On His Own Terms
Riding high atop Hollywood's star machine, Jack Nicholson is enjoying the view.
When meeting Jack Nicholson for the first time, you can't help but wonder just who he actually is: the boozy Southern lawyer of Easy Rider? the short-tempered former concert pianist of Five Easy Pieces? the sexual jock of Carnal Knowledge? the cynical private eye of Chinatown? the con-artist mental patient of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? the slow-witted Mafia hit man of Prizzi's Honor? the philandering Washington journalist of Heartburn? the cigar-chomping Marine commander of A Few Good Men? the out-of-shape astronaut of Terms of Endearment? the Joker of Batman? the book editor-turned-werewolf of Wolf? or perhaps the vengeance-driven father in his upcoming film, The Crossing Guard?
Or perhaps Nicholson is the freethinking, rebellious Hollywood legend who thus far in his career has garnered two Oscars, 13 Academy Award nominations and a half-dozen Golden Globe awards, and who is presently commanding so much money per film that it's absolutely indecent.
It's a pleasantly warm Southern California afternoon when Nicholson makes a slightly belated entrance into the living room of his modest eight-room home, a house that sits atop a mountain overlooking Beverly Hills.
Dressed casually in slacks, a pale green polo shirt and a sleeveless sweater, Jack looks less the internationally known millionaire movie idol than an assistant golf pro at a driving range in Cucamonga. He has a trim physique, thinning brown hair, sleepy eyes and, at 58, a still somewhat boyish face. He strides into the dining room and sits down at the end of a long wooden table to munch on a chicken sandwich and talk about his life as a superstar, a concerned Los Angeles citizen and, not incidentally, a cigar smoker.
Although he's been a cigar smoker for most of his life and grew up around cigar smokers, Nicholson didn't become a devotee until about four years ago.
"I used to smoke a lot of cigarettes," he confesses. "Too many, in fact. That's one of the reasons I took up cigar smoking seriously. I figured the only way to break a bad habit was to replace it with a better habit. I started smoking when I was a kid, and I smoked until I got married to Sandra [Knight] in 1962. We both decided to quit smoking, and I did for about 10 years."
But in 1973, Nicholson starred in The Last Detail. "I wanted the petty officer character I played to be a cigar smoker," he says. "So I smoked cigars while we were filming the picture--real Cuban cigars, which, of course, are the best. The only cigar, in fact. I could get them in Canada where we shot the picture. And that started me smoking cigarettes again, until about four years ago when I took up golf.
"I'm so nervous when I play that I found I was smoking a half a pack of cigarettes during a round," he says. "So in order to cut down, I got in the habit of lighting a cigar around the fifth hole and smoking nothing but cigars for the rest of the round. That succeeded in calming me. And I'm now down to a 12 handicap." He takes another bite of his sandwich and adds, "I guess I am not the only golfer who smokes cigars. Larry Laoretti keeps one in his mouth the whole time in a tournament--even when he's putting. There must be something to it. He won the Senior Open."
One thing that's evident after a few minutes with Nicholson is that he can speak intelligently on almost any subject--ancient history, art, politics, women, sports, food, publishing, basketball, movies, Chinese philosophy, how cigars are made, in what province the best Cuban tobacco is grown and how the cigar got its name.
"I read a lot. I may not be an expert on a given subject, but I can hold a conversation on just about everything," he teasingly boasts.
Nicholson is not only a voracious reader, but one glance around his home tells you that he has exquisite taste in art, literature and furniture. The bookshelves are filled with novels, plays and works of nonfiction with well-worn covers that look as if they have actually been read rather than put there for ornamental purposes. Mixed in with the books are two gleaming Oscar statuettes, which Nicholson picked up for Best Actor in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in Terms of Endearment. Also on the shelf are five Golden Globe trophies.
Along with these awards stand silver-framed photographs of Anjelica Huston, with whom he shared his house for many years; his daughter, Jennifer--by his former (and only) wife, Sandra Knight--as a toddler; and his two most recent progeny, five-year-old Lorraine and three-year-old Ray, whom he fathered with actress Rebecca Broussard. He refuses to categorize Broussard as his "girlfriend"; she lives in a house just down the canyon from his own place.
After lunch, Nicholson moves into the living room, where he drops into a massive armchair of dark blue leather. The room is tastefully done in contemporary furnishings. Mixed in with the furniture are some Art Deco floor lamps with serpentine brass bases, a huge aluminum-and-smoked-glass Museum of Modern Art coffee table and a massive blue leather couch.
Nicholson pulls a long, fat Montecristo from his pocket and attempts to light it with a wooden match.
He seems to be having difficulty; the matches keep going out. "With all this cigar culture stuff," he says, tossing the bad match into an Art Deco ashtray and trying another one, "when are they going to make a decent match in America again? You can't light a cigar with one match anymore."
He's running the flame around the edge of the tip of the cigar, instead of just applying the flame to the middle of the tip and drawing on it.
Nicholson explains, "It's the proper way to light a cigar. Roman showed me that--Roman Polanski. He told me that to get the best flavor you have to run the flame all around the cigar tip, like you see me doing. Then when the cigar tip is on fire, you first blow the smoke out. Then you draw on it the regular way."
