It was the mug shot seen around the world. In 2002, Nick Nolte was arrested for driving under the influence, and his wild-haired booking photograph instantly went viral. “In 1992, People magazine had named me the sexiest man alive,” he recalls. “Ten years later, I looked to all the world like a madman — and I couldn’t be sure which of the two kinds of notoriety was worse.”

Fans wondered how Nick could have fallen so far. In his new memoir, Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines, the star, 76, reveals the lifetime of torment that led to that rock-bottom moment. “I drank in order to deal with anything I found difficult — relationships, failed projects,” he says. “I started using harder drugs to close off the pain and suffering of life — in other words, to escape life.” Nick’s unhappiness and self-destructive tendencies began early.

nick nole in rich man, poor man getty images

Nick in Rich Man, Poor Man.

Raised by a shellshocked World War II vet dad and a hot-tempered mom in Iowa, he threw himself into football but failed out of three colleges and was arrested at 20 for selling fake draft cards. “I used self-inflicted physical pain to distract me from my emotional state,” he says. “I needed to get a clearer view of how to begin making a life for myself.” He became obsessed with acting and moved home, where he suffered a mental breakdown. “My room became a self-imposed sanitarium,” he says. “I held the key, and no one confined me to the cell except me, yet I virtually never left.”

An acting coach helped him find his way and after years of struggling, Nick suddenly found fame at 35 with the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, which led to a string of big-screen hits like North Dallas Forty, 48 HRS, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. “My career as an actor had skyrocketed to heights I had never imagined,” he says. “But instead of finding peace and a degree of meaning in my success, I continued to find life offstage and away from the cameras challenging.”

nick nolte's family getty images

Nick and his family.

Finding lasting love proved the toughest task of all. “Even more than football or acting, women have been the major passion of my life,” he says. “I’m fascinated by them.” His three marriages failed, but his last — to Rebecca Linger, from 1984 to 1994 — brought him a son, Brawley, now 31. “For the first time in my life, I experienced unconditional love in the way only a parent can,” he says of Brawley’s birth. “It was wonderful.” These days, Nick lives happily with Clytie Lane, his former Pilates instructor, and their daughter, Sophie, 10, in a garden-filled Malibu home. “I had been married three times, and three times those forever-after relationships had collapsed,” he says.

“This time, [I’m] devoted to Clytie, but we chose not to marry, and that’s fine with me.” As a father, Nick has discovered the true meaning of life. “Your responsibility to love and protect your child is the work you offer the world,” he says. “On Oct. 3, 2007, the day of her birth, I began my most important work: helping little Sophie travel as high and as far as she could, kept aloft, and safe by her family’s love,” he said.

For more on Nick Nolte, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!