Nick Adams: His Hollywood Life and Death

Oct 30, 2009 - by Peter L. Winkler - 0 Comments

Nick Adams

Nick Adams

Nick Adams was far more a dreamer than "The Rebel" he would portray in his heyday. At 18 he hitchhiked to Hollywood to become a movie star. A quintessential self-promoter, he defied all odds in making his dream come true, but he could never seem to get out of his own way. His death, exploited by writers as one of Hollywood's dark mysteries, came by his own hand.

by Peter L. Winkler 

"Actor Nick Adams Dead In Mystery," read the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner headline on Feb. 8, 1968. The story reported:

Nick Adams, 36, who won fame as "The Rebel" on television, was found dead in his Coldwater Canyon home last night under circumstances that puzzled police.

His body, fully clothed, was found in a sitting position beside his bed by his attorney, Ervin "Tip" Roeder. There was no indication as to the cause of death. No weapons or sleeping pills were found. Adams's lawyer told Det. Verne Jones he arrived at the $54,000 Cape Cod style home bordering Beverly Hills about 8 p.m. When no one answered the doorbell, Roeder crawled through a window and discovered the body.

Nick Adams's death was the final, strangest chapter in a life and career that took many unusual turns.

Only 10 years before, a very alive Nick Adams, buoyant with the first major success in his quest for Hollywood stardom, freely related his story to Hollywood columnists. It would be the first, but not the last time Nick reflected on the extreme poverty of his Depression era upbringing, how it impelled him to seek stardom in Hollywood and how he finally broke through.

When it came to self-promotion, there was always a certain elasticity about the facts to Nick, but when he sat down with Hedda Hopper in April 1958, his extensive interview, only a bit of which was used in Hopper's published stories on Nick, carried the ring of truth.

Born Nicholas Aloysius Adamshock in Nanticoke, Pa., on July 10, 1931, Nick was the younger of Peter and Catherine Adamshock's two sons. Nick's father, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a coal miner. Nick recalled how Nanticoke, one of many small company-owned coal towns scattered across the Appalachians, offered little more than poverty and the prospect of an early death in the mines. He recounted his background to Hopper:

We lived in those little company houses -- they were terrible. We had to buy from the company store and were always in debt and could never leave. My uncle lived with my family in our house -- with my mother, father and brother.

In our case, there wasn't a day when we didn't dread the threat of the disaster horn -- that implement of doom which meant tragedy at the mine.

I was about 5. There was a cave-in and my uncle was crushed. They brought him home to our house. The company doctor came in to look at my uncle. There wasn't too much hope, and he died. I remember as he was leaving, he patted me on the head and said to my father, "You've got two fine boys, they'll make good miners." My father said, "No by God, they won't!"

And two days later my father piled all our belongings into an old jalopy, with our bedding on top. We didn't know where we were going. He started driving, and ran out of gas and money in Jersey City at Audubon Park.

A man came over and started talking to us, a Mr. Cohn. He said to my father "You look like you need a job," and my father said "I do."

After Nick's father related the family's plight, Mr. Cohn said, "I own an apartment and my superintendent has just run off with a woman. You can have his job." For the next nine years, Nick's family barely scraped by on $30 a month and free rent of a basement apartment. Nick said, "I remember my parents, slaving like animals, stoking the furnace, carting garbage pails." Nick later told columnist Sidney Skolsky," It was luxury, real luxury," with what Skolsky termed "bitter irony."

Nick's conscious determination to escape poverty came early. He recalled how his mother "used to make all the clothes for my brother and me -- she'd bleach flour sacks and make underclothes and shirts for us. I guess I was about 8 or 9 and the particular shirt I had on didn't quite have the name of the flour bleached out. There was one nasty woman who grumbled about things. She came down to the basement and was complaining about the light being out in her bathroom. She told my mother, 'Why don't you get your kids some decent clothes instead of flour sacks.'

"And my mother started to cry. I felt so bad I cried too and said, 'Don't you worry, I'll buy you a home some time.' And from that time on I wanted to do something where I could make a lot of money."

Unlike his older brother Andy, who went on to medical school, Nick was not academically inclined. He said that his mother had to tie him with a 15-foot length of laundry line to keep him out of mischief. "When I was going to school," he said, "I spent so much time daydreaming I didn't always learn my lessons. I went to the Sacred Heart Grammar School. I got a little mixed up later on and then I went into service, but that early education from the nuns stuck with me. We had always been Catholics." Nick went on to attend Snyder High School.

Then, as now, popular culture celebrated sports and movie stars. It didn't take long for Nick to apply his energies to becoming a professional athlete. He told Hedda Hopper, "I made first string quarterback. It was the same with baseball. I learned to field real fast. I got my brother to help me, and eventually made the team. In fact, I made the all-state New Jersey."

Nick also told Hopper that he tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals while still in high school. "They offered to assign me to a farm team -- that's like going into B pictures. I didn't take it because I found it paid only $75 a month, and it would take too long to make enough money to build a home for the family." Nick actually spent some time as a $35 a week batboy for the local minor league team, the Jersey Giants.

When he was 16, Nick abruptly abandoned baseball after he read a story in the New York Daily News about how actor Guy Madison had hitchhiked to Hollywood, been discovered and was making $2,000 a week. Nick said, "I was nothin'. I wanted to be somethin'. But I didn't know how." Nick went about becoming something in the unconventional way that typified his career.

"One day I went to New York on the subway and started just walking around. I really didn't know where to go. I came to a bookshop near the Paramount Theater and noticed they had a book sale. There were books for $1 on how to become a stock market wizard, how to be a scientist, etc. Most of them called for math and I'd never been good at that. Then I picked out a book by Sean O'Casey and started leafing through it -- it was the play The Silver Tassie. A fellow who worked there came up and asked, 'Are you reading for that play, too?' I asked what he meant. He said they were having auditions for it at Carnegie Hall and interviewing actors. He said, 'You could do one of the soldier roles.'"

