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
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."
At least not the way he's trying to do it.
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."
An avid sports fan, especially of the Lakers basketball team, Nicholson tries to go to all their home games at the Forum and playoff games on the road. But he's not allowed to smoke at the Forum anymore. "I remember when I used to sit right on the basketball arena floor and light up, not too long ago," he says. "Then they moved us smokers out into the hall. Then you couldn't smoke in the entire building. But I get around it. I sneak into the men's room at halftime, like when I was in high school, and take my drags there.
"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.
June was somewhat independent-minded for 1935. At 16, she flew the coop for the Big Apple in pursuit of a theatrical career. She landed a job as an Earl Carroll dancer, but her career was cut short when she became pregnant. Forced to return home, June not only had to make the shameful admission that she was pregnant, but that she didn't know for sure who the father was (though Don Furcillo-Rose, an ex-boyfriend of June's during the mid-1930s and later a New Jersey businessman, claimed in the 1970s that he was the father).
June gave birth to Nicholson in New York City because her family evidently felt it was far enough away from friends and neighbors in Neptune, New Jersey, for them to be able to keep the whole episode a dark secret.
In 1937, it was tantamount to having leprosy for an unwed girl to give birth. As a result, Ethel May took over the raising of her grandson, passing him off as her own for the rest of her life, and swearing the others in the family to secrecy. Thus, June slipped quietly into the role of being Nicholson's older "sister."
Since June died before Nicholson ever learned the family secret, he was never able to have a mother/son relationship with her or to even talk to her about it.
Nicholson first learned of the cover-up in 1974, when a Time magazine reporter, who was doing a cover story about him, confronted him with the facts. At Nicholson's request, the reporter promised not to divulge the truth to his readers. But columnist Walter Scott revealed it in Parade magazine in 1977.
"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.
At the time, Nicholson's looks were maturing. He had lost his baby fat and had developed into the prototype of a handsome young acting juvenile of the kind MGM liked to feature in its Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-Debbie Reynolds "let's-do-a-show" musicals. Notwithstanding, Nicholson had never given any thought to becoming an actor until producer Joe Pasternak spotted him one day while Nicholson was making his mail rounds.
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.
Nicholson enjoyed playing daddy to baby Jennifer, but his lack of responsibility led to friction. He and Sandra consulted a psychiatrist, who tried an unusual psychedelic drug treatment. The experience terrified Sandra, who quickly gave up the psychiatrist and sought happiness and peace of mind in religion. But Nicholson found the drug "enlightening" and stayed with the treatment. When he refused to give it up, Sandra kicked him out of the house, thus ending the marriage. The divorce was finalized in 1968.
But while the treatment was no balm to the marriage, it served to introduce Nicholson to the Los Angeles counterculture scene in the late '60s and early '70s. This in turn led to a blossoming of Nicholson's friendship with Peter Fonda.
Around this period Fonda and Dennis Hopper were hard at work trying to produce a screenplay they had collaborated on--Easy Rider. Unable to get it off the ground with just their names attached to the script, they brought in novelist Terry Southern (who scripted the film Dr. Strangelove) to add his reputation to the project. With Southern's name on the script, producer Bert Schneider agreed to produce the film, with Fonda and Hopper acting the roles of the two footloose, antiestablishment, drug-crazed bikers. Rip Torn was the first choice for the third part--that of George Hanson, the boozy Southern lawyer--but he turned it down, claiming it to be just another "biker" film.
Schneider then offered the part to Nicholson (Nicholson had just produced and directed one of his low-budget films). Hopper didn't want Nicholson, saying the newcomer lacked the Southern accent needed for the role. Schneider, however, insisted on Nicholson because he felt he would have a steadying influence on the other two. This was important to Schneider because so much of the film was scheduled to be filmed in New Mexico, away from his watchful eye. For some reason, he trusted Nicholson to hold the whole thing together and to act as overseer, in addition to playing the role of Hanson.
The rest is history. Nicholson history.
Nicholson not only stole the picture as the middle-aged, disillusioned lawyer, but the film turned out to be a runaway hit exceeding all expectations. Nicholson received his first nomination from the Motion Picture Academy for Best Performance in a Supporting Role.
Although Nicholson didn't win the Oscar (losing to Gig Young), Easy Rider did something for his career that none of his dozen or so previous horror and action films had accomplished: He became a cult hero.
The antiestablishment B-flick underground dug him because he was proof that something good can come out of all that garbage Hollywood had been grinding out for years. And the over-30 crowd dug him, too. When they saw Easy Rider, Nicholson was the character the average fan identified with. In the words of critic Rex Reed, "There was something so touching about his alcoholic Southern aristocracy, searching for a philosophical grass-roots identity with the new hip and the new cool in his faded fifties Ole Miss football jersey, that made them want to revel in their own squareness. There's a nice guy squareness about Jack Nicholson, too."
