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Jack Nicholson: The Rolling Stone Interview

As he approaches 50, the actor opens up about his latest role in ‘Heartburn,’ the state of the film industry and how he came into his own

Jack Nicholson

Actor Jack Nicholson sighted on location filming 'Heartburn', Carlyle Hotel in New York City., August 21st, 1984

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood Hills home perches above an empty ravine — a rare prospect amid these overbuilt hills of dirt and scrub. On the hot afternoon when I arrive, a chain-link fence is being installed (not, I’m later told, at Nicholson’s instigation) on the winding driveway he shares with Marlon Brando. Despite the fence and an electronic inspection of visitors, Nicholson’s complex — two houses, a row of carports topped by a basketball hoop, and a deck equipped with a pool and a commanding view — doesn’t have the aspect of a fortress. Inside, the walls are crammed with oils by the likes of Soutine, Matisse and Picasso, but the mountain breeze and the informality of the furnishings lend the house the air of a tropic bungalow. A cook is at work in the kitchen, and Annie Marshall, Nicholson’s longtime pal and administrative assistant, who is the daughter of the late actor Herbert Marshall, fields calls in a study nearby. Alongside the dining-room table sit two cardboard posters bearing photos of Nicholson and Meryl Streep in their starring roles in Heartburn, the film version of Nora Ephron’s roman à clef about her turbulent marriage to the former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein.

I am informed that Nicholson is in the Jacuzzi, recuperating from an exercise session, and I take a stroll around the deck as John Coltrane’s recording of “My Favorite Things” wafts from discreet outdoor speakers. When I turn toward me house, the man himself is in the shadowy interior. He shakes hands and apologizes assiduously for the delay. Dressed in baggy white slacks and a short-sleeved sport shirt, he looks unostentatiously stylish — even when he seats himself and his pants legs hoist off his Adidas to reveal fluorescent-orange socks.

He’ll talk here for the next three hours, using few gestures but often hunching forward in his seat to bear down on a point. The force of his passion when he’s talking about things that make him angry can be a mite scary: he begins to clip his words off, curl his lips back over his teeth and close sentences with “pal.”

Jack Nicholson doesn’t have a lot of competition as the modern movie star for Americas everyman, a man who does his work spectacularly well largely without indulging in the pomposities and fits of temperament associated with other great movie actors. Often seen as a hard-partying, no-bullshit street guy from Jersey, he nonetheless maintains me seigniorial distance we expect of pop royalty. When the paparazzi catch him, he shrugs it off and lets the flashbulbs glint off his shades, telling us what he wants to with the set of his notoriously expressive mouth.

As the writer Derek Sylvester described him, Nicholson, “unlike the rising young stars who followed him…bestrode two distinct generations of acting styles. He possessed the pugnacity of a Cagney, the virility of a Garfield, the diabolic charm of a Gable. He could be as suavely droll as Cary Grant, as gee-shucks and gangling as James Stewart, as moody and introspective as Paul Muni…in other words, the most indispensable actor of modern American cinema.”

He is also heir to the alienated brooding of Brando and James Dean, but having incorporated their inarticulate (if brilliant) posturing in his craft, he has gone on to stand up onscreen in service of the great line, from “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country,” in Easy Rider, to “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” — a marrow-chilling and hilarious ad-lib — in The Shining. In between, there’s been plenty of time for other unforgettable outbursts, like his rebuke to the waitress with the problematic chicken salad in Five Easy Pieces (“Yeah, I want you to hold it between your knees”), or his abrupt attack on a nasty bartender in The Last Detail (“I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker!”).

His Oscars for Best Actor in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Best Supporting Actor in Terms of Endearment as well as his six other nominations are official Hollywood’s tributes to a maverick who has never pandered to it, and last year he had the pleasure of watching his girlfriend of over a decade, Anjelica Huston, win Best Supporting Actress for her role alongside him in Prizzi’s Honor.

Heartburn, which opened July 25th, is his fortieth film and his third for director Mike Nichols. He signed on just days before shooting began, after Mandy Patinkin had left the lead role of the philandering husband. “Jack is the guy,” says Nichols, “who takes parts others have turned down, might turn down, and explodes them into something nobody could have conceived of…. All his brilliance at character and gesture is consumed and made invisible by the expanse of his nature — his generosity, his lovingness, his confidence, his positiveness — and because his nature is so generous, all technical decisions seem to have burned away. It’s what makes him the great movie actor he is. You can’t see any technique — it just appears to be life.”

Nichols, who had been determined to keep Nicholson and Streep from meeting until their first moment before the camera, says that the day of his costars’ first scene together was “electric with excitement.” Streep concurs but points out Nicholson had broken the ice before shooting: “I’m sitting there getting my hair curled and looking like hell, and I get this knock on the door, and he said, ‘Hi, this is Jack Nicholson. Can I use your toilet?’ ” The Nicholson who sat down to chat this afternoon was, unmistakably, the same free spirit Streep met that day.