Nick got directions to Carnegie Hall and raced over there. "Then I recalled how much money actors make -- my imagination started to work -- here was a way to make big money and buy a home for the folks. I figured, boy, I could be a star! As I walked up Broadway and looked at the theaters with Greg Peck's name and Clark Gable's and others, I began to see my name in lights. By the time I got to Carnegie Hall, I decided I was going to be a movie star.

"Here was this whole bunch of people sitting around. I listened to some of them read, and thought, 'I can do better than that guy.' Finally, I thought I'd better ask somebody how you get to read. So with a real Jersey accent I came up to a fellow and said, 'I'm going to level with you, I'm from Jersey City. I heard about this play and I want to be an actor.'"

The actor Nick approached was Jack Palance, then understudying Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Palance asked, "What do you want to be an actor for?"

"The money," Nick said.

"I got news for you -- all the actors I know are starving," Palance said. He asked Nick what his name was. When Palance heard "Adamshock," he asked Nick if he was Ukrainian and from Pennsylvania. When Nick said yes, Palance told him that he came from another small coal town near Nanticoke and his father still worked in the mines.

Palance took Nick to the director, introduced him as Nick Adams and said, "This a friend of mine who did some stock with me. I wonder if you could give him one of the soldier parts." When Nick failed to get the part, Palance sent him upstairs to the Recital Hall, where a junior theater called The Interplayers was holding auditions for Tom Sawyer. Nick got the role of Muff Potter and others in subsequent plays.

"In the meantime," Nick said, "I was playing hooky from school. We had half-day sessions because the school was so crowded. I saw as many plays as I could. People told me I should read Stanislavsky, which I knew nothing about. I was still looking for the money. I started carrying home books on acting. I passed the corner where my buddies hung out I used to shoot pool with. They asked what I'd been doing. I said, 'I'm an actor.' They asked me to shoot a game of pool. I said I didn't want to. ' I want to be an actor, I've started to study and read books.' They made fun of me -- ' Look at the actor! Look at the actor -- there goes Stanislavsky!'"

Nick didn't get much more support at home, either. "Everybody," he said, "thought I was crazy. My father said, 'Nick, get a trade, be a barber or something.' I said, 'But Pop, I want to do something where I can make lots of money. You can't make lots of money with just a trade.' They thought I was wacky. No one in the family had ever been an actor."

Meanwhile, Nick's fledgling career was going nowhere. "I never did hit. I kept doing plays. Jack Palance finally did Panic in the Streets and other people in the group did TV and stuff. I was doing all this acting gratis. I worked part time in an ice cream place in New Jersey. This went on for over a year and I wasn't making a dime."

Nick decided to implement his first attempt at self-promotion. "I thought maybe I need to be called to the attention of people. In Carnegie Hall they have lots of photographs of great stars on the walls. I got a brainstorm. I thought all the big people who come here must come out and look at these pictures. What would happen if people saw a picture of me here? So I had some 8 x 10 pictures taken for $7, and slipped John Barrymore's picture out and put mine in its place. I signed it: 'To Carnegie Hall, sincerely Nick Adams.' And I took Barrymore's picture home with me."

The stunt backfired. Nick said, "Next day at rehearsal the stage manager said there were a couple of fellows to see me. I thought they had seen the picture. They asked me to come into the office. The lady there held up my picture -- and these two were plainclothesmen. She said, 'You're in terrible trouble son.'

"My heart started pounding." Nick was told, "That picture of John Barrymore that you took is very valuable, there isn't another one like it. Where is it?" Nick said, "I told them I had it at home. I was only 17 and real scared. I explained I wanted to be an actor and I thought maybe my picture would catch someone's eye. I said I was really sorry and had meant no disrespect to John Barrymore. She was very sweet and told me to go home and bring his picture back and said, 'I hope someday Nick we'll be able to put up your picture.'

"Finally," Nick said, "I thought I'd better go to Hollywood. When I was 18 I told my father, mother, and brother that this is what I really wanted." Nick planned to hitchhike, but told his parents he was taking the bus so they wouldn't worry. Nick's brother Andy, who knew Nick's plans, helped by sending Nick's suitcase after he arrived. Nick withdrew his savings account of $80, scribbled " Hollywood Here I Come " across the passbook and took off.

Nick got some very good rides. Ten days later he was in Los Angeles. It was January 1950. Once in Los Angeles, Nick didn't know where to go. He had a strategy of sorts, based on his extensive consumption of movie fan magazines. "As soon as I arrived I headed for Beverly Hills where the big stars lived. I remember walking down Beverly Drive and towards the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was January and everything was so beautiful -- the palm trees, the sunshine, flowers blooming. I thought, 'Boy, this is it!'"

The luster of Beverly Hills soon wore off. Nick said, "I was walking around with my suitcase when the cops stopped me. I told them I'd just arrived and was looking for work and a room." The officers took Nick slightly past the city limits and told him not to come back.

Undaunted, Nick returned the next day. He got a small room near Pico Boulevard for $6 a week. Next door was a hamburger stand. Having taken care of food and lodging, Nick embarked on his campaign to get discovered. It turned out to be far more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

Nick hoped to secure a small part in the film Panic in the Streets (1950) through Jack Palance, but discovered that Palance had already left for location work on the film in New Orleans. With that hope gone, Nick set out to find a job. Fan magazines led Nick to believe that the posh Warners Theater in Beverly Hills was a veritable magnet for agents, stars, and studio moguls. It was also conveniently located across the street from a drugstore where he could eat cheap meals and peruse the latest movie magazines. Nick got a job as relief doorman, usher, and maintenance man. His salary: $18 a week.

