In 2009, Nick Nolte came to Pittsburgh to shoot Warrior, a drama set in the world of mixed martial arts. It wasn’t the Hollywood star’s first time here; he’d visited a few years earlier for his role in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But Nolte and Warrior director Gavin O’Connor agreed that Nolte, an inveterate partier, could use a minder.
O'Connor recruited Jimmy Cvetic, the distinctive Pittsburgh character whom he'd met while scouting local gyms for the film. Cvetic was more than the boxing coach O’Connor first knew him as. Following a storied career as an undercover narcotics detective, the Garfield native has concentrated not only on boxing, but also on avocations like organizing epic Christmas toy collections, and, perhaps most surprisingly, poetry. Now the walrus-mustached Cvetic, started hanging out with Nolte.
Thus began a deep if unlikely friendship.
As Nolte puts it today, “Jimmy was officially put in as my, you could call it 'probationary officer,' to take care of Nick Nolte during the movie Warrior.”
Cvetic has some funny stories about that assignment, including one about a flooded hotel room (which he said he first learned about when Nolte asked where he could find a squeegee). But mostly, the retired cop recalls how easily he connected with the actor whose nearly 50-year career – 48 Hours, The Prince of Tides, Affliction -- has included critical acclaim, a slew of award nominations, and starring roles opposite the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, and Robert DeNiro.
During the shooting of Warrior, Cvetic recruited Nolte to speak at an April event he’d organized at Heinz Field to commemorate shooting victims in Allegheny County. By tragic coincidence, the day that event was scheduled, a Stanton Heights man fatally shot three Pittsburgh Police officers. Cvetic went to comfort his grieving fellow officers, and he brought Nolte along.
“He went over and he stayed with those kids over at the police station. We went to the viewing and he talked to all the children, and I’m talking about for hours,” said Cvetic. “They were crying, the police were upset. Nick Nolte stayed with those kids and that family. I will never forget that. Nor will the policemen.”
The friendship continued: Cvetic, age 69, lives in Pittsburgh, while Nolte, 77, splits time between California, upstate New York and wherever he is working. But the two keep in touch by phone, and Nolte has arranged poetry readings for Cvetic in the Los Angeles area. Cvetic and his wife, boxing trainer Gloria Sztukowski, have also visited Nolte’s farm in New York.
“They’re kind of made out of the same cloth,” said Sztukowski.
“The two of them, of course they connect, right, because … there’s no bullshit in either of these guys,” said Patrick Jordan, a Pittsburgh-based actor and close friend of Cvetic’s.
“Jimmy has the soul of an artist, as does Nick,” said O’Connor, who remains friends with both men. The filmmaker said he continues to host an annual poetry night at his home in Southern California, for which Cvetic visits to join musicians and artists.
“People get up and recite poetry and sing songs, and [it’s] just a night of art that’s inspired by Jimmy, and you know Jimmy is always the guest of honor,” said O’Connor.
In late July of this year, Nolte came to Pittsburgh simply to visit Cvetic. The actor was on his way back from Europe, where he’d spent four months shooting German director Til Schweiger’s English-language remake of his drama Head Full of Honey (about a family confronting Alzheimer’s disease).
Nolte is ruddy and bearish, with unkempt white hair. He spent a few days here, mostly in Cvetic’s company. The visit included a Cvetic-style tour of Pittsburgh. “We’ve been meeting our law enforcement, sheriff, and all his old working partners, the whole thing,” said Nolte. Driving around town, Cvetic pointed out various sites from his policing days. “It boils down to, ‘This guy got shot there, shot there, and this guy got shot there,’” said Nolte.
They also visited a Polish deli in the Strip District and, on July 31, the long-running Hemingway’s Poetry Series, which Cvetic co-founded three decades ago in the back room of the venerable Hemingway’s Café, in Oakland.
“He didn’t have to do any of this,” said Cvetic. “He listened to all the poets read, you know, here’s a guy that’s been in the movies with Marlon Brando, you know, and with Bette Midler, and you know all these pretty cool people, and he’s over here in Pittsburgh honoring the poets. I thought, ‘That’s pretty nice.’” [Editor’s note: While Nolte was friends with the late Brando, he never made a film with him.]
Poetry is a big part of Cvetic’s relationship with Nolte. Four books of Cvetic’s salty, plain-spoken verses have been published, many of them about his life, from his childhood to his police experiences and the days when he went by the nickname “Dog.” They’re full of policemen, drug dealers, prostitutes, angry nuns, mischievous kids and more, with a strong feel for the dark comedy of the human condition.
One poem from his latest collection, Dog Days (Lascaux Editions), begins:
"Ran into Mikey Stone the other day,
He was getting a cup of coffee,
Standing there with a cup half full
And the milk was curdled.
“How’s it going, Mikey?”
His real name was Stone,
but everybody called him Stones,
guess because he had a set,
and swung them low, almost dragging them in a gutter."
Nolte compares Cvetic to Charles Bukowski, the street-life poet laureate who wrote in similarly blunt terms.
“I started reading Jimmy’s poetry and it was brilliant, just brilliant stuff. And related to it right away,” said Nolte. “He’s talking about rough subjects, and it communicates real well.”
On Aug. 2, the final night of Nolte’s stay in Pittsburgh, Cvetic arranged an impromptu private gathering at Lawrenceville wine bar Engine House No. 25. It was a combination meet-and-greet with Nolte (who recently published his own memoir, Rebel) and a poetry reading.
About 40 people attended the event. Beforehand, Cvetic and Nolte hung out in the bar’s big, den-like basement, which is full of wooden wine barrels and baseball memorabilia. (Engine House 25 is owned by photographer Duane Rieder, who also owns the adjoining Roberto Clemente Museum.) And, recalling a grizzled pair of vaudeville partners, they rapidly ran lines for a poem they planned to perform, “It Drives Him Crazy,” a dialogue between two old-timers losing their hearing.
“Pass the salt!” says Cvetic in his raspy voice.
“It’s not your fault!” says Nolte, all gravel.
“Ha ha he ha?”
“The times change. You kiss a girl, you get herpes.”
“You need a new hairpiece?”
“Sometimes I got to take a crap and can only fart.”
“Something wrong with your heart? Mine too, I have to take pills.”
“We all got bills to pay.”
The reading was a hit. And the next morning, Nolte flew back to California.