Craig T. Nelson: Coach of His Success

UPDATED: July 26, 2010
PUBLISHED: July 26, 2010

The world is full of stories about people who decided to quit their jobs and do something else. So many stories, in fact, that an entire platoon of clichés exists to describe the act: chuck it all, re-engineer, change gears, retreat and reevaluate, and one particular favorite, “leave to pursue other interests.” This is the story of a man who, to pardon another cliché, took it to a whole-new level.

Hollywood, California, 1972

As the Sunset Strip still throbbed from a transformative music scene and a showbiz town was just beginning to enter one of the most fruitful eras of filmmaking, Craig Theodore Nelson was not the man he would become. You know him as one of the most recognizable character actors around, from Poltergeist, through an Emmy-winning 199-episode run on Coach, and now in NBC’s new hit show, Parenthood.

But Craig T. Nelson the comedy writer? The stand-up comedian?

Doesn’t quite mesh, does it? Nelson didn’t think so either, and yet that’s exactly the career track he was on back in the early 1970s, writing with Barry Levinson (who went on to direct Rain Man) for variety shows like The Tim Conway Show and doing stand-up at the newly opened Comedy Store in Hollywood. By any measure, his career was sizzling.

“I was making some pretty good money,” says Nelson, now 66. “And the shows, Tim Conway, John Byner, Alan King, they were rocking and really starting to take off. And all I could think was, This is not how I want to go here.

It wasn’t just his career path, really. Hollywood at the time was an intense party scene. Nelson was swept along in the river of madness, but he could only keep his head above water for so long. He would later emerge with an addiction he describes as a “life or death issue.” All this was taking a toll on him and his relationships, and despite his burgeoning career, he needed a change. He needed to prove himself in other ways.

Did he try to break out of comedy, embrace acting, pursue a different showbiz track? No. He walked away.

He packed up his family, bought 40 acres in Northern California, and built a log cabin. By hand. By himself. Which probably qualifies as “leaving to pursue other interests” to the 10th or 11th degree, depending on how you like math.

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he says. “No electricity, no running water, and the whole idea of those years was learning how to survive.” He raised the family’s food, hunted, lived from scratch. He worked odd jobs: surveyor, logger, janitor. Eventually, however, facing welfare and food stamps, Nelson knew it was time to make something of himself. But here’s the key: Now he knew he could—and on his own terms.

When he returned to Hollywood, Nelson got treatment for his addiction, which became “a lifelong addendum that I needed in order to survive, a process I utilize on a daily basis. Bottom line, I sought another path, and it’s not easy. But it’s the best one there is.”

What Nelson already had going for him was a work ethic and sense of responsibility. “You see, my father had been a jazz drummer, played with Bing Crosby, and between the wars and the Depression, was raised in an entirely different environment. He had that generation’s work ethic, and I watched him work himself to death just trying to support his family and make something out of his life. So when I got married, subconsciously, it was, Take care of this family. Do what you have to do.

“And when I came back to L.A. in ’78, I knew that I could survive. Whatever happened, whatever anyone said or did, any of it, I could take care of my family. I had some good breaks and it all happened.”

He makes it sound easy. It wasn’t. But is it easy making it in any profession? A lot of what he learned applies to any person in any job in any career worldwide. “You fight for each job,” he says, “and the belief system is incredibly lonely. It seems like you’re the only one who believes in you. Rejection gets very personal, which is disturbing. So you armor yourself to that stuff and forge ahead. Because that’s what strong people do.”

The grind of pitting wish versus reality was an even greater challenge. “I know in my own case that the feeling of inadequacy and demoralization can lead to not taking risks,” Nelson says. “How many people have been rejected in the path to developing a style? And broke through? The stories are innumerable, and you have to recount them and hold them close so you’re able to go ahead and make your own mark.”

Hollywood, California, 2010

The world is different now. Culturally, many things that were once true are meaningless. Nelson doesn’t lament this, but acknowledges it as a fresh challenge. “There’s just so much stuff going on and so many attitudes, so many different pushes and pulls on people,” he says. “We lose track of each other. We’re ready for sound bites. If you’re not interested in me in the first 10 seconds, you’re trading up. So we’re all hooked on not really listening to each other. To me, that’s the most fascinating part of what I do.”

Indeed, there is no more powerful unifying force—true listening— as when an audience synchs up with a captivating message (both actors and marketers can vouch for this).

So… how often do you challenge yourself? For in that one question, and the honest answer, lies the life you’ll lead. Nelson faced his hardest challenges between his departure and return to Hollywood. And now his life résumé, if you will, shows the creation of a complete person, much of it based on activities and accomplishments that are all about the challenge: He’s an award-winning actor, of course, but one who does drama and comedy, playing heroes and heavies. This doesn’t happen by accident. Neither does becoming a writer, producer and director, which Nelson has. Ask yourself: What diversity of challenge have you sought out in your own career?

Another question: How challenging are your hobbies? This might seem strange on the surface, as hobbies tend to relax us. But take a look at Nelson’s over the years. He’s a former professional race car driver. “I’d always wanted to try it, so I did,” he says. “And I loved it. Which made me do it some more. I got better. It’s incredibly physical, demanding and exhilarating. And expensive, which is why I had to stop.” Nelson is also a dedicated golfer with a single-digit handicap. “It’s humiliating and wonderful. Life journeys in 18 holes. There’s only so much furniture you can wreck.”

Finally, of course, comes the ultimate challenge: Family. Husband, father, grandfather. Nelson still struggles, as we all do, with the work-life balance. “I worry about making work more important than what I know to be the truth,” he says. “Throughout all areas of life we’re told how to look, how to act, what to speak, what to wear, what we should have and other people don’t have, and we know none of that means anything. Yet these other messages never stop coming.

“And all of this is one big reason I wanted to do a family show [Parenthood] with a large cast. If people are going to watch TV, let’s give them something coherent with actual dialogue. No one’s been killed, there have been no car crashes, no one’s taken too many drugs.”

Obviously, these are not the words of a man who still feels the need to “leave to pursue other interests.” But break that phrase down, and all it really says is, “looking for a new challenge.” True then for Nelson, and true now. And while few really have the option in this economic environment to chuck a job to build a cabin in the woods (try finding 40 undeveloped acres, first), every single one of us has the ability to manufacture new ones on a daily basis. The question is, Are we willing to do it? Are we willing to fold everything we’ve learned into a new recipe? This is not about deliberately making life more difficult for yourself. It’s about working with your personal raw materials to find something new. All the challenges—self-inflicted or not—have shown Nelson the good stuff.

“You know, most projects that I’ve done are really not about the project,” he says. “They’re about what’s going on inside and around, that journey that we’re all on, and what I can do to help that journey further itself and be of encouragement to somebody. Someone once said we’re trudging the road of happy destiny. It feels like that sometimes. Sometimes you’re encouraged, and other times disappointed. It’s a matter of going in and precluding all that with, ‘This is what I do, not who I am.’ I need to be who I am in the process of doing what I do. I need to stay true to what it is I’m really here for. And that’s the hardest thing, the biggest challenge.”