One of Nick's duties involved changing signs on the theater's marquee. Nick paid a sign painter to have the words "WITH NICK ADAMS" added to "PREVIEW TONIGHT."

Nick was ready for the curious glitterati showing up for the preview to inquire, "Who's Nick Adams?" so he would have a perfect opportunity to introduce himself. Surely, in Nick's fantasy of how events would unfold, it was inevitable that this was the night he would be discovered.

What happened instead was that the theater manager fired Nick when he found out he was responsible for the stunt.

Nick picked himself up, dusted himself off and made the rounds of the movie studios' casting offices. He hitchhiked first to 20th Century-Fox, then the rest. Nick said, "I'd give them all the Silver Tassie bit and how great I was with Palance. Then I'd go into my impersonations. Then I'd just talk, figuring somebody'd just have to discover me." But there was no discovery. Nick's studio visits always ended with the same four words: "You need an agent."

"After I'd been here about a week, I went to all the agents. They said unless you have film you're dead. When you go on an interview, they want somebody with film." The code word "film" meant having actually appeared in a film you could prove you were in.

Nick was told, "Everybody who comes out here says they've been with theater groups in New York. Are you a member of the unions?" When Nick said no, they thought he was lying about his theatrical experience.

Nick's $80 dwindled to $40. He began looking for another job. No one would give him one. Nick was 18, with no local references. He got panicky.

"Finally my money ran out and my rent was due," Nick said. "Meanwhile I'd been writing to the folks that everything was great. I didn't want them to worry. Finally, when I hadn't eaten for two days I went into a large market and asked for a job. They said no. I was so hungry I didn't know what to do. As I was going by a display counter I took a package of baloney -- it was marked 29 cents -- and they nailed me."

Three angry clerks and an assistant manager took Nick into the back room. Nick defended himself. "Look, I wanted a job and asked for one." When they found out he was an actor, their weary reaction was one practiced from too frequent use. "Another actor! You'd better go home."

Passing a Will Wright's ice cream parlor, Nick went in and told part owner and actor Marc Connelly he was a great soda jerk in Jersey City and hadn't eaten for two days. Connelly gave Nick a dollar, told him to get a meal and come back. Nick ate a 59-cent meal in Thrifty's drug store and returned to wash dishes for 60 cents an hour. Nick saved a few dollars and then quit. Nick said, "They had a lot of strange guys there. I guess I was the only straight guy working there."

A year after hitting Los Angeles, Nick was a fry cook and worked the counter at Stripp's Drive-In. Nick said, "Anytime anyone I recognized from the movies came in I started doing Jimmy Cagney impersonations. I felt somebody would discover me. I'd break my neck to wait on the stars who came in." One day actress Virginia Grey came in and Nick gave her his routine, telling her how badly he wanted to break into pictures. She referred Nick to several agents and one finally accepted him as a client.

This only made Nick's financial situation more precarious. Nick had to choose between keeping his job or attending auditions. One day at lunchtime, Nick's agent, Frank Ryan, called and told him that 20th Century-Fox was interviewing young actors for the film The Halls of Montezuma (1950), and he'd better get there immediately. Abandoning 60 hamburgers cooking on the grill, Nick went for the interview and was fired.

Nick anxiously sat by the phone for three days. Then Frank Ryan called. He gave Nick the bad news. The part went to Robert Wagner. Nick finally managed to scrounge up some acting work, but it didn't amount to much.

In December 1950, while jitterbugging in the background of a two-day commercial filmed at Griffith Park, Nick met James Dean, the nominal star of the commercial. Ken Dyson, a crew member who worked on the commercial, recalled, "We had all these kids that we got from the schools so we didn't have to worry about SAG (the Screen Actors Guild). We gave them lunch and 10 bucks and had them riding around on the merry-go-round. The gimmick was to grab the ring and then they'd get a bottle of Coke, and we had Jimmy handing out the Cokes. The next day they filmed an interior spot. We brought Jimmy back as well as Nick Adams and Beverly Long Dorff and a few of the other kids from the day before to ' live it up with Coca-Cola.'"

After making the commercial, Nick Adams and James Dean may have become lovers and worked the streets of Los Angeles as hustlers in the down and out days when both were struggling nobodies.

Teenager Bill Dakota didn't know James Dean, but became fascinated with him after seeing Rebel Without a Cause and came to Hollywood to learn more. Dakota ran into Nick Adams in 1957, becoming a good friend and Adams's secretary. While working at the Apollo Theater in Hollywood, Dakota became acquainted with a Mr. Federici, who told Dakota quite a story about Nick Adams and James Dean.

Federici told Dakota that he once owned an apartment house where Nick Adams lived. Federici said that he once overheard Nick Adams and James Dean, who stayed with Adams, arguing about who would wear the one good pair of jeans they owned to go hustling.

In an interview with author Boze Hadleigh, Sal Mineo added some weight to this story. When Hadleigh asked Mineo if James Dean and Nick Adams were lovers, Mineo said, "I didn't hear it from Jimmy, who was sort of awesome to me when we did Rebel. But Nick told me they had a big affair -- I don't know if it was while they were living together or not."

After the cola commercial, Nick got a comedic role in the play Mr. Big Shot, at the Las Palmas Theater. He was paid something like $60 a week. But he had to spend $175 to join Actors Equity.

When Pearl Bailey fell ill, Nick got a booking at the Mocambo doing a 20-minute act of impersonations, for which he was paid $25. When Hedda Hopper told Nick she thought she wrote about him then, he reeled off her short notice from memory: "Nick Adams, gas station attendant from New Jersey, did an impersonation of Jimmy Cagney and a scene from Glass Menagerie."

Next came a one-line part in George Seaton's film Somebody Loves Me (1952). But Nick still didn't make any money. He had to join the Screen Actors Guild. Nick was now a member of three unions and still couldn't get roles. He also couldn't get a menial job because he'd been fired so many times before.