Nicholson was on his way to wealth and superstardom, but it was the restaurant scene in Five Easy Pieces that had even the most jaded moviegoers rolling in the aisles. For those fans whose memories need refreshing, the young pianist, played by Nicholson, was in a diner, trying to order toast. Plain toast. The waitress, played beautifully by Karen Black, said she couldn't give him toast because it was past the hour when breakfast was being served. The punch line, delivered after he asks for a tuna sandwhich on toast without the tuna and she asks what should she do with the tuna--"Stick it between your legs"--has gone down in film history.
Acknowledging that it was one of his favorite movie bits, Nicholson explains that no writer could have made that scene up. It actually happened to him and some friends in a pastry shop on the Sunset Strip called Pupi's. They told Five Easy Pieces screenwriter Carole Eastman about the incident, and she put it in the script.
The thing Nicholson is best at, of course, is acting. Not only has he been Oscar-nominated 13 times, not only has he won two Oscars and numerous other tributes, but in 1994, The American Film Institute gave him its Lifetime Achievement award. He loves acting. But what he enjoys most about his career is that he's never been typecast, as so many stars of past and present have been. Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. Gary Cooper as a cowboy. Humphrey Bogart as a tough guy with a heart of gold. And Robert Redford as every woman's sexual fantasy.
Nicholson's roles have been so varied that there's no way anyone can pigeonhole him. Whatever or whomever he portrays, whether it is such widely disparate characters as the Joker in the comic-book inspired Batman or the sexually driven Jonathan in Carnal Knowledge, he brings to the role his inimitable, special quality, and he always seems to pull it off with consummate ease.
Of the many parts he has played, he refuses to select one as his favorite. "I don't make lists or categorize things," he declares adamantly. He doesn't even care to speculate on which of the myriad roles he has played comes closest to being the real Jack Nicholson. When pressed, he grudgingly admits, "Actually, I'm none of them and all of them. There's a little bit of me, I suppose, in every part I play. As an actor you can't help inserting yourself, especially if you love acting."
What appeals to Nicholson as much as acting is directing. "You have so many people on the set fawning all over you. How could you not like it?" he asks.
He directed the 1978 film Goin' South. If he's forced to choose a favorite, he would pick that one, despite its lack of big bucks at the box office. The appeal of directing moved him, in 1989, to take on the unenviable task of not only starring in The Two Jakes, the sequel to the critically acclaimed Chinatown, but directing it as well. It turned into a disaster, and Nicholson's irascible behavior on the set touched off rumors of drug abuse. The Two Jakes, released in 1990, was received badly by the critics, and still represents one of the few unsuccessful ventures in Nicholson's long career.
Nonetheless, Nicholson has a philosophy about his work that only someone as rich and famous as he is can afford to live by. He prefers to do pictures that will stimulate him intellectually, even if they're not necessarily going to be blockbusters.
That rules out some of the action films turned out by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone and others. "I'm not knocking those people, but that's pyrotechnics!" Nicholson says. "We're in an era of moviemaking today when it has more to do with the circus and Ziegfeld Follies than honest filmmaking, like we had in the late '60s and early '70s. That's when the great foreign filmmakers like Fellini and Kurosawa and Antonioni were active. Every week a quality film would come out. That's what my peers and I were weaned on. I prefer quality to explosions. That's for kids. I've kept the license to be able to pick and choose. That's why I wanted to support Sean [Penn] in my current film."
The Crossing Guard, in which he co-stars with Anjelica Huston, is about a family disaster...a drunk driver and vengeance. "I play the father of a young girl who gets run over and killed by a drunken hit and run driver. I can't get it out of my head. Six years later, I try to exact vengeance on the perpetrator. Sean Penn wrote the script and directed the film. And it's brilliant.
"Robin Wright, a wonderful little actress, is also in it. She played Forrest Gump's girlfriend in Gump and, in my opinion, should have been nominated this year for her performance. Anjelica plays my ex-wife. There's a young man in it, too--David Morse. He's at least six-foot-five and he's going to be a big star, and I'm not talking about his height. Rarely do I predict a picture will do that for someone, but in this case I'm going out on a limb. It's a wonderful picture."
Since he is so high on the film, the possibility of it grabbing an Oscar for Best Picture is something those connected with it can't help speculating about. Nicholson, however, recoils from making predictions. "Let's just say I think it's brilliant," he says with a grin.
The subject of the Oscars immediately brings to mind a question posed by many people in the entertainment business--especially those who've never won one: Is there really such a thing as a film or an actor or a director actually being "best"? Aren't all nominees good in their own way?
"Of course they are all good," avers Nicholson. "Let's say there is such a thing as 'best,' and let it go at that. How many different opinions do you think there are on the subject, anyway?" After a thoughtful puff or two on his Montecristo, he answers his own question. "I've only heard two opinions on the subject of Academy Awards that stick in my mind. Lao-tze, the great Chinese philosopher, once said, 'All tribute is false.' And then there's what my old and good friend John Huston used to say about it. He said he supported the Awards out of respect for 'all others who have gone before us.' "
Pause. More pungent smoke drifting from the end of his cigar. "I always say about John, for a certain period of time I had the great good fortune to know the best guy alive. A beautiful man. I miss him.... Of course, there are a great too many awards being handed out today, on television. They're just gimmicks to promote television, which is really a competitive medium to the movies. But the movie people don't realize this, just as they are unaware of cancer until it eats them up alive."