After four matches, he finally succeeds using the Polanski method. He blows out on the cigar, then sucks the smoke back into his mouth, savoring the fragrant odor with flaring nostrils. "Now there was a time," he goes on, "when if I saw somebody lighting a cigar like that, I'd say to myself, 'What's wrong with you? Why don't you just light the damn thing?' But now that Roman showed me the proper way, I realize he knew what he was talking about. I've tried it both ways, comparing them, and his way really does make a difference in the flavor. Just as real Cuban cigars do."
As he puffs contentedly on his Montecristo, Nicholson says that he can't really remember the first cigar he ever smoked. "The first cigars I remember, however, were all smoked by Shorty's father--Big Al--and all those other people playing pinochle with him back in Jersey. Shorty was my brother-in-law, married to my sister Lorraine. He and his card-playing cronies used to use ivory cigar holders. They smoked either Muriels or White Owls, I don't remember which. Maybe both."
Nicholson's favorite cigars today are Romeo y Julietas, Cohiba robustos and Montecristos, but he says the Macanudo maduros are smokable. "I don't think they are from Cuba. I think they are either Dominican or Jamaican. But they are smokable, in my opinion. But I'm not really a connoisseur. I just know I love Montecristos, Cohibas and Romeo y Julietas."
Of course, Cuban cigars are difficult to get in America. "And they're expensive when you are able to pick them up in this country," he says. "At 15 bucks a piece for them, you can bet there's about a 600-percent markup. We ought to recognize Cuba, just to give American cigar smokers a break and keep them from going broke. But until we do, you can bet some enterprising young man's out there in a boat, smuggling them in."
Nicholson doesn't encourage that sort of thing. He says he buys most of his Cuban cigars when he's out of the United States. "I also have friends who bring them back to me when they go abroad, if I ask them to. I have a good place to store them, over there in the corner, behind the dining table. Someone gave me a large, professional humidor, with a motor-driven humidifier that can keep cigars fresh for years. I can load up on them when I have the opportunity, and they won't get stale.
"When I went back to cigar smoking four years ago, after a long layoff, I found my cigars I'd keep in that humidor were as fresh as the day I had bought them. Of course, I don't smoke that many a day, so a few boxes last me a long time. I'm no George Burns, with his 15 a day."
As much as Nicholson enjoys smoking cigars and is pleased about today's revived cigar culture, he maintains that he's very considerate of people who don't smoke. "I don't smoke around my babies, for instance, and if I want to smoke around a lady friend, I always ask for permission before I light up."
He concedes, however, that he's not crazy about the antismoking movement. "But I don't let any mass movements bother me--it's such a waste of time. Of course, it's killing the restaurant business, but that doesn't bother me, either, since I don't own a restaurant. Moreover, I don't eat out much. Of course, the Monkey Bar, a private club I belong to, lets you smoke, but generally I just go to a restaurant to eat. I smoke after I leave. I don't drink, so I don't have to smoke while I'm drinking, which a lot of people do."
"But I'm willing to deal with all that. I don't want to argue with the antismoking movement, because I can remember when I wasn't smoking. I wouldn't eat dinner with somebody who smoked at the table. So I understand where they're coming from."
"You know, there were a lot of things about the Victorian era that I liked--not that I was around then. The men would excuse themselves from the dining table after dinner and go into another room to smoke and drink brandy, to get away from the girls who objected to cigars. That kind of suggests a life to me that seems nice--and civilized."
But, says Nicholson, "at least you can still smoke here--in your house, that is." Though not a spectacular home by Hollywood standards, Nicholson's house offers breaktaking views of the canyon below and the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles in the smoggy distance. He is happy in his modest home. "I've lived here for 25 years," he says. "I've never moved. I bought it before I could afford it." Outside the picture window is a small green lawn, a large rectangular swimming pool with wooden cantilevered decking and a couple of six-foot-tall pieces of iron sculpture. "Once I could afford it, I also bought the house next door, which I use for my office. Now I don't have to worry about any neighbors next door to me."
From the self-satisfied smile on his face, you get the feeling that Nicholson is happy to be alone on his mountaintop. "You know, in this spot, you're in the dead center of Los Angeles," says Nicholson. "The actual center--like if you were at 55th and Fifth Avenue in New York. That's where you are here." He waves his hand in the direction of the mountains and canyon. "Only that ain't the Frick. Where else could you have all these mountains and desert and still be in the dead center of one of the greatest metropolitan cities in the United States? You know, this is the only undeveloped canyon in L.A. now. Coldwater Canyon. I and the other residents have been fighting the developers ever since I moved here.
"It would be a shame if these mountains get developed any more than they are now," he says, looking thoughtful. "We'd be dead. Once the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains is gone, there really is no Los Angeles any longer. This is what makes the difference between here and 55th and Fifth--this desert/mountain/land-by-the-ocean look. It's what gives it what it has. That's what Chinatown was basically about."
Nicholson was born not far from 55th and Fifth, at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, on April 22, 1937. Although Nicholson's family lived at the Jersey shore, 50 miles to the south, they chose Bellevue due to circumstances that are somewhat confusing.
The people he believed to be his parents, John and Ethel May Nicholson, were actually his grandparents. John dressed department store windows in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Ethel May, a hairdresser, was also an artist of considerable talent from whom, Nicholson explains, he acquired his appreciation of art. (In fact, today he has several of Ethel May's oil paintings hanging in the upstairs hallway.)
Nicholson's real mother, whom he believed to be his sister June, was John and Ethel May's eldest daughter. Jack didn't find out the truth about his parents until 10 years after his real mother died of cancer in 1963.