Pacific. Nolte moved into a small pink house there shortly after 48 HRS and he slowly amassed a whole subsection of the neighborhood. The property's guesthouse and a two-story brick structure where Nolte slept had belonged at different times to Tommy Chong and Don Henley.

As I wrote in a Premiere magazine profile of Nolte shortly after my visit, "After you spend a little time here, with the jasmine blooming and the gulls crying and the barefoot houseguests breezing in and out (there are always houseguests), you get the sense that Nolte isn't just of Malibu, but rather that he is Malibu. On Nolte's refrigerator, there's a photocopied newspaper image of one of the local kids, `an actor of some renown,' Nolte deadpans, on a recent trip to Baghdad. Above it, someone has written SEAN PENN WILL LEAD!"

The interview that day, which started at 10 am, was supposed to go an hour. But as day turned into night and Nolte kept talking, I lost track of time. Part of it was there was simply so much to see. In a room off his bedroom, Nolte (at that time, at least) maintained a Frankenstein-style science chamber to monitor the condition of his blood. Under a giant cardboard cutout of Jesus, which Nolte plucked from the set of Lorenzo's Oil, the actor kept IV drip bags, hospital-grade oxygen canisters and flat-panel computer screens flickering with data about white and red cell counts and who knows what else.

Nolte asked that day if he could have a drop of my blood. I declined. But he delighted in telling me about others who had taken the dare. Director Ang Lee's blood was "fascinating," he told me, saying he'd never seen anything shimmer like that. "You watch white cells surround bacteria. You see the death of things. It's better 'n television. His blood was glorious." When I asked Lee afterwards about the experience, the director said, "It was the most gothic feeling I ever had."

Over in Nolte's artist's studio was a different kind of wonderworld. The actor was concerned at that time about dendrite growth in the brain. Specifically in his brain as well as his son, Brawley's. Dendrites are the connections between brain cells that indicate learning and Nolte wanted his family's dendrites to be growing like Sea Monkeys.

Nolte flashed a crooked smile and gestured to a now-popular Japanese arcade contraption known as Dance Dance Revolution. It blinked with colorful lights atop booming speakers and there was a light-up dance floor. Nolte fired it up and said, "We all have hand-eye coordination but not eye-foot. This machine challenges you to find a whole new set of learning muscles."

Just being at Nolte's house was doing that for me. Toward the end of the night, we were sitting in the living room in the main house that caught fire today. The lights were off. There were cherubs on the ceiling. Chinese furniture. Copulating Japanese figurines. Didgeridoos in a giant urn. Nolte talked about why he quit drugs and about that really bad hair day when he was caught on Pacific Coast Highway by the cops a few years earlier. Then he said he wanted to show me something. We walked in the darkness to yet another structure and into a room, mostly empty except for Oriental rugs that blanketed the floors and walls.

"I love this house and I love this room," Nolte told me, "and this is where I'm going to die. And then after I'm dead, this is where they'll bring my casket and where I'll rest in peace."

Tonight that room is probably gone. But Nolte is still with us, and with a mind like his, snapping with connections and full of ideas on how to live, he's probably already worked out a backup plan.