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Sunday, August 30, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Craig T. Nelson's Life In The Fast Lane

A blur, a growl, a puff of smoke. Craig T. Nelson, blue vapor trailing, wheels off the track and eases to a stop in the paddock area at Seattle International Raceway.

Nelson pries himself out of the cockpit - no small feat when you're 6-foot-3 and 48 years old with a history of chronic back pain and your car has no door and is about as low-slung and snug as a penny loafer.

Nelson straightens himself, pries off his helmet, flings his fireproof gloves into the car and discards his sunglasses somewhere else, then throws up his arms as if to signal that a field goal had been kicked through the uprights.

A logical reading had he been playing Coach Hayden Fox on ABC's successful "Coach," for which Nelson has received his third consecutive Emmy nomination for best actor in a comedy series - and may win tonight (8 p.m. on Channel 13).

On this recent afternoon, though, Nelson was acting very much himself. The raised arms were a traffic sign: Caution. Look both ways before crossing.

About an hour later Nelson still is looking for his sunglasses and doing a slow burn about the driver who bumped him from behind during a qualifying session for the next day's race; the collision bent a piece of bodywork on Nelson's sleek car so that it rubbed the rear tire, which complained with a plume of smoke.

"I'm very angry right now," Nelson says, though the words come out with almost a cheerful vigor. During the next hour of talking he will be completely pleasant and wryly funny. Throwing things appears to have perked him up.

"It's part of the fun of this," Nelson says. "I happen to be volatile in a way. That comes from being an actor. I express my feelings."

The current object of Nelson's affection is auto racing. An invitation to drive in last year's Toyota Celebrity Grand Prix in Long Beach, Calif., opened for Nelson some kind of adrenaline petcock. He took the race seriously, studied the physics of speed, and impressed his instructors with his innate talent. He has put his money where his passion is, financing his own pro race team and competing in a class of car called the Sports 2000. The V-8-powered loafer is best operated while wearing flame-retardant long underwear; it looks as though it could hit its top speed of over 150 mph before leaving your driveway.

"Concentration and touch, that's what it is," Nelson says, considering the similarities between acting and auto racing; he hopes to use his success at the first pursuit to finance the second, with the ultimate goal of owning an Indy-car team.

"You can fail at acting. But I don't know that they're going to be carrying you off in an ambulance. That's just the start of it."

The beginning for Nelson, where he grew up, was Spokane. He will quite happily turn back his own life's odometer.

He remembers being 16 and sliding behind the wheel of his first car, a green 1949 Chevrolet, jacked up to a racy angle with wood blocks under the rear leaf springs. When his father, a musician who had drummed with Bing Crosby's band, would take the keys away, Nelson hot-wired the Chevy using a foil-wrapped stick of gum.

"That worked until it melted," Nelson says. "Then your whole ignition system smelled like a piece of Juicy Fruit."

Nelson's first whiff of acting came inside a fiberglass goober.

He was 16 or so, working as a box boy at a Spokane IGA when the Planter's salesman persuaded him to don a cumbersome Mister Peanut costume and parade outside the store, handing out newfangled dry roasted nuts.

"One kid rammed my cane through the monocle hole," Nelson recalls. "Another kid shoved me off the sidewalk and tilted me forward and there I was careening, trying to get back across traffic."

He survived to play less pedestrian roles in summer stock theater and, later, college. Nelson bounced from Central Washington State to Yakima Valley Community College and finally to the University of Arizona. He dropped out and moved to Los Angeles on the thin promise of acting for pay.

He fell back on a job as a security guard with Lever Bros., "guarding the soap." He sold sewing machines, then learned to analyze credit reports for a bank. Eventually he auditioned for an acting fellowship at The Oxford Theater in L.A. where he met Barry Levinson, who would go on to direct such films as "Diner" but then was on a playwriting fellowship and living in Malibu. To be precise, in a Chevy Malibu.

Levinson and Nelson formed a comedy team, performing in local clubs before hiring on to write and perform on a weekly TV sketch comedy show produced by the local NBC station. That led to other writing jobs for national network variety shows.

Then, in 1973, sick of the Hollywood track, Nelson moved his family to the Northern California mountains. He built his own house up there above the cities, but lived below the poverty line, working odd jobs.

"It was contentment, `The Waltons,' " he says, but after five years the romance of it soured.

"I had been through a horrible divorce. I was on food stamps and welfare. I had to come back."

Nelson and his second wife, Doria, a Tai Chi instructor, now live in Los Angeles but are looking for property in Idaho or Eastern Washington. His youngest child from his earlier marriage lives in Spokane; the two others, and two grandchildren, live in Puyallup.

Upon first returning to L.A., Nelson contacted Levinson. Would his old friend help him edit a documentary he wanted to make about people who opt out of the rat race? Levinson instead invited Nelson to rejoin the circuit, offering him a part in his movie ". . .And Justice for All."

A string of movie roles followed. He paid for his first new car, the 1984 Porsche with LET GO plates that he still drives, by starring as the salute-rigid Air Force test pilot commander in the ABC series "Call to Glory."

Nelson excels at playing the type of guy who seems always on the verge of telling you to drop down and give him 25. Maybe that explains why Nelson lost out to "Evening Shade" coach-in-residence Burt Reynolds in a recent poll by Entertainment Weekly that asked readers who they'd rather play for.

"I get hurt by that kind of stuff, I really do," says Nelson. He feels that the popularity of "Coach," especially among women - who helped the series finish seventh in prime-time viewership last season - is the only poll or review where the show wins the acclaim it's due.

"Coach's abrasiveness. His attitudes. His refusal to accept a feminist position. It's very hard to make that appealing," Nelson says. "It's one of the hardest things I've had to do as an actor . . . how to make people laugh at him being angry."

With Nelson, the debate over his character is ongoing. His gears grind at the idea of Fox marrying his longtime girlfriend. But in the Sept. 16 episode, Fox will use live television to ask Christine to marry him, ABC said last week.

Nelson concedes that his summer whiskers likely will be shaved by tonight, when he attends the Emmy Awards ceremony in Pasadena, but he plans to wear the same long tuxedo and cowboy boots that last year sent fashion shivers down Mr. Blackwell's spine.

"It's just really fun to go," says Nelson.

Whether or not Nelson leaves the Emmy ceremony tonight with something new and shiny, he says he'll be happy to keep playing Coach Fox through a seventh season (this will be the show's fifth).

"The more I do `Coach' the better I like the guy. He just says how he feels. That kind of frankness, although not contemporarily sophisticated or correct, is refreshing to me."

The Screaming Eagles team coordinator walks up with Nelson's sunglasses. She mentions that the tailgaiting driver apologized to her.

"He won't apologize to me," Nelson says, with `Coach'-like bluntness. "He's been racing for so long, you know, he feels he has to be right. He wasn't. He made a mistake."

Nelson allows himself a smile. "Of course, I'm not the easiest person to apologize to."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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