In Heartburn, your portrayal of “the Carl Bernstein character” seems fully rounded. But If I ask how much of the real-life Bernstein is in there, I suppose you’ll tell me not much.
I’m gonna tell you — nothing. I was specifically hired not to play him. Mike and Nora and Meryl were very anxious to move the film into fiction. And since I had no desire on a couple of days’ notice to do a biographical portrait, that suited me just fine.

Still, you must have had to cram a lot of preparation into less than a week.
I was working three days after I read the script…never read the book until partway into the shooting. This is my third film with Mike, and I’d always wanted to work with Meryl, and that made me want to do it — maybe a part I might not have done under other conditions. They kind of held their hands under my chin while I treaded water.

It was interesting for me at this stage to just go off on something. The framework is usually months of preparation. You don’t get many unusual experiences at this level.

Mark, the columnist you play in the film, seems almost possessed — happy, but with a manic edge — in the scene where Meryl, as Rachel, tells him she’s pregnant, and they both start singing and glomming pizza with a mason’s trowel.
Well, that was maybe one of the last three or four things I did on the picture. The script for that is only the songs and the situation — where it’s the first child and, you know, that kind of wacky head you get into at very high moments of your life. It’s always an interesting choice as to where you pitch your musical ability. Meryl, for instance, sang worse than I did in a certain way — and of course she’s almost as talented a singer as she is an actress. I saw her originally in a musical play, Brecht’s Happy Ending, which I thought she was brilliant in. But where the scene continues into, one hopes, general hilarity, I elected to sing as well as I could without…[his voice descends into a theatrical baritone] dropping it into that John Raitt area. And Mike came up with the pizza, and Meryl, I think, suggested we eat it with the trowel — because the fact that the house is being built for years is a very big part of the story. This is the way you work on the set, adding dimension to a scene.

Another crucial moment in the film is Mark’s appearance in New York to reconcile with Rachel. There’s a particular, electric feeling between them, as if their entire future together depends on the next two minutes.
That scene was my most difficult. I felt something should happen, which I was trying to rev up to, and quite frankly, I never got there. When an actor is floundering, turgid or locked up, he’s got to try and go outside himself. So I was watching Meryl very closely, and I’m thinking, “Jeez, I’m not getting there yet,” but I could see she was really in great shape. So in order to feel positive, I told myself, “Meryl is great in this scene, and therefore it will cut well.” I didn’t do a great day’s work for them maybe, but she covered that with her tremendous ability. As it turns out, that scene is quite good, and I’m not bad in it, and more interestingly, what I wanted in that scene actually occurred, out of nowhere, in a different one.

And that was?
In the scene where she has the second child. It came out in there.

What’s the gist of their feelings? A kind of warmth, despite his betrayals of her?
Just the dead-on, primary openness of them within the relationship. No matter what happens in relationships, there are certain primary things — you can etch over them, make them obscure, but…there were some great connections there.

Heartburn is unusual in that it doesn’t seem to have been packaged, like so many movies today, to appeal to a specific demographic group.
Well, these days the studios are constantly turning it toward the kinds of movies they believe will have maximum audience participation. I’ve got to find a way to get in at cross-purposes with what they’re really after. This is why I like Heartburn. It’s a real story about right now. It’s neither an adult movie nor a child’s movie — not an anything movie. It’s just a movie about a subject that’s germane now to everyone — man, woman, child. These kinds of movies don’t come across your plate that often.

Do you feel that packaging is one of the reasons people are saying that movies are losing their magic?
There are millions of ways, but it’s all — see, our country is becoming corrupted little by little by conglomeration and conglomerative thinking. Coca-Cola — look at Columbia [Pictures]. Coca-Cola owns them. Coca-Cola also owns part of Tri-Star. Coca-Cola runs its business based on market share. Period. That’s the way they run it. And, baby, you or I ain’t going to change it. Because it’s back in Atlanta. It has nothing to do with any one movie. And that’s where the business is being corrupted.

All these guys you read about in the newspapers who are the heads of the studios — I predicted this four or five years ago, when they were trying to cut my prices — all these deal makers are making themselves the stars now. They’re on the covers of magazines. Their salaries are now quotable. Why? Because it isn’t about movies anymore.

