Nolan was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Margaret and James Nolan, who was a shoe manufacturer. He attended Santa Clara Preparatory School and Stanford University, flunking out of Stanford as a freshman "because I never got around to attending any other class but dramatics." His parents disapproved of his choice of a career in acting, preferring that he join his father's shoe business, "one of the most solvent commercial firms in San Francisco."
Nolan served in the United States Merchant Marine before joining the Dennis Players theatrical troupe in Cape Cod. He began his career on stage and was subsequently lured to Hollywood, where he played mainly doctors, private detectives, and policemen in many film roles.
Nolan's obituary in the Los Angeles Times contained the evaluation, "Nolan was to both critics and audiences the veteran actor who works often and well regardless of his material." Although Nolan's acting was often praised by critics, he was, for the most part, relegated to B pictures. Despite this, Nolan co-starred with a number of well-known actresses, among them Mae West, Dorothy McGuire, and former Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout. Under contract to Paramount and 20th Century Fox studios, he assayed starring roles in the late '30s and early-to-mid '40s and appeared as the title character in the Michael Shayne detective series. Raymond Chandler's novel The High Window was adapted from a Philip Marlowe adventure for the seventh film in the Michael Shayne series, Time to Kill (1942); the film was remade five years later as The Brasher Doubloon, truer to Chandler's original story, with George Montgomery as Marlowe.
Most of Nolan's films were light entertainment with an emphasis on action. His most famous include Atlantic Adventure, costarring Nancy Carroll; Ebb Tide; Wells Fargo; Every Day's a Holiday, starring Mae West; Bataan; and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Dorothy McGuire and James Dunn. He also gave a strong performance in the 1957 film Peyton Place with Lana Turner.
Nolan also contributed solid and key character parts in numerous other films. One, The House on 92nd Street, was a startling revelation to audiences in 1945. It was a conflation of several true incidents of attempted sabotage by the Nazi regime (incidents which the FBI was able to thwart during World War II), and many scenes were filmed on location in New York City, unusual at the time. Nolan portrayed FBI agent Briggs, and actual FBI employees interacted with Nolan throughout the film; he reprised the role in a subsequent 1948 movie, The Street with No Name.
One of the last of his many military roles was playing an admiral at the start of what proved to be Howard Hughes' favorite film, Ice Station Zebra.
Later in Nolan's career, he returned to the stage and appeared on television to great acclaim in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, for which he received a 1955 Emmy award for portraying Captain Queeg, the role made famous by Humphrey Bogart. Nolan also made guest appearances in television shows including NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Bing Crosby Show, a sitcom on ABC and the Emmy-winning NBC anthology series The Barbara Stanwyck Show.
Nolan appeared twice on NBC's Laramie western series, once as outlaw Matt Dyer in the episode "Deadly Is the Night" (1961) and then as former Union Army General George Barton in the episode "War Hero" (1962).
Nolan starred in the classic 1964 episode "Soldier" of ABC's The Outer Limits, written by Harlan Ellison. He appeared in the NBC western Bonanza as LaDuke, a New Orleans detective. In 1967, he and Strother Martin guest starred in the episode "A Mighty Hunter Before the Lord" of NBC's The Road West series, starring Barry Sullivan. Also in 1967, Nolan was a guest star in the popular western TV series The Virginian, in the episode "The Masquerade".
Nolan co-starred from 1968 to 1971 in the pioneering NBC series Julia, with Diahann Carroll, who was the first African American to star in her own television series outside of the role of a domestic worker.
One of his last appearances was a guest spot as himself in the 1984 episode "Cast in Steele" on the TV detective series Remington Steele.
On February 8, 1960, Nolan received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in the television industry, at 1752 Vine Street.
In his later years, Nolan appeared in commercials for Polident.
In 1964, Nolan spoke at the "Project Prayer" rally attended by 2,500 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The gathering, which was hosted by Anthony Eisley, a star of ABC's Hawaiian Eye series, sought to flood the United States Congress with letters in support of public school prayer, following two decisions in 1962 and 1963 of the United States Supreme Court which struck down the practice as in conflict with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Joining Nolan and Eisley at the rally were Walter Brennan, Rhonda Fleming, Dale Evans, Pat Boone, and Gloria Swanson. At the rally, Nolan asked, "Do we permit ourselves to be turned into a godless people, or do we preserve America as one nation under God?" Eisley and Fleming added that John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers, Mary Pickford, Jane Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Pat Buttram would also have attended the rally had their schedules not been in conflict. "Project Prayer" was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign to keep public prayer in public schools.
Nolan founded the Jay Nolan Autistic Center (now known as Jay Nolan Community Services) in honor of his son, Jay, who had autism, and was chairman of the annual Save Autistic Children Telethon.
Nolan and his wife, Mell, had a daughter, Melinda, and a son, Jay.
A long-time cigar and pipe smoker, Nolan died of lung cancer on September 27, 1985 at his home in Brentwood, California; he was 83. He is interred at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, Los Angeles, California.