Nick joined a theater workshop group formed by Arthur Kennedy. "They were just great to me," Nick said," and when it got to the point where I couldn't pay my rent, they let me sleep at the theater. When the fire department found that out they said I'd have to move."

Nick was reduced to living in a room next to his landlady's garage that was little more than a depository for a laundry chute. It didn't even have a bath. To bathe, Nick had to go to the YMCA. Nick's landlady, who claimed to be a former opera diva, sent him to the store to buy the best liver for her 10 cats. "Sometimes I'd be so hungry and would smell her frying it for the cats. I even snatched some away from them a few times. The only thing that kept me going was the theater class with Arthur Kennedy. My career was at a standstill."

One evening a girlfriend insisted on seeing where Nick lived. Before he could turn on the light, she sat down on one of the cats. It's wailing woke its owner, who evicted Nick for having a girl in his room. On his way out, Nick looked in his mailbox and found his draft notice. It was January 1952, and the Coast Guard had drafted Nick.

Ironically, it would lead to his first Hollywood break. In June 1954, Nick's ship docked in Long Beach harbor. Nick was sitting in the radio shack one afternoon reading Hedda Hopper's column when he came across an item about director John Ford preparing to film the hit play Mister Roberts.

"Now," Nick said, "I figured who could play a sailor better than a sailor?" Nick put on his best dress whites and ribbons and took the bus to the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank. He managed to get through the studio gates by convincing the guard he was an extra in wardrobe. Unfortunately, almost everyone was out to lunch.

Nick came upon a man sitting in the casting office, playing with a fishing rod. He turned out to be casting director Solly Baiano. Baiano liked Nick and took him to see John Ford and producer Leland Hayward. Ushered into the middle of a conference the two men were having, Nick nearly froze when Ford fixed an expectant gaze on him.

"He looked up at me," Nick recalled, "and I didn't know what to do. I knew Cagney would be in the picture, so I did an impersonation of him, then one of Cary Grant and Brando. The way he looked I figured that if I stopped talking he'd kick me out."

Ford lifted his eye patch and told Hayward, "He's a spunky little bastard, isn't he?" Then he turned back to Nick, saw that his cap was turned around and shouted, " Square that hat!" Then Ford said, "You've got your ribbons upside down." When Nick insisted he didn't, Ford said, "You're telling me I'm wrong and I'm a retired admiral." Nick insisted he was right, having looked it up in the book.

Ford laughed, "I just wanted to see if you'd stick to your course." He turned to Hayward and said, "Sign him up."

"I almost cried," Nick said. "All of a sudden I knew I was going to make it." Three months of leave Nick had saved up allowed him to do the film. He also got a lucky break when, early into filming, Ford became ill and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy took Nick under his wing and became his mentor.

After finishing Mister Roberts (1955), Nick completed his duty in the Coast Guard. When he returned to Hollywood, he sought out LeRoy, who helped Nick get an agent at the most powerful industry agency, MCA. LeRoy also helped Nick by giving him supporting roles in his films Strange Lady in Town (1955), No Time forSergeants (1958), and The FBI Story (1959).

Warner Brothers wouldn't put Nick under contract. The studio didn't consider him tall or handsome enough for leading roles. Still, Nick appeared in several Warner Brothers films, most notably Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Nick can also be seen in the uncredited role of a nervous bellboy carrying a tray of empty cocktail glasses in I Died a Thousand Times (1955), starring Jack Palance. He had a better role in Our Miss Brooks (1956), based on the popular TV series starring Eve Arden.

Nick rented a house with another of Rebel's cast, Dennis Hopper. That didn't last long. Nick later told Andrew J. Fenady that one afternoon, as he (Nick) was reading a magazine, there was a tremendous explosive sound and a bullet whizzed by his ear. Nick ran into the next room to see Hopper, giggling, holding a smoking .44 magnum pistol that he had just fired.

Nick became quite friendly with Natalie Wood and her family. According to Lana Wood, Nick, Sal Mineo, and James Dean used to hang around the newly built swimming pool at Natalie's home. In his book, Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries, author John Austin quotes from an interview he says Nick gave close to the end of his life in which Nick claimed that Natalie's mother took him aside one day and made an unusual request. She asked Nick to teach her daughter "the ways of the world." Worried about Natalie going out with the wrong type of men, she told Nick, "She's going to be doing it anyway, and I'd rather it be with you. I know I can trust you!"

It's doubtful that Nick and Natalie ever had sex. In Natasha, The Biography of Natalie Wood, author Suzanne Finstad writes, "Natalie and Adams gave each other the nickname 'Chort,' Ukrainian for 'little devil,' enjoying a teasing, flirtatious relationship. Once, when Natalie was lying on the bed in her room, Adams dove on top of her and they rolled around, laughing until tears ran down Natalie's cheeks. 'Boy, we could never be lovers,' she giggled. 'We could never stop laughing!'"

Beverly Long, who played one of Buzz's gang in Rebel and disliked Nick Adams for his relentless scene stealing, says Adams wasn't close to James Dean, but badly wanted to be. But a reporter observed Adams and Dean fooling around together on the set, playing a parody of Elia Kazan directing Marlon Brando. Warner Brothers issued a press release claiming that Adams and Dean were going to do a stand-up comedy routine in Las Vegas.

James Dean died a week after completing his role in Giant (1956). The film's director, George Stevens, who had a contentious relationship with Dean, decided to alter Dean's last scene in the film, where Jett Rink (Dean) awakens from a drunken stupor to address an empty banquet hall. There are different stories about what prompted Stevens's decision. Either Dean's dialogue was inaudible or Stevens simply disliked Dean's performance. Stevens had seen Nick Adams palling around with Dean and brought Nick in to dub some of Dean's dialogue. If you listen carefully, you can detect Nick's voice in the second half of the scene.