Hasn’t the movie industry been flirting with that kind of conglomeration since it began?
When Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer and Darryl Zanuck and these people ran the business, I wasn’t working — so I don’t know if I would have been better off or not. But at least they were making movies.…Every guy who was the head of a studio was also a gambler. They weren’t making market shares with back-off sales and cross-financing and cross-collateralization. There’s nobody that gambles now. Everybody’s going for the big whamola all the time. Before this, the debate was whether you should go ahead and make a movie — whether or not you thought it was going to be profit making — because the movie made a valid statement. Well, that debate’s not even on anymore. Anybody who tells you it is on is lying to you or doesn’t understand the situation. Because there’s nobody left to take that kind of chance.

Do you see a link between these new multiplex cinemas with their tiny screens and the banality of the studio film product?
You know, I like the big silver, I really do. The world is going to miss the movie-going experience. I know I still prefer going to a theater that’s got a decent screen in it. If you can’t see that it’s more fun to sit and watch a movie at the Paramount Theater in New York than to sit in a bowling alley with this little postage stamp — well, then I can’t explain my point. The point is, your life, the moviegoer’s life, has been degraded by this thing.

Maybe that’s why so many people would rather stay home and watch movies on television.
You know, television is not a support group for the movies; it’s a competitive industry that’s been devouring the movies like cancer since I came out here in the Fifties. And I happen to be anachronistically in love with the movies, so I deeply resent the whole video thing. Everybody says it’s great for the labor pool. I didn’t get in this to be in a union labor pool; I got in this to be an artistic, expressive person. The movies have sold their future so cheap for so long it’s almost amateurish to comment on it.

Now that most of your films are out in video, do you anticipate seeing any more money from them?
Well, I almost don’t give a fuck if I do. I mean, I’m so furious at video. Prizzi’s Honor was one of the best-selling videos in Brazil, and no one even owns the rights. It’s 100 percent pirated. They run my movies all the time. And I’m not compensated for it. That does nothing but hurt me. I mean, what would they have on cable by now if they didn’t have movies? It’s the end of the movie business.

You seem to be saying that the decline of the movies is an index to our descent into some kind of Orwellian nightmare.
It’s so clear it’s a joke. All you’ve got to do is drive across America. Go to Kansas City and see old Kansas City down here, and then there’s this six-lane highway that goes around it, and you’ve got plastic light boxes that say Radio Shack and Chicken-Bicken and Roller Skate World. That’s what America looks like today. I don’t like what the light box has done to America at night — turned everybody into a fucking pinball-machine moth. If they had just outlawed these light boxes, the world would simply look bigger. But we can’t even get them to stop acid rain — how can you get them to think about what’s beautiful? Because what’s beautiful is all that counts, pal. That’s all that counts.

But the corporations that built those franchise strips will tell you they’re creating jobs.
Okay. All right. Life used to be work until five o’clock and then you were meant to have some fun, some nourishment, some leisure. Americans don’t understand leisure. They don’t have a clue. They understand work; they understand play; they understand love; they do not understand leisure. Literacy is dropping. These are not redeemable things. These are our lives. I don’t know what the minimum wage is today, but what you give up by putting up that light box, with bugs all over this world and graffiti up your keister…if you gave a kid the insight he would need to be a purer person at fifty, do you want to give that up for $200 a week?

Is labor God? Is a job God? People vote like it is. Ronald Reagan is a vote to return to the company store. People look at that guy Nicholson down there yelling and say, “What’s he do?” Nothing — he sits around and complains. At least a guy in a nice pin-stripe suit down at the bank, he keeps the park clean, everything’s cool. Who are these rabble-rousers? What do they do? Let’s go back in there and let’s buy shoes down at the conglomerate. Let’s get our movie down at the conglomerate. Let’s let the big guy in the pin-stripe suit run things — ’cause it’ll be quiet then.

Well, pal, that hasn’t ever worked in the past And it ain’t gonna work in the future. Dream on, dream on. I can’t do nothing about it. I understand numbers. I’m going to reach fifty years old next year. I just turned forty-nine. There ain’t time for me to turn this around.

I did my part. I screamed my ass off for ten, fifteen years. I paid those dues, too. I’m not giving up. But I’m not going out there to try and rake people up…. The professional man says, “Hey, man, you can’t take conglomeration out. The Japs got monopolies….” The guy in the third grade knows if he gets a B minus on a spelling test, what his job is going to be at Mitsubishi twenty years later. That’s it, it don’t change. That’s what a monopoly is.

But, pal, if we’re not a nation of idealists who fight against these things, I guess it’s because we don’t understand what it’s costing us anymore. Anyway, I wasn’t going to talk this wild. But you get the picture.

Don’t you see your job as simply making quality movies about people’s real emotional lives?
I still make the movies I want to make. I’m just talking about — where’s the soil for them? Where’s the informed intelligence? I’m doing fine. I have respect for myself and my collaborators, like Mike and Meryl. You know, you don’t want to see this as so huge that you begin to dysfunction. But I have to whip up a foam in my spirit, or I’ll just stop seeing where it’s at, too.

