Jack Nicholson: A Chat With Jack

Jack Nicholson has no true rivals in Hollywood. Who, after all, could compete with his one-two punch of long-term success on-screen and indelible persona off-screen? Here Nicholson talks about the ease of identifying with the devil, the joy of wearing a mask and the pain of doing one line 147 times for Stanley Kubrick.


If you consider only the best known of Jack Nicholson's movies, you have a compelling argument for his supremacy in acting, range and career judgment. Easy Rider ('69), Five Easy Pieces ('70), Carnal Knowledge ('71), The Last Detail ('73), Chinatown ('74), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ('75), The Shining ('80), Terms of Endearment ('83), Prizzi's Honor ('85), The Witches of Eastwick ('87), Batman ('89), A Few Good Men ('92), As Good as It Gets ('97), About Schmidt ('02) and Something's Gotta Give ('03). If you add in his many remarkable performances in smaller films such as The King of Marvin Gardens ('72), or less successful films like Hoffa ('92), Nicholson's stature within his profession is evident not only in the three Oscars and countless other awards on his resume, but in the respectful warmth and humor with which they're typically given. Having bloomed a bit late--he'd done a decade of sketchy B-movies before he began his ascent with Easy Rider at age 32--he's enjoying the kind of longevity that's even rarer than stardom.

In the realm of off-screen existence, Nicholson holds a special place of affection for an entire generation that seems to feel he is able not only to act but to act out on their behalf. Despite having wholly avoided the TV talk and tabloid entertainment circuit over so many years, even while promoting his films, Nicholson the person is palpable to his audience--distinct but not unrelated to his screen indentity--flawed in character and mauled like the rest of us by time, lazy in some respects and uncompromising in attractive and unattractive ways, amused at being loved by the masses and not desperate about it, not looking to be an advertisement for anything.

Nicholson is about as approachable as icons get--he's sat courtside at L.A. Lakers games for decades with his friend Lou Adler, the record producer. "When Jack gets in his seat, there's a vibe around the arena that no other star excites," says Lakers owner Jerry Buss. "When I bought the team in 1979, we didn't have a show business acceptance. But Jack was a fan even before then and he contributed a lot to our initial success." Unlike most icons, he also lives right in the middle of Hollywood, affecting no artificial distance between what he does and who he "really" is. His power with the public is such that nothing he does offscreen--and a good deal of that is self-admitted self-indulgence--dims admiration or affection.

People are ultimately drawn to Nicholson's self-won freedom to be himself, and to the breathing space within that self. It's the kind of attraction that, unlike most aspects of stardom, actually increases with age.

CRAIG MODDERNO: As someone particularly noted for an ability to read scripts, have you I ever turned down a movie you believed would be a hit because you felt you weren't right for I the role?

JACK NICHOLSON: The Godfather. Back then I believed that Indians should play Indians and Italians should play Italians. Mario Puzo had written such a great book that if you go back to it you'll see so much of what was special about the movie. There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included, but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone. I can't think of a better compliment to pay him.

Q: What do you look for in a script?

A: I look to see if it has the potential to be a really interesting movie, and I look to see what could be improved. I also look at the size of the speeches. With rare exceptions, it's best to have shorter dialogue in films.

Q: The film you made with director Mike Nichols in 1971, Carnal Knowledge, had some notably long speeches. How did you handle those?

A: The screenwriter Jules Feiffer nailed the human condition in those speeches, so it wasn't hard--especially in the hands of a master director like Mike. The hardest thing about doing that film was playing a college kid the first half-hour and having to wear some uncomfortable wigs. For the most part--_Chinatown_ being an exception that comes to mind--I'm not a period piece kind of actor.

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    Many claim he shall not achieve it with an attitude like this so the people struck him off and went on with their agenda.

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