Famous for his friendships with supercelebrities, Nick Adams was Hollywood's greatest wingman—but few realized that behind closed doors, this rugged heartthrob fought demons. But after his shocking and untimely passing, the dark truth came out.
Nick Adams came into the world during a tumultuous time. When his family was celebrating his birth, others were lamenting their misfortune. He was born on July 10, 1931, in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, during the Great Depression, which put so many Americans out of work and onto the streets. Fortunately for the Adams family, Nick’s father’s work was always in demand.
Unfortunately, it was also incredibly dangerous.
Nick’s parents were Ukrainian immigrants, so finding an ideal job was kind of out of the question. Peter, Nick’s father, made his (difficult) living as a coal miner. Think of toxic air, claustrophobic mine shafts, and backbreaking physical labor. Whatever you pictured, his job was probably even worse. He was lucky to come out of it mostly unscathed. The same can’t be said for his brother.
While Nick’s father may have been fortunate in his work, his uncle wasn't so lucky. He met with a horrible accident while on the job, and it cost him his life. That was the final straw. Nick was still just a child, but his father didn’t want him to grow up to become a miner himself. Peter wanted to do what was best for his family, so he did what any loving father would do.
With barely any money and next to no belongings, the Adams family piled everything up onto their car and left. They had no idea where they were going; they didn’t even have enough money for gas. The family made it as far as New Jersey, where Nick’s father again was lucky enough to land a job. A semblance of stable, domestic life began once again to take shape for the Adams family. But how long would it last?
Like so many of the beefcakes he'd eventually share the screen with, Nick Adams was a gifted athlete. When attending Henry Snyder High School, he performed extraordinarily in sports, and it started to draw attention. Everyone said that young Nick Adams could have a career in sports if he wanted. He was even approached and offered a deal that would have made many kids envious.
It almost sounds like a moment from one of Adams' movies. A talented teenager excels at playing baseball so much that the agents from a team approach him. Well, that really did happen for Nick Adams. The St. Louis Cardinals offered the teenager a chance to play for their minor league team, but he rejected the offer for a surprising reason: The pay was too low!
Adams didn't want to travel all the way to St. Louis to play for peanuts, but he didn't say goodbye to baseball. While still only a teenager, he landed a gig as a bat boy for the local minor league team. Sounds like a downgrade from the St. Louis Cardinals, if you ask me. Nick’s heart, however, wasn't in it—as his parents were soon frustrated to discover.
Nick was a natural when it came to sports, but his eyes were looking elsewhere. The native of Pennsylvania wanted to one day see his name lit up on the silver screen. His father thought his ambitions were ridiculous: “Nick,” he once said, “get a trade, be a barber or something.” The idea of working a trade, however, couldn’t have been farther from Nick’s thoughts.
Despite being a successful high school athlete, Adams couldn’t squeeze his way into a high school play for the life of him. As a senior, he unsuccessfully tried to land a role at the school’s theater, but he wasn’t going to let missed opportunities faze him. Besides, Adams knew of a place where there were far more opportunities for actors.
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High school plays aren’t that big of a deal, especially when compared to Broadway. In 1948, Adams was in New York when he wandered into an audition for a famous play. Here he met Jack Palance, who would soon become a famous actor and whose parents, like Nick’s, were Ukrainian. Jack asked him why he was interested in acting. “For the money,” was Adams' blunt response. Unsurprisingly, Adams didn’t receive the role.
However, he must have made an impression on Jack, because he sent Adams to a nearby theater for another chance at a role. And just like that, Nick Adams was an actor—but that was the easy part.
If at first you fail to succeed, then try and try again, or so they say. Adams never lacked for persistence or boldness. The young and prospective actor finally managed to land a role after tons of rejections. He would be playing Muff Potter in a theatrical adaptation of Tom Sawyer. While still auditioning around for other acting gigs, he encountered another legendary actor—though the meeting left a sour taste in his mouth.
