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 5)
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.
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Paul AI — October 2, 2010 9:07pm ET
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