Social graces don’t come — they’re not innate. You learn them, develop them. Once you’re past the high-school prom, what you do on your own is what gives your life quality. You have to learn how to dance. You have to learn how to read a book. You have to learn how to appreciate music, to enrich your mind in order to have a conversation.

I heard someone call himself a conservative anarchist; I wonder where you feel yourself to be on the political spectrum.
I’m doing research for the movie I’m on now [The Witches of Eastwick, based on John Updike’s novel]. I’m going to play the devil. I’ve read a lot of huge, studious books that deal with the Dark Ages. One of the things I came across is the big, long — seems like century-long — debate about the definition of God. And the only thing they could come up with is that anything definite you can say about God must be supported by its paradoxical opposite. And that’s what life is all about, this paradoxical situation.

I guess you’d call me a liberal, certainly through my earlier years of involvement. I was flat-out anti-capital punishment. However, I agree with Reagan about terrorists. These people are not criminals against the United States. They’re criminals against the world. And this is a degradation of all mankind. In World War II, you tortured the man; in Vietnam, you tortured the man’s children in front of him. This is an indication of an overall decline in civilization.

Despite all this, friends point out your “positiveness.”
There are many areas for optimism as well. I love the opportunity for working with Meryl Streep. For somebody who does what I do, you sit a lifetime yearning for that kind of feeling, and when it comes, you want to relish it.

I’m a simple person in my job, too. I don’t want to do what I accuse other people of doing, not taking the time to smell the roses. Something very wonderful has happened to me. I don’t want the fact that I see this endless din and gloom in the world to make me incapable of expressing something that’s quite frankly wonderful. I’m a very fortunate — statistically impossible to describe how fortunate — person to be where I am and do what I do.

And you feel your work can help make a difference.
My first acting teacher said all art is one thing — a stimulating point of departure. That’s it. And if you can do that in a piece, you’ve fulfilled your cultural, sociological obligation as a workman. What you’re supposed to do is keep people vitally interested in the world they live in. The thing I originally wrote so pretentiously as a young person, Ride in the Whirlwind, was about the Sisyphean mountain. You push that boulder up, it rolls down. You push it up again. Man’s dignity is in the trip down the mountain, returning to his labors. This is where artists are supposed to be of use, to make people, not necessarily happy, but enrich their vitality.

And, not incidentally, your own.
I start thinking, “Hey, Jack, nobody ever needs you.” You’ve got to remember that You’re alone, that’s it. Friendships are a boon, love is a boon, contacts with other human beings and events, these are all boons. You’ve got to do your part as well as you can.

My life is enriched by my friends — [screenwriter-producer] Don Devlin, my partner Harry Gittes. We’ve been communicating for thirty years. They’re all still in my life, none of them has quit to become a hangman. They’re doing these things I talk about. You don’t talk to these people and get some pap. They’re in there. They don’t give a fuck — I mean, my closest friends probably have less of a consensus about adoring my movies than any other group. They fight with me about it. Now I don’t think that means they don’t like me anymore, don’t want to see me do anything. Quite the contrary. I hope I take what’s positive, or at least stimulating, and grow from it.

I gather the collapse of Two Jakes, the Chinatown sequel you planned to make with screenwriter Robert Towne, left a bit of a rift between you, him and producer Robert Evans. It also left hanging a third film that would complete the saga. What undid the deal?
I haven’t said anything much about it and don’t intend to. Frankly, among other reasons, there’s ongoing legal problems. I think it would be imprudent for me to say anything other than, creatively, we simply didn’t get the film done. There are millions of reasons why movies go well and an equal number why they don’t, and many of them are included here.

Let’s talk about it in its purer state as a dramatic piece then.
This is a kind of special theatrical covenant. I haven’t played any other detective out of deference to this character of Jake Gittes. What the three films always were intended to do was to show the history of Southern California — starting with the water issue — through this central character, an unarmed private detective, and the undercurrents of family and back streets. The water issue is real; the issue of Two Jakes is going to be the petroleum issue. Robert already knows, as I do, because he’s told me, what the third film is. We always wanted me to play the part at the same age as the character. There were eleven years between the two stories, ’37 to ’48, and it was eleven years since we made Chinatown. This was something that hadn’t really been done before.

But you’re proceeding with the other assignments until then.
Yes, I am going to do The Witches of Eastwick, which George Miller [Mad Max] is going to direct, and Ironweed, which Hector Babenco [Kiss of the Spider Woman] is going to direct. A lot of that has to do with Anjelica’s working again. I might not have taken that much work on, but I don’t want to sit around while she’s working…so I’m taking on a little more than I might I don’t like to have that much acting work because I still hope to direct movies, but these are interesting parts, both new directors, young directors, I’m excited about collaborating with. I’m going to work only with people I feel strongly about.