After landing one acting job in New York, Adams tried auditioning for a few more. He was in the process of trying out for a part in Mister Roberts when he ran into Henry Fonda, who was by then already a legendary movie actor. Adams didn't exactly impress Fonda, to put it lightly. In fact, he suggested that Nick should take some acting lessons. Harsh words. Sadly, New York didn’t treat Nick Adams any better than Henry Fonda.
New York wasn’t presenting as many opportunities to Adams as he had expected. So, he took a page from his father’s book, and packed up his bags and left. Where was he going? Well, where everyone goes when they want to be in the film industry: Hollywood, baby! Although, unlike his father, Adams didn’t have access to a vehicle. But that wasn't going to stop him.
In 1948, he hitchhiked all the way from New York to Los Angeles. That’s certainly quite a journey.
Adams struggled to land roles in New York, but Los Angeles treated him even worse at first. Nick had to make his living as a handyman of sorts. He maintained the Warner Theater, which was located in Beverly Hills. That was one way to get producers to discover him. He was, after all, the doorman and usher, so they’d be seeing him often, but Adams had another plan to catch their attention...
After remaining invisible to the eyes of Hollywood bigshots, the aspiring actor pulled a wild stunt. Part of his job was changing the theater marquee, and one day, he put his own name up there. Maybe he just wanted to see his name up in lights, or maybe he thought it might get him noticed. Either way, his plan backfired terribly: His boss fired him over it.
Suddenly, Adams was searching for a new job. Thankfully, he wasn’t searching for long. At long last, Nick Adams's luck was about to change.
Las Palmas Theater was hiring for a comedy, and Adams was in dire need of a job. He auditioned for a role in Mr. Big Shot and, for once in his life, managed to land the gig! But once the excitement passed, Adams had to come back down to earth: The part only netted him around $60 per week, which wasn’t that much even in the 1940s—but that's not even the worst part.
Adams discovered a way to actually lose money by working. He was getting $60 per week, but he was also required to pay $175 to the Actors’ Equity Association for a membership. Adams had to work nearly three weeks before he even broke even as a stage actor. He wasn’t about to survive in California while drowning in debt, so he had to look elsewhere in order to supplement his income.
Adams could barely get a part to save his life, but he was ready to jump on any opportunity that arose. So when Pearl Bailey called in sick to the Mocambo nightclub, Adams jumped at the chance to fill her spot. He made $25 that night, but that was just the beginning. The days of these tiresome side gigs were soon going to come to an end.
In 1951, after a few years of working on the periphery of Hollywood, Adams managed to finally land a real role in a Hollywood film. He was going to appear in George Seaton’s Somebody Loves Me. His role? He played a Western Union delivery boy. He had a single line, and he was uncredited. Guess that’s still a start.
When your domestic life is about to take an awful turn, then any paying job is a welcome sight.
Nick Adams just couldn't catch a break. One day, a female friend came by his apartment, wanting to see how he was getting along. Unfortunately, when she sat down on the couch, a terrible shriek came from beneath her. She'd accidentally sat on Adams's cat. But it goes from bad to worse. The landlord woke up, quickly appearing to inspect the commotion. That was a problem.
Adams wasn’t allowed to have girls in his room—an eviction notice came not long after that. Los Angeles was becoming a little too much to handle for Nick.
Even after that initial role, acting work was still difficult for Adams to find. The role in Somebody Loves Me made Nick eligible for a Screen Actors Guild membership, but that really didn’t help him at all. Hollywood wasn’t as inviting as he had hoped. Perhaps out of desperation, or sheer frustration at his inability to find steady acting work, Adams joined the United States Coast Guard in January of 1952.
He was finished with acting...but acting wasn't finished with him.
The Coast Guard was probably the last place one might go if they’re planning on running into Hollywood directors, but in June 1954, Adams again had one of his characteristic strokes of luck. Stationed in Long Beach harbor, Nick encountered the legendary John Ford, who was auditioning for his upcoming film. Ford must have liked what he saw, because Adams cast adam in the film adaptation of Mister Roberts.