After James Dean's death, Nick wrote several articles about Dean for movie magazines. He showed up at the premiere of The James Dean Story (1957) in several major cities, including Marion, Ind., (Dean's birthplace), handing out photos of a car he claimed he and Dean were building before Dean's demise. Nick's most preposterous attempt to ride Dean's fame appeared in Ezra Goodman's article, "Delirium Over Dead Star," in the Sept. 24, 1956 issue of Life magazine.

Pictured casually smoking a cigarette among memorabilia given to him by Dean that, "he keeps in a steel strongbox," Nick claimed that he slept with loaded pistols in his house and the police check his home eight to 10 times a day to protect him from a female fan he refused to sell his Dean items to. Nick said she tried to break into his home. Then she "put a burning wax triangle on my door and a wax doll with the head burned off and arms and legs because I didn't give her the stuff."

James Dean's fate should have inspired caution. Nick later told reporters that after Dean's death he engaged in nocturnal speeding jaunts. "I became a highway delinquent. I was arrested nine times in one year. They put me on probation, but I kept on racing -- nowhere."

Nick snapped out of his funk when Elvis Presley arrived in Hollywood. Presley was obsessed with James Dean and sought out anyone with a connection to Dean, including Nick, Dennis Hopper, and Natalie Wood, who Elvis also dated. Nick joined Elvis's entourage while the singer did a tour of the South during 1957. Nick even did some comic singing and impersonations as part of the show.

Nick rented the first floor of a house above Ciro's (now The Comedy Club) on the Sunset Strip and played at being a bright young star on the way up. He even bought a black, convertible Ford Thunderbird (Natalie Wood owned a pink one). Mostly, he hung around with Robert Conrad and Bill Dakota and continued to pick up supporting roles in films and episodic television. He appeared in the films Picnic (1955), A Strange Adventure (1956), The Last Wagon (1956), Fury at Showdown (1957), and Sing, Boy, Sing (1958).

When Mervyn LeRoy assembled the cast for the film version of No Time for Sergeants, the service comedy that played so successfully on Broadway, Roddy McDowall, who played Andy Griffith's sidekick, refused to be in the film. In his autobiography, Mervyn LeRoy wrote, "With McDowall out, I was able to use an actor I loved, Nick Adams. He was a fine boy, and his death was a terrible shock to me. People misunderstood Nick. Every nickel he made he sent to his brother, who was studying to be a doctor. As a result, Nick lived a Spartan life in Hollywood, where Spartan lives are exceedingly rare. So, whenever I could, I hired him. I had to fight for him on No Time for Sergeants, however, but I did fight and I won and he helped the picture enormously."

Nick was in almost every scene in the film. The recognition gained finally elevated him above the rank of anonymous bit player. Hedda Hopper and others wrote about Nick, but some of the attention he generated must have made him cringe. Hopper wrote, "Nick Adams is best known as pal of Hollywood's famous," and columnist Erskine Johnson reminded Nick that Hollywood once called him "The Leech."

 

No Time for Sergeants also kept Nick typecast as a lightweight, comic actor. Nick's next film roles were in Teacher's Pet (1958) and Pillow Talk (1959), where he replaced an ailing Darryl Hickman at the last minute. Nick knew he needed to create his own opportunity for stardom. When Nick read that a young writer -- a producer named Andrew J. Fenady -- had the rights to film the story of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the only serviceman executed for desertion in WW II, he wrote Fenady a letter lobbying for the part. In his letter, Nick said that like Slovik, he was Polish and originally from Detroit, and would be perfect for the role. Fenady and Nick got together for lunch and became instant friends, though the Slovik story never came off.

At Fenady's 1958 New Year's Eve party, Nick practically begged Fenady to create a starring vehicle for him. "Look," said Nick, "I'm tired of playing somebody's pal. How about doing a series for me?" Nick wanted to do something modeled after the film Johnny Come Lately (1943), starring his idol, Jimmy Cagney. "That's good, Nick," Fenady said, "but it isn't what's selling. What is selling are westerns."

Although the series that resulted credited Nick as co-creator, Fenady sat down the next day and wrote it himself in four days. While roughing out the script, Fenady kept thinking of Jack London, and created the character of Johnny Yuma, a young, ex-confederate soldier who keeps a journal and doles out fists, bullets, and compassion to help restore order and resolve conflicts while roaming the post-Civil War west.

Nick, Fenady, and director Irvin Kershner formed a partnership, Fen-Ker-Ada. They pitched "Young Johnny Yuma" (which became "The Rebel") to Dick Powell at Four Star Television. About a month later, Goodson-Todman vice president Harris Katlemen overhead Kershner discussing the status of "Young Johnny Yuma" on the phone with Fenady and asked to see the script. Eager to produce a western series, Goodson-Todman liked "Young Johnny Yuma," but not with Nick Adams as star.

Remembering Nick Adams from No Time for Sergeants, Goodson-Todman were unconvinced he could carry a dramatic, action-oriented series. Fenady sent them a print of Fury at Showdown, a western Nick had done with John Derek, and some kinescopes of Nick's TV work.

On May 10, 1959, Louella Parsons reported in her column that Nick was in Las Vegas, marrying Carol Nugent, a beautiful, petite, former child actress he had only recently been dating. Just the day before Nick learned that "The Rebel" had been sold to upstart TV network ABC. "I've gone around with a lot of girls," Nick said, "but this is the first girl I know I'm in love with."

The half-hour series premiered Sunday, Oct. 4, 1959 at 9 p.m. After years of struggle, Nick was living the life he once only dreamed of. Nick purchased a luxurious ranch-style home in the San Fernando Valley formerly owned by director Budd Boetticher. The couple's first child, Allyson Lee, was born Feb. 23, 1960. Their son, Jeb Stuart, was born April 10, 1961.