Your two years away from working before Terms of Endearment involved a lot of skiing at Aspen — but what else?
I had a wonderful summer with one of my favorite people, who passed on this year, Sam Spiegel [the producer of On the Waterfront and The African Queen]. You know, I lost three of the really great men in my life this year — Sam Spiegel, Orson Welles and Shorty Smith [Nicholson’s uncle]. They just happened to be three older dudes who I got along great with for a long, long period of time.

In that two years I think I spent one whole summer with Sam, just like his sidekick. He was certainly an inspiration; those movies he made in the Fifties were the movies, just about. Sam’s lesson to me was always to go for quality. This is not where producers are at anymore. I deal with guys who say, “Look, let me handle this, I know how the studio thinks. We’ve got a bing, we’ve got a bong, we’ve got a bing.”

So you were woodshedding in a fashion as well as enjoying Spiegel’s company. But did you miss working during this time?
Everyone said, “Oh, God, you won’t be able not to work for six months — you’ll be a dead man.” Well, I never missed it. And when I came back to work, great; I talked to Jim Brooks [the cocreator of the television series Taxi and director of Terms of Endearment], made the deal with him over the telephone. Never had seen his face and, I don’t know if I ever told him this, didn’t know what Jim did before — I sort of, as a formal thing, ignored television. But that didn’t matter to Jim.

Brooks is a great genius, in my opinion. The minute I talked to him I knew, “This is a guy I’m going to have a good time working with.” He’s a constantly questioning artist — he delves, argues with himself, and where you’re concerned as an actor, he knows immediately if it’s working. It’s exciting to see these guys work. I’m glad that I saw Antonioni happy and excited while he was working, that I saw Stanley Kubrick delighted, saw John Huston commanding…this is the dessert of my job.

It’s that upside you were talking about. It’s almost like film sets represent a portable Utopia to you. Did you have that same sense of community growing up along the New Jersey shore?
I grew up through age five there in Neptune. I lived on Sixth Avenue in Neptune, and Fifth Avenue was Neptune City, so it’s that close. But Mrs. Nicholson understood the difference, and when I got to a certain point of school age, she moved to Neptune City, this slightly…”affluent” is the wrong word, but just a little better situation for a kid.

To reiterate your situation so we’ve got things straight: You never met your natural father. Your real mother — June — was the woman you believed to be your sister. The woman you call Mrs. Nicholson — Ethel May, whom you called Mud — was in fact your grandmother, and her husband, presented as your father, was this hard-drinking guy who was never around. The third woman in the triumvirate that raised you was June’s sister, Lorraine. Plenty of company, but no real father….
Well, I had Shorty. I had Smith around. He was married to Lorraine. That, believe me, is as good a father as anybody’s ever going to get or need. I can be as hard on my family or friends as anybody — I’m fairly objective — but there’s nobody much that’s impressed me as much as Shorty. Simple guy, but many is the poem I’ve written in my mind to the higher feelings he promoted in me — which he would have no ability whatsoever to articulate. If I sat down with Shorty in the spirit world or something and said, “Look, Shorty, here’s what you really mean, as a prince of the world,” he’d look at me like I was talking a foreign language.

He took it for granted that he would become a protector of sorts for you?
Well, he wouldn’t even assume that role. That would be pretentious to him, you see. He wouldn’t take the credit. When I went to his funeral, I ran into people, sixty-year-old women, who had known him since he was in grammar school. And all they had to say is “Shorty had all the fun.”

Now, Shorty’s not what a civics class would pick out as a role model. He was a featherbedded railroad brakeman, you know, who went to gin mills and drank and sat around all day with his shirt off and bullshitted. Everybody did love Shorty. He was the first all-state football player from the region, and he stayed right there in Neptune. He wasn’t a hidden man. It’s not sentiment, this guy was advanced. Shorty just had a grasp — innate, not a conscious ability — about life. I hope I’ve got it.

Your natural father was someone you never met and didn’t even know about till around 1975.
Both grandmother and mother were deceased before this particular group of facts came to my attention. I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret, if nothing else. It’s done great things for me. I mean, I don’t have to question the abortion issue in my mind. It’s an open-and-shut case where I’m concerned. As an illegitimate child born in 1937, during the Depression, to a broken lower-middle-class family, you are a candidate for — you’re an automatic abortion with most people today. So it’s very easy for me. I don’t have to get into the debate of when does the thing come alive. And I’m very pleased to be out of it, ’cause it’s not an easy issue.