He apparently landed the role because of a peculiar talent.
Nick Adams had many talents, one of which was his impressions of other actors. During his audition for John Ford, Adams showcased his ability to imitate James Cagney. He also performed hilarious impressions of Cary Grant and Marlon Brando. The accents impressed Ford, but he'd soon find out that Nick Adams could do a lot more than just mimic actors.
You don’t often hear about an actor taking a stuntman’s role in Hollywood. In a rather dangerous stunt choreographed for the film, the stuntman was supposed to drive a motorcycle off a pier, but he wouldn't do it. According to legend, the fearless and athletic Nick Adams threw his hat in the ring and performed the stunt himself. That's one way to get noticed!
He was starting to appear like a Jack-of-all-trades to the studio—and that's a good position to be in.
After seeing him in Mister Roberts, and seeing how useful he could be on the film set, Warner Brothers signed a contract with Adams, who was still only 24. The assistant director of Mister Roberts, Mervyn LeRoy, also helped Nick secure a contract with one of the most powerful agencies in Hollywood, MCA.
Nick Adams was no longer invisible to the big shots. They started to adore him—and they weren’t the only ones.
The story is apocryphal, but many think that Nick Adams ran into the American cultural icon, James Dean, while in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. They were both filming a commercial for Coca-Cola beverages, and quickly became friends. But the stories don't stop there. There are also some rumors that abound insisting that the pair became far more than just friends.
The intimate relationship between James Dean and Nick Adams is only hearsay, but it has been corroborated by people who knew both actors. Sal Mineo, who knew both Dean and Adams, claimed that the latter once told him that they “had a big affair.” It’s possible that Sal and or Nick could be lying, or that they could be telling the truth. Such a relationship was taboo and would have been hushed in the 1950s, and neither actor is still around to set the story straight.
Both actors landed a role together in Nicholas Ray’s upcoming teenage drama Rebel Without A Cause. They played friends onscreen, part of the same group of crazed delinquents who terrorize the streets. Offscreen, they also became closer than ever, moving and socializing in a cohort that resembled the one onscreen. Reality does sometimes mirror fiction.
They even mocked directors and actors they knew, staging scenarios where they made impressions of Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando.
In 1955, America was stunned to hear of the passing of James Dean. He was only 24 when a terrifying car accident took his life. This unfortunate incident also presented an opportunity for Nick Adams, who was allowed to dub his late friend’s lines in the momentous epic, Giant, in which Dean starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor. And this wasn’t even the only time Nick Adams was able to capitalize on his likeness to Dean.
Things were starting to get a little weird. Nick Adams not only dubbed James Dean’s voice, but he also started dating his co-star from Rebel Without A Cause, Natalie Wood. It’s possible that he liked her. It’s also possible that he saw through her a chance for him to become even more like James Dean. Whatever his ambitions were, the whole episode seemed strange, but that didn’t stop them from having a wild time in the country.
One night while in the country, Natalie Wood, along with another girl, had a romantic getaway with Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. They were heading towards a cabin in the countryside when Natalie entertained a romantic idea: She wanted to bathe in champagne. The girls rushed ahead of Dennis and Nick to set up the expensive bath. When Adams arrived at the cabin, he heard someone screaming in agony. It was Natalie.
Anyone who has been to the countryside knows that it comes with its dangers. When Natalie sat in the tub, she was stung by an unknown creature and suffered tremendous pain. The poor girl had to be rushed to the emergency room, where their romantic night quickly turned into a grotesque horror story. In fact, the story was traumatizing enough that Dennis Hopper remembered it nearly half of a century later, when he retold the tale on Letterman for millions of viewers.
After Dean's passing, Adams insisted that his old friend's female stalkers had taken a liking to him, now that Dean was gone. Photos of him mourning at James Dean’s grave circulated, where female fans hoarded around him. Adams also contributed to James Dean fan magazines by way of written articles and interviews.