"The Rebel" was riding high in the ratings, making Nick a national celebrity. Nick appeared on the cover of TV Guide, which ran two feature articles about him and "The Rebel." No longer somebody's sidekick, let alone "The Leech," Nick felt his time had come. But Nick soon learned that success in Hollywood is a fragile thing. After two seasons of continued success, ABC canceled "The Rebel."

"The Rebel's" cancellation wasn't the result of low ratings, but behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Andrew Fenady developed a pilot for a series he hoped would be a perfect follow-up to "The Rebel." "The Yank," starring James Drury, would be a series about the post-Civil War adventures of a doctor who had fought in the Union army. When ABC only offered a 17-episode commitment, Goodson-Todman took "The Yank" to NBC. ABC retaliated by canceling "The Rebel," one of its most successful shows.

Putting a game face on it, Nick claimed that it liberated him to pursue film roles again, and he quickly snagged supporting roles in Hell Is for Heroes (1962) and The Interns (1962).

Suddenly, Nick went back to TV, into a new, hour-long series, "Saints And Sinners," created by Adrian Spies. Nick played Nick Alexander, a crusading newspaper reporter. NBC previewed the series on May 1 on "The Dick Powell Show" and paved the way for Nick's new show by running episodes of "The Rebel" beginning June 27, 1962. "Saints And Sinners" premiered on Sunday, Sept. 17, 1962. It flopped after less than one season.

Nick then signed a five-picture deal with MGM. But none of the films was a star vehicle. Nick was to be third-billed in his five films, but only The Hook (1963), Twilight Of Honor (1963), and The Young Lovers (1964) were made.

While making Hell Is for Heroes, Nick told his friend and publicist Jay Bernstein that his ambition was to be the first TV actor to win an Oscar. While he was making Twilight of Honor, Nick told Bernstein that his work in the film was the best he had yet done. Realizing that winning an Oscar could boost his career, perhaps into starring roles, Nick launched a campaign for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

He spent $8,000 placing advertisements for himself in the industry trade papers. While campaigning for awards is commonplace today, it was not then and was looked down on by the Academy members. But Nick got his nomination. Jay Bernstein said, "Now the problem was, Nick got cut out of the movie. And all of his great scenes were gone. And there were just reaction shots."

On April 13, 1964, 90 minutes before the Oscar ceremonies began, Nick was the first nominee to show up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Sidney Skolsky reported, "An usher said Nick Adams and wife arrived at 5:30, went into the empty auditorium and practiced walking, skipping, trotting down the aisle to the stage." Patty Duke presented the Best Supporting Actor award early in the show and Nick didn't win. He was furious. According to Sidney Skolsky, "Nick looked like instant murder" when Brandon De Wilde accepted the Oscar for absent winner Melvyn Douglas.

Undaunted, Nick attempted to launch a number of film projects. From July to December 1964, there was a flurry of stories in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety about Nick's plans. The only one to reach fruition was Young Dillinger (1965), co-produced by Nick's Hondo Productions and Sam Zimbalist to cash in on the brief revival of gangster films that followed the success of the TV series The Untouchables. A posthumous piece in Variety recalled Nick's amazing performance promoting the film.

Nick Adams is etched in the memory of those dozen or so N.Y. trade press reps who attended a luncheon at the Belasco Room at Sardi's in January of 1965. Hardboiled trade reporters may be quite used to Hollywoodites making extravagant claims for their current releases, but all were agreed that no such type had ever been as obsessed as Adams.

Not touching his food, staring fixedly into space, he rattled on and on about the supposed qualities of the film, terming it 'Allied Artist's Tom Jones,' its acting of Oscar caliber, its photography of such revolutionary style that it would prove a milestone in film history.

While appearing on "The Les Crane Show" the following evening to plug Young Dillinger, Nick shocked audiences by announcing that he was leaving his wife. It was the first Carol had heard of it. Reached for comment the next day, she said, "That's Nick for you. He called me up this afternoon and told me to watch the show."

Nick Adams in 1965

After that announcement, Nick's career and personal life went into a tragic free fall.

Nick and Carol publicly announced a reconciliation a week later, on Jan. 19. Nick couldn't patch up his faltering career as easily. Filmed in 10 days on a $350,000 budget by director Terry Morse, best known for directing the Raymond Burr scenes inserted into the American release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956), Young Dillinger was released on May 12, 1965. According to Robert Conrad, "He put everything he had into doing that role, but it was a B-movie. And he was somewhat concerned about taking that step." The New York Times called Young Dillinger "crummy," and it's hard to argue with their assessment. The film performed unspectacularly at the box office.

During his Oscar campaign, Nick, a member of the board of the Screen Actors Guild, denounced runaway productions. Describing himself in one interview as "a Hollywood star," he vowed, "I will never make a picture abroad." Now he would eat those words. Forced to choose the best of an increasingly poor selection of roles offered to him, Nick and Carol left for London's Shepperton Studios on Feb. 15, where Nick would star with Boris Karloff in American International Pictures' Die, Monster, Die (1965).

In typical fashion, Nick played up the star treatment he was being given -- an apartment with a cook and butler and a car and chauffeur. Nick told Louella Parsons that filming in London, "means weekends of taking Carol to Paris to shop. Later, when the picture is finished, we'll do Europe on a second honeymoon." There was no time for such plans. Nick finished the film in a week. Then Nick, Carol, and their kids traveled to Japan, where Nick was the token American "star" in Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and Monster Zero (U.S. release 1970).

