In a new GQ profile, Nick Nolte upended one of the great tales of the internet age, revealing that his famous wacked-out mug shot—taken after he passed out while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway—was not actually a mug shot, but a Polaroid he willingly posed for after a cop asked for a picture. Is it true? As true as any recollection Nick Nolte has about his drug-induced catatonic episodes. Which is to say no, it's not true.
In Nolte's telling, he him magnanimously agreed to a cop's request for a photo with the proviso that the cop share the proceeds from the sale with all his buddies.
The common misconception about the freak-haired-wild-man photo taken that day is that it was Nolte's police mug shot. It was not. (He did pose for a mug shot, but that has never leaked.) At the hospital where Nolte was taken for a blood test, a young officer asked him if he could take a Polaroid. "I said, 'Come on, you don't really want to ask that, do you?' " Nolte recalls. But he did. Nolte figured that the officer had been talking to the others about how this might be worth having, and so Nolte made him agree that, if he posed, the young officer would share any proceeds with his colleagues. "And I let him shoot the Polaroid."
Nice guy. There are a couple problems with that story. First, the image is quite obviously not a Polaroid but a grainy, pixelated, distorted digital photograph. Secondly, it has been published and reproduced far and wide—including in the GQ story at hand—with no credit, indicating that it was not licensed by the photographer but rather is a public domain photograph.
Here's the AP caption accompanying the photo: "This police booking photo released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's department Sept. 12, 2002, shows actor Nick Nolte after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Calif." It is credited to "AP/California Highway Patrol."
The Smoking Gun, which was the first place to post the iconic image, confirms that it got it from the California Highway Patrol.
Since TSG is the outfit that first obtained the Nolte photo—obviously one of our prouder moments—the image's history is one with which we're rather familiar.
The photo we published on September 12, 2002—the day after Nolte's DUI arrest—was provided to us by a California Highway Patrol spokesperson. It is the official mug shot of Nolte that was taken at the Lost Hills sheriff's station.
The digital image was snapped during the standard booking process. Not by some purported cop supposedly looking to make a quick buck with a Polaroid taken at the hospital. The cinder block wall—a mug shot staple—should have clued GQ into Nolte's leaky memory. Or even a simple check with the Highway Patrol would have confirmed that the photo provided to us was, in fact, Nolte's mug shot.
You can't really blame the reporter, Chris Heath, for the error. I mean, who among us would even think to doublecheck something Nick Nolte told us? You can take that man's word to the bank.