An actor, director and screenwriter who has become one of the most recognized Hollywood figures of our time, Jack Nicholson, like Brando and Bogart, has the rare distinction of being admired and copied by his contemporaries. His laconic style and eccentric temperament have insured his fame for many more years to come.
Nicholson was born on April 22, 1937, in Neptune, New Jersey. Raised by his mother, the owner of a beauty parlor, after his alcoholic father, deserted the family, he chanced on films at the age of 17 during a trip to California to visit his sister. He started out as an office boy in MGM’s cartoon department, and after training as an actor with a group called the Players Ring Theater, began performing on the stage and in TV soap operas.
He made his first film appearance in 1958, playing the lead in a Roger Corman quickie, The Cry Baby Killer, and subsequently appeared in other cheap horror, motorcycle, and action films by Corman and other directors operating on the fringes of mainstream Hollywood. Some of these films include The Little Shop of Horrors (1961), which has since become a cult classic, and The Terror (1963). Collaborating with another Corman protege, Monte Hellman, he soon began producing and writing some of these films. For financial reasons, several of the films were made in the Philippines.
After years of frustration and disappointment, Nicholson got his big break when he was called in to replace Rip Torn in Easy Rider (1969). He made the most of his opportunity, played the role of a small-time, dropout lawyer, and received his first Academy Award® nomination. In the ensuing years, Nicholson emerged as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing personalities, a multifaceted performer capable not only of interpreting a wide range of roles but of changing his appearance from film to film. He turned in an exceptional performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), then went on to display his enigmatic personality and uncommon acting skill in films such as Mike Nichol’s Carnal Knowledge (1971), Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975).
His trademark character is the outsider, the sardonic drifter who bucks the system. Nicholson won the 1975 Oscar® for Best Actor, playing just such a character, R.P. McMurphy, in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Playing a sane man in a mental ward who enlivens those around him, Nicholson became a post counterculture hero.
Jack went on to register memorable performances in such films as Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983) – for which he won another Academy Award® for acting – Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Ironweed (1987), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and Batman (1989), a movie in which Nicholson played The Joker for all it was worth. Nicholson has even had a hand in directing, completing the long-delayed sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes (1990), which was not a runaway success.
In the 1990’s, Nicholson continued to attract audiences in such films as A Few Good Men (1992) and As Good as it Gets (1997), for which he won his third Oscar®. Personally, Nicholson has always tried to keep a low profile, although his charming ways with the ladies have never been a secret. His early marriage (1962-67) to Sandra Knight ended in divorce. He was a companion of John Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, for nearly twenty years before they split, and he has also had two children with Rebecca Broussard, an actress he met on The Two Jakes (1990).
Nicholson’s career has remained strong throughout the 2000s and his popularity remains as high as ever. Roles included About Schmidt (2002), Anger Management and Something’s Gotta Give (both 2003) and appearing alongside Leonard Di Caprio in Scorcese’s The Departed. His last film role to date was 2010’s How Do You Know and these days although not officially retired Nicholson has remarked that he is being very selective about any roles that he takes.