In Japan, Nick was outwardly chipper. Inwardly, he was deeply unhappy. Actor Yoshio Tsuchiya said, "Nick Adams was actually a very, very good friend. We were very close friends. I'm sorry to say he was on a very strict diet. He wouldn't eat any breakfast, lunch, dinner but only a cup of coffee in the night. In one session he finally fell down. I was very sorry for him in that state." Alienated from Carol, Nick fell in love with actress Kumi Mizuno and even proposed marriage to her later. Herman Saperstein, the American co-producer of Frankenstein Conquers the World and Monster Zero, told Stuart Galbraith IV, author of the book Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, that Nick had an affair with Mizuno while filming Monster Zero and that Nick remained in Japan after Saperstein and the others returned to America.

In Steve Ryfle's book, Japan's Favorite Mon-Star, Allyson Adams confirms Saperstein's story. She told Ryfle that at a wrap party Saperstein threw after Frankenstein, Nick fawned over Kumi Mizuno so much in the presence of Carol Adams that the other guests cringed with embarrassment. Nick and Carol's reconciliation didn't survive Japan. At the end of July 1965, they decided on a legal separation. Carol filed for divorce in September.

On Oct. 10, 1965, the Hollywood Reporter said, "Nick Adams leaves today for Tokyo, accompanied by Tomoyuki Tanaka, executive producer of Toho Productions, to begin his starring role in War next Wednesday for Toho. Tanaka is closing a deal for Adams calling for the actor to star in three additional films for Toho following War." The story reported that Adams would complete the film on Nov. 18 and then would be available for two weeks to join the USO to entertain troops in Vietnam.

Nick never made War. He did make The Killing Bottle (1966), about which little is known. Once again, he acted alongside Kumi Mizuno and Yoshio Tsuchiya. According to Steve Ryfle, Nick's dialogue track was lost and was dubbed by Jack Curtis, who performed the voice of the character Pops Racer in the series "Speed Racer." The Killing Bottle never saw an American release.

Nick was still in Japan when Carol was granted a divorce and custody of the children on Oct. 12. On Jan. 26, 1966, Nick and Carol announced another reconciliation on a local television show, "Bill John's Hollywood Star Notebook." It wouldn't last.

Why did Nick's marriage fail? There was marital trouble early on. Bill Dakota said, "Somebody told me they were on the set one time, and she called, and she got Nick on the phone and said, 'Guess what I'm doing?' and he said, 'What are you doing?' and she said, 'Fucking.' She used to aggravate him like that."

Though Adrian Spies didn't witness any major incidents, he once heard Nick yelling at Carol over the phone, and observed, "It didn't strike me as any kind of a serene marriage. I would say there were early signs of pressure."

Part of the problem was Nick's obsessive pursuit of stardom. According to Jay Bernstein, "Nick would get up every morning at four and he'd be asleep by seven. His wife, Carol would get up around noon or one and she'd stay up all night watching movies and stuff. So they never saw each other. They were on different time schedules." Andrew Fenady succinctly said, "His hobby was his career and his career was his obsession."

According to Rona Barrett, who knew Nick since the days when she typed scripts in "The Rebel's" production office, Nick blamed his career failures on Carol. In her autobiography, Barrett wrote, "During one of his crazed states he remarked to me -- and to a whole roomful of people -- that he wasn't making it because no one in Hollywood's upper stratosphere would accept his wife.

"He referred to her as a 'Plain Jane' who didn't know how to entertain properly, couldn't carry on a conversation and, in general, was totally incapable of being with important people. This was untrue. She was one of the most refreshing wives in the entire community."

Barrett wrote, "What was behind it all? Nick had become the companion to a group of salacious homosexuals." According to Barrett, they told Nick he was a superstar and poisoned his mind against Carol, convincing him that she was the real reason he was a failure.

On Nov. 26, 1966, Carol resumed divorce proceedings and obtained a restraining order against Nick. Carol alleged that Nick was "prone to fits of temper" and in a special affidavit charged that Nick had "choked her, struck her and threatened to kill her during the past few weeks."

"I'm going to fight this thing all the way," Nick said. "I want to keep possession of my home and possession of my children." It was the beginning of an acrimonious, contested divorce and child-custody battle. Nick became enraged after discovering that Carol's boyfriend was physically disciplining his children and telling them that Nick was "a bad man" and a "bad daddy."

Nick hired an attorney, former L.A.P.D. officer Ervin Roeder. Robert Conrad says, "He (Roeder) was a very, very tough guy and he was a kind of man that was tough to like." Nick got a restraining order prohibiting Carol's boyfriend from coming to the family home and being in the presence of the children. On Jan. 20, 1967, while waiting for a court hearing to begin, Nick was served with an $110,000 defamation suit by the boyfriend.

Ervin Roeder's job was to wrest custody of Allyson and Jeb Adams from their mother. It was one he did well. On Jan. 31, Nick won temporary custody of his children. It was a hollow victory in his tug of war with his wife. Jeb Adams said, "He saw it as a competition, basically, more than anything of getting custody of us. But, a matter of a week or two later, he gave us back to my mom." She later regained legal custody of her children.

Nick's last two years were fraught with problems. The cost of maintaining his and Carol's homes, sending his kids to private schools, and legal expenses depleted his income, which was now much lower than before. Nick began drinking excessively to cope with the stress. Alone and lonely, Nick would call Kumi Mizuno in Japan. She told author Stuart Galbraith IV, "He would sometimes call me at night but I couldn't understand English so I would sit there on the phone, holding a dictionary, and try to guess what he was saying, and answer him. He even proposed to me! I already had a fiancé so I had to refuse."

Nick only worked sporadically in several low-budget films and a few TV guest shots. He had an uncredited cameo in the comedy Don't Worry, We'll Think of a Title (1966). He appeared in "Willy and The Yank" (released on video as Mosby's Marauders), which was broadcast in three parts on "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" on NBC starting Sunday Jan. 8, 1967. Nick co-starred with Darren McGavin in Mission Mars (1968). Nick's final role in an American film was as the star of Fever Heat (1968), a stock-car racing drama filmed in Iowa.

