On His Own Terms
Riding high atop Hollywood's star machine, Jack Nicholson is enjoying the view.
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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.
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.