They sound like a formidable group of women.
These were strong women — made their own way in a period of time when it just wasn’t done that much. They did it without connections. In fact, Ethel May Nicholson was disinherited for marrying an Irish Catholic, because her family was Pennsylvania Dutch rock-hard Protestants, and that just wasn’t done. I guess she got married very young, too. And never saw much of that very wealthy Pennsylvania family again in her life.

My basic model for women is an independent woman. There was no grandeur in that for me, because it was that way from the beginning. You know, here was Mud, and she carried everybody on her back like a tiny little elephant, and it didn’t seem to faze her. She marched right through it. They all had a great lot of style, and a lot of fun. The neighborhood idolized all of them.

Mud was the patron saint of the neighborhood, and anybody who had a problem, they’d come running over to her beauty shop, and “Ethel, da-da-da,” and she’d figure it out. I’m very fortunate to have had that very unusual environment to grow up in. Very free, very trusting. A lot of responsibility — not heaped on you, but just by definition of the situation.

You could talk out problems with them?
Had to, got to. They want to know. I’d get kept in sometimes, but…very Irish, very rational, nothing’s-gonna-blow-anybody-out kind of environment to grow up in.

Once you moved on to Neptune City, what was the scene like there?
I started high school in 1950. Cool was invented in this period. Rock & roll did not start with Elvis Presley. In fact, to that age group, Elvis Presley was a secondary figure to Ray Charles. And, you know, Johnnie Ray. This is when all that stuff really got rolling. It wasn’t as explosively widespread, but this is the seminal period of it. And peer group was everything. There was not a lot of visible rebellion, aside from the D.A. haircut and stuff….

How did you dress?
I used to like to go to school in a pair of navy-blue cuffed pegged pants, a black or navy-blue turtleneck sweater, maybe a gray coat over it and a black porkpie hat that I’d gotten from the freeway in a motor accident that involved a priest. So it had a lot of juju on it. I wore it flat out like a rimmer. That was one way.

Now, when we had the dances and everything, you just got the greatest suit you could get a hold of. Always pegged, pleats, blue suedes, thinnest tie, shoulders, one button in front.

Anything like Jake Gittes?
Well, Jake Gittes’s get-up…my grandfather-father [Ethel May’s wayward spouse] — let’s call him Mr. Nicholson so we don’t give another hyphenated interview — before he had his problems in life, used to win the Asbury Park Easter Parade a lot, as one of the best-dressed men. So he was a blade, and Gittes’s style, which is the Thirties, rather more than the Forties or Fifties, is sort of after that man, who was very natty. You know, the hair combed. I’ve used him a lot actually — for a man I didn’t see much. The glasses in Easy Rider were his glasses.

Not literally?
Not literally, but the same. I needed age for that character, I was considerably younger than what I was playing.

But we did everything — my friends, we’d go to New York on weekends, get drunk, see ball games, bang around…school was out, we just went to the beach all summer. And had fun, got drunk every night. It was the age of the put-on. Cool was everything. Collars were up, eyelids were drooped. You never let on what bothered you.

And at the beach you’d try to pick up girls who came in from Camden or something?
Teaneck. And when you got to be a lifeguard, which I did later, why you were the prince of summer. You know, it didn’t do me much good, but a lot of other guys made a lot of hay with it.

Did you wear oxide on the nose, sunglasses, the whole bit?
You bet. Where I worked in Bradley Beach, a boat stayed just outside the breakers and kept people in. You’d stand up in the boat, Mr. Cool, and look at everything…. I used to “boat” people, standing up with a black wool coat, no matter how hot it was, big white nose, big white lips and a prisoner’s hat. They’d just gotten mirrored sunglasses in. Must have been the funniest sight of all time. I was sixteen years old, but I thought I was like death itself [laughs], guarding these people.

Then you got the girls….
It was a great chance to impress the girls. But like most people of that generation, I didn’t think I was adept at anything. It takes a while to find out all them people were lying to you [about their exploits]. If you’re a certain kind of guy, you don’t lie about it. I could never make up any stories like that It definitely was a different period, from the point of view of how adolescents go through the rites of spring.

You went straight from there to California at the age of sixteen.
I came here because it finally had occurred to me that I didn’t want to work my way through college. I already thought I was lazy, and I had been working since I was eleven. I scored very high on the college-board examinations, so there was a certain interest in me academically, but I had a poor deportment record, and I never really hit the books or anything.

And since my only relative in the world was June, who was out here, I came out to look around. I don’t think I left Inglewood the first six months that I came to L.A. I went to the race track, went to the pool hall.

June was living there with…
With her children, alone. So I’m wondering what I’m gonna do, and then I got a job in the cartoon department at MGM, and I saw every movie star known to man in that period. I had crushes on Grace Kelly, on Rita Moreno….

