In the early hours of Saturday morning word went out that our friend Tate Nichols had passed away in North Georgia, and my condolences go out to all of his loved ones. For those of us who have not seen Tate in recent years the news of his death has been a shock. In the “old school” Atlanta film circle it has been felt most keenly, especially by my friends in the art department, many of whom have worked side by side with Tate for most of their adult lives.
I will be listening up for news of a memorial service for Tate, especially for stories from those who knew him best and have all the funniest stories about his life, because Tate was funny!
I would like to add that I thought that Tate was fearless.
If memory serves, the cast and crew for my first movie, Robocop 3, had gathered one night in 1991 at a restaurant that would later become known as Park Tavern – I’m not sure if it was the Robocop wrap party or something else, but whatever it was, I clearly remember that as I was leaving the men’s room I spotted this short guy slide up to a urinal, unzip his fly and lean over toward a tall guy who was already there taking a whiz.
The short guy was clearly staring at the tall guy’s crotch and loudly declared with an odd, not-quite-lisp, “Nice penis!!”.
This conversation was clearly none of my business so I hurried out of there and headed back to the bar, where I soon learned that the tall guy I had just seen in the men’s room had apparently roughed his own girlfriend up in front of everyone and that short guy had made it his mission to follow the tall guy around and give him hell for it.
That short guy was of course Tate Nichols.
Tate has been a part of Atlanta’s core group of set decs who have been working in this town since the 1980s and in the golden nostalgia of my memory Tate (and every one of the people in that core group of old-timers) has worked on every show that I ever did, even if IMDb shows that to be patently untrue.
In 1997 a big action movie called Black Dog rolled into Atlanta, and those of us on second unit spent our days helping to crash big rigs into each other every chance we got. As the leaves began to change for autumn the producers moved our unit to Helen, Georgia, and we began running trucks off of mountains in front of a spectacular Fall backdrop.
Back in those days (pre-incentives) there wasn’t a lot of work in Atlanta toward the end of the year and so Tate was padding out his income by working greens with Mike Sullivan. I seem to recall that the guys were doing more road sign changes than limb-lopping.
As with most stunt-heavy movies, the day to day second unit shooting schedule for Black Dog was built on half truths and gorilla dust, and since 99% of our work near Helen was road work, the only way to be prepared was to chase around after the camera crew in your stakebed truck, with your radio tuned to channel one. The director and the stunt guys didn’t give two flips about continuity or art direction, they only cared about crashing trucks into other trucks, so it was up to all of us to make sure that we were handy so we could fight our way in and attempt to do our various jobs before the stunt guys stomped the gas.
One day I hopped into the greens stakebed to ride around with Tate and Mike and our set dec, Katie P., and at some point their driver, Rob Hovis, pulled up on the side of the road and we all started to get out. Those of us on the passenger side made a last minute decision to stay inside the cab instead, as there was no ground on our side of the truck, just a big giant ravine.
Tate made some extremely pithy remarks about Rob’s parking job that afternoon.
In the photo at the top of this post you see us taking a break from a losing battle of helping the on-set painter to “paint out” (manually, with a roller brush and grey paint) the skid marks from the previous take, a technique which wasn’t working too well since the paint kept freezing soon after we rolled it onto the asphalt. For more on that misadventure read: Highway to Glidden.
One night the second unit crew gathered at the restaurant Paul’s on the River (Paul’s Steakhouse) to celebrate a successful ending to a very scary stunt from earlier in the day and our collective energy bubbled up into a brief but boisterous food fight. A bit later I wandered up to the front of the restaurant where I spotted Tate sitting at the bar, off to one side, quietly, reading a book. I sat down to talk to him for a few minutes and he explained that he enjoyed reading his book and having a drink by himself, which was also an excellent way to meet women (I quickly left him to his work).
In the years following Black Dog the work in Atlanta became increasingly scarce, as Louisiana gobbled up projects thanks to their new tax incentive.
The last time that I’m certain that I worked with Tate was on the largely forgotten prequel to Dumb & Dumber called Dumb & Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, which we shot in 2002 (that’s Tate standing in front of the polar bear, with the rest of the set dec department on the museum set). By that time I was doing art direction and moving toward other creative paths.
It’s been more than a few years since I last ran into Tate while visiting a set, but the last email that I have from him was from 2009 where, after learning that I was being treated for cancer, he wrote “I know you will be well but if you need anything, give me and your other film friends who love you, a call.”
I really wish that I could give Tate a call today.