UPPER JAY - Famed actor Nick Nolte came to AuSable Forks in the late 1990s to research his role as a working-class sheriff in "Affliction," a 1997 movie based on a Russell Banks novel.
Banks, a well-known author who lives in Keene, showed him around for the day. Nolte drew some attention from the locals and learned about small-town life.
Nolte's visit was enough of a story that Scott Renderer decided to turn it into a play, "Nick (A Christmas Pageant)," which opens for a limited run at Renderer's Recovery Lounge later this month.
Banks had the idea that the incident would make a good play.
"Whenever I told the story, people seemed fascinated about the idea of a movie star in small town North County, hanging with the locals," Banks said in an email. "It occurred to me that it was like a visit from an angel, a higher being. And from there, I thought of all the old stories and plays about visits from higher beings."
Renderer said Banks believes movie stars and celebrities have replaced angels in our culture, so it makes sense.
The two men used to joke about writing the play while they were working on a stage version of Banks' short story, "The Fisherman," in or around 2006. Because Banks had this vision of Nolte as an angel descending upon the hamlet, it made sense to turn the story into a Christmas pageant.
They talked about writing the play together for several years before Renderer decided Banks was too busy and he was going to have to do it himself.
"He was very encouraging and was really behind it in a big way," Renderer said.
Renderer didn't meet Nolte when he was in town, so he spent hours and hours watching YouTube videos of Nolte acting and doing interviews.
"It became clear to me he was a really adventurous, open, spirited guy and not a typical movie star," Renderer said. "He has a lot of humility and he just seems like a super nice guy. He's nice to - he seems genuinely nice to the people who ask him for autographs and interview him. And he loves to talk."
Renderer also spent some time at 20 Main, the bar where Banks and Nolte ended up, to do research for the show. He has run into people who were there that day. Some of them got so drunk, they barely remember it.
"It's hard to get details," he said.
The play follows Nolte from his Los Angeles home, to the Burlington airport, to a Walmart and barber shop in Plattsburgh, where he gets his hair cut and gets some clothes that will help him blend in with the local population. When he first showed up in the area, he was in pajamas and had bleached blonde hair, Renderer explained.
"He's a fairly eccentric guy," he said, "but a very serious actor. I mean, he was doing research."
After that, Banks took him to M&M Diner in AuSable Forks. When they were leaving, Nolte seemed pleased with the fact that no one had asked for his autograph, thinking no one had recognized him, Renderer said. But as they walked to the grocery store, they noticed some people were following them, he said, so someone must have noticed who he was.
Later, they went to 20 Main and ended the night there. More and more people spilled into the bar as word spread that Nolte was there. One man showed up who was supposed to be putting together a changing table for the baby his wife was about to give birth to.
The man realizes that his wife won't believe him that he's at the bar because Nick Nolte is there, so he asks Nolte to write him a note. That satisfies him for a bit, but then he realizes that might not fly with the wife, so he has Nolte call her instead.
Since it's a Christmas pageant, the man is named Joseph, and his wife is Mary.
Joseph has three friends who are out ice fishing during the action of the play, and he continually tries to call them in. They are the three wise men. They spend their time in the ice house that was the set for Banks' "The Fisherman" when it was performed at Recovery Lounge. (Renderer said there are jokes from a number of previous Recovery Lounge shows woven throughout the play. You don't have to get them to get the play, but if you have seen the shows, you'll appreciate that extra level, he said.)
Nick, of course, is the angel. Banks chuckles each time he hears the name of the play.
"I just love the coincidence of the names Nick Nolte and St. Nick," he said.
Renderer said Banks had originally floated the idea of getting Nolte to come back to the area to play himself. But Nolte lives hard and has aged significantly since that time. Renderer said that in the end, they decided that even if they could get him here, it wouldn't make sense to have him play himself. Rederer became "the obvious choice" to play the role.
"He's a white-bearded old man now," Renderer said.
The YouTube research he had done in writing the script helped with acting out the character as well.
"I just tried to sort of channel the spirit of Nick Nolte, rather than do a real direct imitation of him," Renderer said.
For the most part, the play follows the actual events of what happened that day. Banks said Nolte was surprised and in a way disappointed when everyone recognized him as the two made their way around town.
"He was curious and open and unpretentious, so I knew no one would get burned by him," he said.
In the end, Banks said Nolte's Oscar-nominated performance in the film version of "Affliction" was brilliant.
"The role seemed to fit him perfectly, perhaps because the story closely resembled his own personal story," Banks said. "Nolte, (James) Coburn, (Willem) Dafoe, the director Paul Schrader, and myself, we all thought the story was our story, and in a sense it was."
Banks couldn't be here for the performances (though he does make a cameo), so he is replaced in the play by his fictional young writing protege named Henry.
Henry is not impressed by Nolte, and he is skeptical of writers who allow their books to be turned into movies. But as the play progresses, Henry inadvertently learns a lot from Nolte, Renderer said.
"It's sort of a coming of age for Henry," he said.
Banks said he loves Renderer's final product.
"It's a comic, good-natured homage to our towns and the people who live here," he said.
This episodic, light-hearted farce is a departure from Renderer's normal scripts, which he said tend to be dark.
Renderer said the play is also a huge community effort, bringing together one of the largest casts the Recovery Lounge has ever seen. He also hopes it will draw in a larger portion of the community than would normally venture to the Recovery Lounge for a play. He said the owner of 20 Main is trying to bring a group of regulars to a showing.
"It's just a great opportunity to celebrate our community here and to acknowledge the place," Renderer said.
Since Renderer has spent so many years developing this show, he said he is going to make sure each of the three performances is recorded. He wants it to live on beyond the production's run.
The show runs Dec. 19 through 21 at the Recovery Lounge. Renderer said he's already had a lot of interest in the show, so if all three dates book up too quickly, he may try to add an additional one or two.