Another pregnant pause. He breaks his silence with a surprising revelation for a man's who's fairly reticent about discussing his private life.
"I suppose everyone would like to know what it was like for me to be working with Anjelica again after our breakup. You know, I lived with her for 20 years. But working with her again was fantastic. I hadn't seen her since we had severed our relationship. She was now a happily married woman. But it was fantastic fun for both of us. It was good to see how much we'd grown, and very fine, incidentally, for the picture."
"I'm glad to see her so happy. She's one of the greatest people I've ever known. And I've known her since she was a little girl. She lived with her father in Ireland and France when she was growing up. She didn't come back here to begin her career until she was about 21. [That year] I met her again at a party in this house. I forgot who brought her. I took one look at her and thought, 'There's a woman of obvious grace and refinement. She's got class. Real class.' "
Nicholson made his move on her shortly after that, and within months she was living with him. They stayed together for almost 20 years. Until, as Nicholson put it so circumspectly, "We severed our relationship."
Of course, the breakup wasn't as casual and laid-back as Nicholson makes it out to be.
From the start, Nicholson wanted everyone to believe that his relationship with Huston was a conventional one, except for the absence of a marriage license. But this was apparently just another role he was playing. A 28-year-old auburn-haired Vogue model and part-time film actress named Karen Mayo-Chandler upset the story by revealing her year-long affair with Nicholson in the pages of Playboy's December 1989 issue.
Huston might have loved Nicholson enough to deal with all of the young model's revelations. But close on the heels of the Playboy article came news over the wire services that the actor had impregnated another of his lovers--a little-known but beautiful model and part-time cocktail waitress named Rebecca Broussard. He couldn't keep the news from Huston, who, according to him, took it like the "classy lady" she is, but she nevertheless ended the relationship then and there.
Nicholson went on to have two children with Broussard--Lorraine, who was born on April 16, 1990, and Raymond, born on February 20, 1992.
Nicholson and Broussard never wed, though he maintains today that "I would have preferred that Rebecca and I had married, mostly to do with the kids. But it just didn't work out." Instead, Nicholson set up Broussard in a two-bedroom house down the road from his own hilltop pad. He loves his children very much and enjoys their company. And he still sees Broussard on occasion, but refuses to categorize their present relationship.
"It's an unusual arrangement," admits Nicholson, "but the last 25 years have shown me I'm no good at cohabitation."
Despite his lack of a committed partner waiting at home every night, Nicholson doesn't let work take over. "I try not to let my work dominate my life, because I think that's dangerous for anyone. We've done a job on ourselves: Work is God, and everybody who says it isn't is an amateur and a utopian or both. What's important to me [is that] everybody needs to build their character and develop social graces. Otherwise they'll be very lonely in life."
Nicholson has lots of friends of both sexes. It would be difficult for a star of his magnitude and charm (when he wishes to turn it on) not to have all that he wants. But he admits to being "almost reclusive. I'm nocturnal. That's why I like Batman. That's why I like basketball, night comics and night games. I like high-spirited people, but I'm nonconfrontational."
Nicholson also loves to watch a good film, "though there haven't been too many of them of late, I'm sorry to say."
As for friends, he has more now than he has ever had--Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Peter Fonda and a host of others. Some of his golfing buddies are Joe Pesci and Jim Lampley, the former CBS sports announcer.
He admits that his relationship with the so-called Hollywood establishment is a difficult one to categorize. "I have a tremendous amount of friends in the business. I don't know how to put this statement to my advantage, but I'm actually older than most of the studio heads in town. I was here when they got here. I was already a big star." He grins, puffs on his cigar and adds, "So in a sense, I'm the establishment. Of course, I socialize with all the studio heads, but to say I go around with them--well, that's not exactly accurate. Let's just say they court me."
Recently, Nicholson attended a stag dinner hosted by DeVito in the banquet room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. According to Nicholson, there was no special reason DeVito was throwing the party, except that he wanted to be with his friends. Among them were Douglas, De Niro, Pesci, Lampley and a dozen others. Wolfgang Puck, the illustrious West Coast purveyor of pizzas, showed up to cook dinner. "After dinner, we all sat around drinking vintage Port and smoking cigars," Nicholson says. "I had a great time. I think we all did. Danny's that way. He just wants to show his friends a good time."
Still, there are nights when Nicholson chooses to be alone. If he can't sleep, he falls back on his habit of playing rock or classical music (depending on his mood) on his living room stereo so loudly that it would drive his neighbors away--if he had any neighbors. Then, he'll light up a Cuban cigar, and in the reflection of the picture window overlooking the dark canyon below, he'll dance around the room by himself.
Arthur Marx is the author of three books and two plays about his father, Groucho.
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Paul AI — October 2, 2010 9:07pm ET
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