If that wasn’t enough to show that Nick’s obsession with James Dean was unhealthy, then just wait and see what he did next.
If you know one thing about James Dean, it's his obsession with fast cars and unruly driving. Nick Adams knew that in order to be the next James Dean, he had to mirror him in that exact way, and that’s exactly what he did. Not long after the cultural icon’s death, Nick was caught telling a reporter that he was a “highway delinquent” and that he was even arrested nine times in one year.
Worse than that, he claimed that he “kept on racing” anyways. So rebellious...and dubious.
To solidify his rebellious persona, Nick Adams landed a role in a television series called, you guessed it, The Rebel. How original. Not only that, but Adams was also going to play the lead character, Johnny Yuma. He was also the only recurring character in this series. Being the late James Dean’s closest friend was clearly lucrative. Although James Dean wasn’t the only megacelebrity Nick Adams befriended during that time.
Nick Adams must have had a magnetic personality, because he was always attracting ultra-famous celebrities. During the shooting of Love Me Tender, Adams quickly got into Elvis’s good graces. The fact was that Elvis absolutely adored James Dean, and in virtue of Adams’s prior relationship with the late star, the two hit it off.
Elvis Presley and Adams got even closer, and for a moment in time, it seemed like the latter was going to be his biographer. It was rumored that Adams was collaborating with Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and the two were writing a book together on Elvis. They didn’t stop there, however.
Like young lovers, Elvis and Adams were inseparable. They even took a vacation together to Elvis’s home in Memphis. There were people who speculated that the pair may have actually been lovers. Considering that Nick Adams was somewhat famous, and a bachelor, which in the 1950s was a not-so-veiled way of saying gay, and that Elvis’s girlfriend of the time, June Juanico, was even jealous of their relationship, it could be true. It wasn't the first time such rumors swirled around Nick Adams, either.
Nick Adams was always seen parading around with Elvis. Tons of photographs abound of him riding pillion on Elvis’s motorcycle, almost romantically. Adams always stayed at Elvis’s place overnight, and in an affectionate gesture that tops the rest, he accompanied the legendary singer to his homecoming concert in September 1956. The close "friends" also shared many other things together.
When Elvis’s mother passed, Adams rushed to be by the King's side. Colonel Tom Parker recalls how Adams immediately traveled to be with Elvis, a gesture that the usually reticent Tom thought was "very kind of him." The two remained close friends throughout their lives—but though that wouldn't be as long as they'd hoped.
It’s difficult to get audiences to admire you as an unlikeable character, but that wasn’t the case for Nick Adams. In 1963, he appeared in a courtroom drama called Twilight of Honor. He played Ben Brown, a character who violently mistreats his wife. Despite how awful his character was, Adams earned an Academy Award nomination for his efforts.
Most ordinary people would wait for the results patiently, but Adams wasn’t ordinary. He wanted to increase his chances for success. How did he plan on doing that?
Never shy about being in the public’s eye, Adams thought the key to his success would be selling his own public image. He spent tons of money on advertisements promoting how well he acted in Twilight of Honor. He spent somewhere north of $8,000 in trade magazines. Today, that amount would be around $77,000. That’s a lot of pocket money to dish out for an award he didn’t end up getting. That honor went to Melvyn Douglas.
Oh, well, can't win 'em all.
Perhaps all the rumors got to him, or maybe he just wanted to settle down, but the famous bachelor finally decided to tie the knot. In 1959, Adams met Carole Nugent, a former child actress, while filming an episode in The Rebel. A few years later, in an interview, he referred to her as his "good luck charm." Carole, on the other hand, entertained a different perspective of their marriage.
She claims that they "had [their] problems at the start". Maybe Nick wanted his fans to think that their marriage was a bed of roses. Nonetheless, soon enough they were welcoming their firstborn into the world.