What’s striking about your early days is how the first friends you made are still in your life.
[Cartoonists] Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, through the studio’s talent department, got me started at the Players’ Ring Theater as an apprentice, and from there I went into classes with Jeff Corey, where I met Robert Towne, [screenwriter] Carol Eastman, John Shaner, who wrote Goin’ South, many of the people who are still in my life today.

Not long after leaving MGM you got the lead in Crybaby Killer, a picture produced by Roger Corman, king of the B movies.
And, I thought, “This is it — I’m meant to be an actor.” Then I didn’t work for nine months, a year. I didn’t make another penny. I’m living on unemployment, this and that, and I went into Marry Landau’s acting class, which is where I met Harry Dean Stanton. I’d seen Harry around just as a kind of Porsche-driving, troubled night person. We started hanging out together. I met my ex-wife, Sandra Knight Nicholson, in that class, and Millie Perkins. Again, people still in my life today. Don Devlin, Harry Gittes, came into my life around in here, in a house we ran over at Fountain and Gardner, which was the wildest house in Hollywood for a while.

Your family was transplanted to California by now?
By now Mud had come to California; she had contracted a fatal disease. She was sort of nursed by June, and then in the middle of it, irony had it, June got cancer and died before Mud did. I went away on Ensign Pulver, and June died while I was flying to Mexico. And the day I got back from that job, six or seven weeks later, was the day my daughter was born.

When did you end up in Laurel Canyon rooming with Stanton?
When Sandra and I elected to get divorced. I was doing two jobs at the time, and a lot of it was the pressure from that. I hadn’t worked for a while, and I remember I was out on the lawn with [actor] John Hackett and we were doing a brake job on my Karmann Ghia…this massive undertaking to save fifty dollars, and that day I got two jobs. One to write a movie [The Trip] and one to act in one [Rebel Rousers].

The scene in The Shining comes out of this time, where I say, “Whenever I’m here and you hear me typing…”

The scene where he tells his wife to leave him alone when he’s working?
Yeah. Later on, with Stanley Kubrick, we wrote that scene together…sort of the climactic scene of my marriage because I was under such pressure to get this script out, and I was acting in Rebel Rousers, an improvisational movie with Harry Dean and Bruce Dern…. I think it’s the only movie of mine I’ve never seen. Really the whole period was incredible long hours of work, meeting a writing deadline and getting up and doing an acting job. Most of my divorce is written into The Trip.

So I needed a place to stay. I tried moving in with Towne, but that only lasted one day…. I don’t think either of us was particularly easy to live with. Harry Dean I found very easy. He’d already been living in his place at the bottom of Laurel Canyon a year or two when I moved in, and he still hadn’t unpacked his boxes. The living room was completely barren. I wrote The Trip over in the corner at a desk. Bare floor with a record player on it, and I used to dance around, then go back and write like a fiend.

How old was your daughter when you divorced?
Jennifer was about five.

She’s now about twenty-two?
Yeah. She went to high school in Hawaii, and I didn’t see much of her. I see a lot of her now. She’s starting to work now as an apprentice art director in movies. She’s had an offer to go down and work as an assistant art director on Miami Vice. I don’t know what she’ll do about that, but I’m very impressed by her.

What have you told her about men?
Not too much, because she’s been around me a lot, and I don’t hide too much from her. So she oughta have a pretty good picture.

The overwork that precipitated your divorce kicked off a very productive period for you.
It’s an overlapping thing. I guess from there I’m in. There were very few gaps. I’d been part of this very fertile underground film movement that really only existed in this period — I guess we kind of came up above ground and spread out.

I got in Easy Rider because I had done all these other nonunion or underground movies. I had produced the westerns [Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, both 1965] in the middle of my marriage. Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson [the coproducers of Easy Rider] thought I was a good actor but had me out with them all the time on locations, primarily to help with production.

I knew the movie was going to be huge because I had done a motorcycle movie that did eight, twelve million dollars, which was an enormous gross in those days. Dennis Hopper had had one, Peter Fonda had had one. Regular Hollywood hadn’t tumbled to this yet. It was a progression in the genre, like Stagecoach was to the western — kicked it up one more notch.

That’s putting it quite humbly; people at the time thought it defined the cold war between “straight” and “counter” culture.
Yes, my character was a bridging character.

In any event, Easy Rider won Hopper the best new director award at Cannes and made you a hot property. You took full advantage of it.
I was ready. I was seasoned. I knew immediately — well, “I’ve worked so hard to become a known actor that now that it’s happened I’ve got to follow that line….”

What’s the one essential thing you would tell a novice actor today?
Well, I wouldn’t give him any rules. Because…it would be like knowing a little law. In fact, I’ve directed actors who have never acted before in a movie, and what I learned to give them is…”If you get an impulse in a scene, no matter how wrong it seems, follow the impulse.” Because we’re not on a stage. It might be something, and if it ain’t — take 2. I try to tell them where the freedom lies, rather than the restraint. This is where unpredictability comes from, this is where the fortunate accident comes from.