Nick filmed an episode of the TV series "The Wild, Wild West" in the first week of 1968. Then he went to Mexico to act in the film Los Asesinos (The Assassins), a Mexican spaghetti western imitation. In early February 1968, after finishing work on Los Asesinos, he visited his friend Robert Conrad in a West Los Angeles hospital. Conrad, star of "The Wild, Wild West," was recovering from a fractured neck he received in a stunt accident.

"Get out of bed," Nick joked, "you're faking." Conrad remembers, "Nick was chipper and full of stories about Mexico, where he'd just finished shooting a feature. He'd signed for another movie in Rome, was planning to leave for there soon. He cheered me up about my neck. Nick looked good."

What Conrad didn't know was that Nick had already returned from Rome, where he had flown at his own expense to appear with Aldo Ray in the film Murder in the Third Dimension, only to discover after arriving that the film had fallen through. In her memoir Bittersweet, the late actress Susan Strasberg recalls being surprised to meet Nick in a bar in Rome. Nursing a drink, Nick bitterly cursed the movie business he once strove so hard to be a part of.

Nick spent Saturday playing with his children. He phoned Ervin Roeder on Sunday and set a dinner date for Wednesday evening, Feb. 7, 1968. When Adams didn't show up, Roeder, who hadn't heard from him for two days, became alarmed. This was a sudden deviation from Nick's habit of staying in touch with Roeder, sometimes calling him as many as six times a day.

Roeder drove to Nick's newly rented, two-story home nestled in the Coldwater Canyon section of the Hollywood Hills. Seeing a light on in the upstairs bedroom window, he knocked on the door. There was no answer. He tried the door, but it was locked. He went to the rear of the house, forced open a window and entered. Heading straight to the upstairs bedroom, Roeder made a shocking discovery. Fully dressed in a shirt, blue jeans and boots, his back against the wall, Nick sat on the floor by his unmade bed. His eyes stared ahead blankly. He was dead.

An autopsy performed by the Los Angeles County Coroner revealed that Nick had taken a massive dose of the sedative paraldehyde. By itself, this would not have been fatal. But the paraldehyde had acted in lethal concert with the tranquilizer Promazine.

Chemically related to formaldehyde, paraldehyde is a cloudy brown liquid with a strong odor and flavor. It is typically prescribed for alcoholics to control delirium tremens. It is an irony that the paraldehyde was prescribed for Nick by Dr. Andrew Adams, Nick's own brother.

But why did the actor take the lethal combination? The coroner's team of human behavior specialists conducted a rarely performed psychiatric autopsy. While they did their work, newspaper stories suggested that the stresses of Nick's waning career, divorce, and child custody battle drove him to suicide.

An article in the Feb. 9 edition of the Los Angeles Citizen-News, "Secret Torment Of Nick Adams," quoted unnamed friends who said that Nick was "obsessed by his love" for Carol and feared she would commit him to an asylum.

On March 3, 1968, Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi quietly closed the book on the case, concluding: "The mode of death is certified as accidental-suicidal and undetermined."

The circumstances surrounding Nick Adams's death soon became fodder for the authors of articles and books on Hollywood's unsolved mysteries.

In his 1970 paperback book, Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries, John Austin wrote, "what puzzled friends and police -- and does to this day -- is that no means of ingestion were ever found near the body, nor was there any paraldehyde container anywhere in the house."

In his 1992 book, More Hollywood's Unsolved Mysteries, Austin accused Ervin Roeder of murdering Nick after Nick discovered that Roeder was misappropriating his money. Austin's chapter on Nick Adams's death is replete with errors and cites no sources for Austin's allegations. Austin writes that Ervin Roeder was killed 10 years after Nick died, but Roeder was shot and killed on June 10, 1981. Austin claims that Roeder's girlfriend phoned a friend the day after Roeder's murder, promising to reveal the secret of Nick Adams's death, and then she was killed the following day. But Roeder's wife, Jenny Maxwell Roeder, was shot and killed at the same time as her husband by the same assailant when the Roeders entered the lobby of their apartment near Beverly Hills.

In 1992, Jeb Adams told me that he was "99.99 sure" that there was foul play and that Roeder was involved. Jeb Adams said Nick wasn't careful about managing his money, although he doesn't believe that Roeder murdered his father. He believes that Roeder gave Nick a drink and some tranquilizers to help calm him down, and the alcohol and pills killed Nick accidentally. Jeb Adams was circumspect in his discussion with me and wouldn't tell me who his sources were.

In 1999, on E! Entertainment Television's episode of "Mysteries & Scandals" devoted to Nick Adams, Jeb Adams offered even less than he had told me. He named no names, gave no facts.

What proponents of some dark mystery involving Nick Adams's death have missed or deliberately ignored is clearly stated on the record. In the Feb. 8, 1968 edition of The Los Angeles Times, staff writer Jerry Cohen wrote, "a number of stoppered bottles containing prescription drugs were in a medicine cabinet. No alcohol was found in the actor's bloodstream, the coroner's office reported."

Adrian Spies remembers a poignant encounter with Nick shortly before Nick's death. Spies was walking his dog along Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills one evening and approached La Scala restaurant when Nick Adams emerged with another man, a putative business partner. Seeing Spies, Nick introduced him, effusively praising Spies to the other man. Nick began walking away, then turned around and told Spies, "Adrian, I'm gonna be a big star!" Spies recalls that Nick said this, "with a look in his eye like, 'Jesus Christ, I'm not, am I?' " Then Nick gave a sadly bitter laugh.

"But," Spies said, "he said it sadly mocking himself. And that was Nick's exit line in my own personal experience with him and I think, you know, just about Nick's exit line."


Copyright ©2003 Peter L. Winkler

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