Despite the differing opinions of their marriage, the couple welcomed Allyson Adams into the world in 1960. They must have been busy, because only a year later, they also had a son. Jeb Stuart Adams was born on April 10th, 1961. For a moment, it seemed like the marriage was going to work out, and that domestic bliss was a possibility for Nick Adams and Carol Nugent.
That is, until Adams shocked his fans with the news on television in 1965.
Nick Adams appeared on the Les Crane Show on television in 1965. He was promoting Young Dillinger, a film where he played the main lead, John Dillinger. His fans probably expected him to talk about his film, and maybe lightly about his personal life, but they had no idea what they were about to hear. He told them that he was going to leave his wife, and that she didn’t even know about his decision yet.
Imagine learning about your divorce through the television.
It’s difficult to discern with certainty what was going on in Nick Adams's head. Just one week after announcing his desire to divorce his wife, he backpedaled. The couple decided to salvage their relationship and publicly announced that they were still together shortly after. Was that merely a publicity stunt? He always did care about publicity. Nick, however, didn’t run short of ways to infuriate his wife.
There aren’t many ways you can speedrun a divorce faster than cheating on your spouse. While filming in Japan, Adams allegedly had an affair with Kumi Mizuno, one of his leading ladies. The source of this rumor? His daughter, Allyson. She says that her father “had a penchant for becoming infatuated with his leading ladies,” and that it was his way of “tak[ing] on the role he was playing at the time.”
If your daughter knows about your cheating, just imagine what your wife thinks. She didn’t even wait for him to return to inform him of the news.
In July 1965, Carol Nugent left Nick Adams while he filmed a movie in Japan. Adams was about to suffer a devastating loss, because just a few months later, he also lost total custody of his children. He must have really gotten under his wife’s skin, because just one year later, she prepared to go for the jugular.
People say that when awful things happen, they happen in pairs. For Adams, they seemed to be happening in droves. In November 1966, Carol Nugent fired back at him again. She filed a restraining order against him for “fits of temper.” She even claimed that he “choked her” at least once, and had threatened her in the past.
These charges were damning, but Nick Adams was ready to fight back against her in court.
In 1967, even though the odds seemed against him, Nick Adams fought tooth and nail in the courts. Finally, a judge granted him temporary custody of his children, only to for him to do the unthinkable: Just a few weeks later, he relinquished custody, returning it to his ex-wife. Why would someone do that? His son, Jeb, thinks his father was only playing a game: “he saw it as a competition, basically, more than anything.”
That means Adams only wanted to show his ex-wife that he could beat her at that competition, that he was tremendously more powerful than she was. Is anyone surprised that they separated? His marriage ended—now Adams had to make sure his career didn't follow suit.
1968 didn’t provide Nick Adams with many great acting opportunities, so when the chance to star in an Italian science fiction film emerged, he didn’t hesitate at all. He financed the plane ticket himself and flew right over. When he arrived he got a demoralizing surprise. Murder in the Third Dimension, the film he'd flown out for, wasn't happening. The loss hit him hard.
An old friend of his, Susan Strasberg, ran into him in Rome. Horribly depressed, Adams was whiling away the hours in a bar. After that, he returned home to Los Angeles.
Something alarming happened on February 7th, 1968. Adams had plans to meet Ervin Roeder, his lawyer, for dinner, but didn’t show. Thinking that something was amiss, Ervin went to check up on his friend at his residence. When he arrived, he saw traces that indicated someone was in the house. The lights were still on, and the car was still parked. He knocked, but no one responded.
Eventually, he broke into the house and made a chilling discovery.
The story of Nick Adams unfortunately ends on a sad note. When his friend, Ervin Roeder, broke into his house, he found Adams unresponsive in his bedroom. He was no longer among the living. He was only 36. Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the medical professional responsible for his autopsy, discovered enough substances in his body to knock out a horse.
Particularly lethal was a combination of two substances, the chemical interaction of which would have caused his death. The verdict was that his death had been accidental, since the public of the 1960s wasn’t as cognizant of chemical interactions as we are today. It turns out that Nick Adams’s characteristic luck had run out.
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