Perhaps something like the famous chicken-salad speech in Five Easy Pieces?
First-person autobiography. In those days, I used to do that sort of thing. So did Rafelson. Carol Eastman, who wrote the screenplay [under the name Adrien Joyce] knew about it.

Coffee-shop waitresses seemed to bust chops a lot back then.
Hey, I don’t want to hear it today.

For most of your career there’s been this dichotomy — your name is one of the synonyms for “box office,” but you’re seen as a maverick who seeks out offbeat films.
I always have to find a valid ethical reason for doing what I do. It’s best if you agree totally with the ethical principles of a piece, but sometimes you’re simply editorializing on where the ethics of it could lie. I mean, I played The Postman Always Rings Twice, let’s say, in a much less romantically attractive way than it had ever been done before. I mean, this is a murder. That’s why in the first scene, I steal cigarettes from the guy who’s giving me a free meal, without even thinking about it.

Rafelson kept trying, which everybody does, to slim me down for that part. But I found it interesting to break the cliché of the gaunt, Depression-deprived man of the road. Because this guy gets hungry for five minutes, he’ll just steal your food. He might be a bum, but he didn’t miss no meals. He wolfed his meals down, and next thing, give me your wife.

There’s a strong chance you’ll do Ironweed, from the William Kennedy novel, opposite Meryl Streep. You’d play Francis Phelan, a tragic drifter; are you doing any long-distance preparation for that role?
One thing I don’t do is two jobs at a time. I had to get a grasp of that character to know if I wanted to do it, and now I’ve sort of cut it loose again.

It’s always the director that gets me going. One of the things I have to overcome as a director is that it’s very hard for me to find a place to put my individual foot down where I don’t know how one of the great masters does it already. So when I’m talking to someone, in this case we’re talking about Hector, who has a kind of tone and relish about what he wants to do that’s just different, I always respond to that. Once I’m in, all I want to know is what the director wants. I don’t want to be the one who robs this guy of his chance to express his vision, whether or not it’s mine. My whole craft is developed to be able to do what that guy wants.

Anjelica’s working on the East Coast with Francis Coppola now on Gardens of Stone, so you’re a country apart. I Imagine her Oscar had quite an impact — you were conspicuously delighted the night she won it.
I never had a greater moment. I’ve never experienced anything but anxiety and a kind of dreadful loathing when I’ve gone down to the Academy Awards. Life gives you very little time to extract pure pleasure from these kinds of things…it don’t change the world, but you can’t say it ain’t there. One of the great delights for me about this was being able to behave in the way I would have had her do earlier on. I don’t like to be involved with actresses, not because I don’t think they’re wonderful, which I do. I spend most of my life around them and I think they’re great. I also know how demanding it is.

You see things proceeding happily ad infinitum?
I don’t see any reason to see it any other way, sure.

Well, I hate to open a wound, but the Lakers’ season ended rather abruptly with that crazy turnaround jumper by Ralph Sampson. I was peering at the television screen to try and catch your expression.
Babe, I was the first guy in the arena that knew it was gone. I’m sure if you look at the film, I’m the first guy in the arena that just turned away. The Lakers had history on the line — they lost that…but I don’t use entertainment to depress myself.

What is it about pro basketball that fascinates you?
It’s the most competitive thing on the planet. That’s what I like…. Larry Bird is so monomaniacally focused. Bird’s like me…somebody said about him that Bird don’t come to play, he comes to win.

Have you ever talked with him?
I don’t like backstage, and I don’t like locker rooms. But last year I wanted to congratulate them, so I went in their locker room after the game, and I talked to him, yeah.

How did he seem?
Tough. They’re tough. They have the most fun, they’ve got the least amount of dissension and cross-purposes on their club, and you can feel it.

Because of your notoriety as a basketball fan, you can change the temperature of an arena, perhaps even of the game itself. Have you consciously sought to do that?
Well…I don’t do it much anymore sitting where I sit [at court side, next to the opposition bench] because it’s their bench. So I’m not like a rabid fan in there. But, okay, last year the best thing we did was on K.C. [Jones, the Celtics coach]. He had been giving the officials a bad time, and when they came back down our way, we yelled at the officials, “Fuck you!” And they called a technical foul on the Boston bench.

We’ve talked a lot about that sterilized, buggy, overlit environment out there, and your hope that the work you do runs counter to that. Is there any other way to be a corrective to that?
Well, there is more that I do…. The main thing that I, that you, can do, is be it. Be it. That’s the main thing you can do.

In This Article: Coverwall, Jack Nicholson

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