On His Own Terms
Riding high atop Hollywood's star machine, Jack Nicholson is enjoying the view.
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95
(continued from page 4)
"Such is the price of fame," says Nicholson with a sigh. "People start poking around in your private life, and the next thing you know your sister is actually your mother."
That a perceptive and highly sensitive man such as Nicholson could be kept in the dark all those years about his mother's true identity seems like something out of Oliver Twist. How could such a thing happen in the twentieth century? But Nicholson insists that 1974 was actually the first time he ever learned of it.
Nicholson's low-key reaction to the so-called scandal is typical of him. "I'd say it was a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn't what I'd call traumatizing. After all, by the time I found out who my mother was I was pretty well psychologically formed. As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me. If anything, I felt grateful. About the only lasting effect it had on me [was that] it sort of polarized my feelings about abortion. I think it would be comically incorrect for someone in my position to be for abortion. But I am pro-choice. People always say, 'How can you be pro-choice and against abortion?' Well, I tell them, this is one of the ways."
After graduating at 16 ("about a year ahead of my peers") from Manasquan (N. J.) High School, having grown up in nearby Spring Lake, Nicholson had a choice of directions to take. He could do nothing for a year and have some fun while waiting for his contemporaries to catch up with him, or he could go to college.
He had the grades for a partial scholarship at a local college, but that would have meant "studying hard and working 20 hours a day earning tuition money. And, frankly, I was too lazy for that. I wasn't filled with a burning desire to make something of myself in those days. And since I was only 16, I figured I had plenty of time to go to college later, if I wanted. I certainly didn't want to be a lawyer or a bookkeeper. So I hung around Jersey for about a year. I made a little money at the racetrack, and I worked as a lifeguard at the beach one summer."
Then, in 1954, he moved to Southern California and lived for a while in a small apartment with the woman he believed to be his sister, June. She had given up show business and had moved to Inglewood. "I wanted to get as far away from the rest of my family as possible," admits Nicholson. "But I still had no aspirations of becoming an actor." According to Nicholson, he supported himself by playing the horses at Hollywood Park by day and shooting pool at a neighborhood pool emporium by night. He bought his first car--a used '47 Studebaker--with his track winnings. He also worked part-time in a toy store. At June's insistence, he started looking around for a more secure way of earning a living, and he eventually found a job running errands in the animation section at MGM Studios. At the studio he became friendly with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, creators of the Tom & Jerry cartoons.
A successful producer of MGM musicals, Pasternak liked Nicholson's looks and asked him if he would like to be in pictures. But first, Nicholson needed acting lessons. Hanna and Barbera used their influence to get him an apprenticeship at a small but respected theater in Hollywood called The Players Ring. It wasn't long before he found himself in Jeff Corey's renowned acting class, along with three other hopefuls who would later give him some important boosts at critical junctures in his career--Bob Towne (who wrote the script for Chinatown); Carole Eastman (who wrote Five Easy Pieces); and Roger Corman (who became a successful producer/director of low-budget movies).
Nicholson's training and the contacts he made at The Players Ring led to his being cast in his first film role, The Cry Baby Killer, in 1958. It was a low-budget film, and Nicholson only made a few hundred dollars as its star. In it, he played a teenager who got in trouble with the law for shooting a couple of other teenagers in self-defense. Although the money was short, Nicholson accredited himself nobly as an actor. One movie critic singled him out as a potential star.
After that, Nicholson worked fairly regularly in low-budget "monster and biker" films, sometimes not only appearing in them, but writing and directing as well. The money in those films was small by today's salaries, but he was earning enough to marry a young actress named Sandra Knight in 1962. The following year, they had a baby named Jennifer.
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Paul AI — October 2, 2010 9:07pm ET
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