Sunday April 22, 2007 The Observer
Jack Nicholson is the greatest American movie actor since Cagney, Bogart and Stewart, and he's as much a part of his time as they were of theirs. He comes from a blue-collar background in New Jersey and didn't know until early middle age that the woman he grew up believing to be his sister was actually his mother. His has been a busy, turbulent career, beginning when he went to California at 17, became a messenger boy at MGM, then joined a local stage company.
Roger Corman cast him at the age of 19 in the B-movie Cry Baby Killer and he spent a dozen years as part of Corman's low-budget academy, training ground for such talents as Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme. Later, as a highly paid star, he still evinced the sense of freedom that came with working on cheap pictures outside the big studio system.
In collaboration with two other Corman hands, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, he achieved overnight fame in 1969 in Easy Rider, playing the drinking, pot-smoking young lawyer George Hanson, a doomed, romantic cynic, scion of an old Southern family. Early on, he had two important partnerships with directors his own age, Monte Hellman and Bob Rafelson, with whom he both acted and wrote. In the Hellman westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, made back-to-back for $150,000 in the Utah desert, he played contrasted roles, first a psychopathic gunslinger and then an itinerant cowboy wrongly charged with outlawry.
In Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, he was a cruel, charismatic drop-out from an over-cultured family in the former, and a kindly, depressed radio storyteller in the latter.
We think we know Nicholson the man: a lively, lovable, hard-working, hard-living rebel, a charming scapegrace with a disarming smile and a slightly frightening thin-lipped grimace. Perhaps we do. But this belies the immense, un-self-regarding range he has shown in a 50-year career that looks as if there's major work still to come.
He's been the sane outsider faking insanity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the madman pretending to be sane in The Shining; the down-to-earth, foul-mouthed naval policeman in The Last Detail and the deranged Marine colonel in A Few Good Men, both of them dedicated to the military life.
He was the comic-strip Joker looking for colourful trouble in Batman and the colourless retired executive trying to avoid it in About Schmidt. In 1971 in Carnal Knowledge, he's a young man rendered impotent from his womanising; 32 years later in Something's Gotta Give, he's a music promoter having a heart attack while engaged in Viagra-assisted sex with a young woman.
Nicholson (it's difficult not to call him Jack) has chosen to work with some of the finest directors from Hollywood's golden age - Kazan, Minnelli, Kubrick, Huston, Arthur Penn; with three of Europe's finest - Polanski (Chinatown might well be his greatest performance), Forman and Antonioni; and with several of his best contemporaries - Hellman, Rafelson, Ashby, Nichols, Beatty, Payne, Burton, Sean Penn and Scorsese, another Corman protege.
'This used to be a helluva country,' Nicholson says in Easy Rider. His has been - still is - a helluva career.
Dennis Hopper - Writer, director, actor: Easy Rider (1969)
Jack's one of my oldest friends. We play golf together all the time. He's one of the great conversationalists, a right-on guy and a loyal friend, and he's got that great, infectious smile. Before Easy Rider we were at American International Pictures together. Jack wrote a screenplay - he's a terrific writer, too - for a picture called The Trip (1967), which Roger Corman directed. I played the drug connection and it was the first time that I directed second unit. Corman didn't pay us, but he would give us film and let us go out on weekends and shoot.
We were all dying to make a movie. We'd waited a long time and when the chance came to make Easy Rider, we wanted to give it our best shot. Whatever stories come out about that film, we couldn't have shot something in five weeks, travelling right across the United States, without being well organised. We did have some great times though, Jack and I. We dropped acid in Dallas together. We claimed we were both geniuses and died in front of DH Lawrence's shrine and stuff like that. But otherwise, it was a pretty smooth shoot.
Jack was a consummate actor then and he's made incredible choices since and performed them brilliantly. He has an infectious personality and I think it's a great loss that he's never gone on talk shows. Most of us have to go out and sell our movies, but the only time you see Jack on television is when he's at a Lakers basketball game. It's too bad, because he's got one of the greatest gifts of the gab of anyone I've ever met.
Kathy Bates, Actor: About Schmidt (2002)
When we worked together on About Schmidt, I found Jack incredibly professional, which I wasn't expecting because he has such a bad-boy image. He's not a pain in the ass on set; he knows his lines, he's on the mark and he's eager to get to work every day. Then again, I don't think Nebraska [where much of About Schmidt was shot] really lent itself to his wild lifestyle.
He didn't feel it was necessary for me to do that famous hot-tub scene [in which a naked Bates attempts to seduce Nicholson's equally naked Schmidt], but I felt it was important for my character. He was a gentleman and when I stood up to get out of the tub, he said: 'Beautiful, honey, just beautiful', and looked right into my eyes and not at any other part of my body. We spent most of our time in there talking about painting and how Churchill painted during the war to relax.
Sometimes, Jack will be talking and you'll have no idea what he's saying because he speaks in such conceptual terms. He goes off on these tangents you can't follow; you don't know if it's because he's brilliant or just really weird. I wouldn't think of him as especially outgoing, though. He's a friendly guy, but he keeps his own atmosphere and he doesn't like people coming up to him at dinner looking for an autograph. I remember John C Reilly telling me how, at a Stones concert, he walked with Jack through the crowd and not a single person recognised him.
But he has a wicked sense of humour. He calls me 'Bates Motel'. At first, I thought, oh great, but in fact, he has funny nicknames for everyone. It's his way of being affectionate.
Rob Reiner, Director: A Few Good Men (1992), The Bucket List (2007)
Jack always looked up to Marlon Brando, but look up to Jack in the same way. He's up there with arguably the greatest screen actor of all time; he even bought Marlon's house after he passed away. But what you don't hear so often about Jack is what a creative person he is. He paints, he draws and he's a terrific writer. He's got Picassos, Dalis and van Goghs at his house but - he'll hate me for saying this - he's got a couple of his own paintings up there, too, and they're really good.
I was 19 when I first met Jack. We all used to hang out at this place called Barney's Beanery and he'd be there a lot with Warren Beatty. He was just the coolest guy who'd ever lived. Renegade cool, but I always found him very approachable. Jack loved to talk.
He was made to play Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men. We had a great cast, a lot of young actors, but at the very first reading, Jack gave a full-blown performance and set the tone for everybody else. They realised they were in with a real Hall of Famer and they were going to have to step up their game pretty damn quick.
For the courtroom scene, we did the reaction shots with Tom Cruise and the others first so he'd have a chance to rehearse. But each time, Jack would deliver the speech full out, a perfect performance. I said: 'Jack, maybe you should save a little.' And he said: 'No Raaaab, you don't understand. I love to aaaaact. I don't get great parts like this all the time.' And sure enough, when his turn came, it was even better.
I finished The Bucket List, my new movie with Jack and Morgan Freeman, a few weeks ago. It's about two guys from different walks of life who are thrown together by their illnesses and go on a journey, helping each other resolve the issues they need to confront before they die. On the last day of shooting, Morgan, who's a big hugger, went over to Jack and Jack said: 'No sentimentality' - he doesn't go in for any of that stuff. But Morgan said: 'This has been a dream come true' and Jack said: 'Likewise.' Then they gave each other a huge hug. It was the greatest joy of my life making that movie because, in my opinion, they're the two greatest actors alive.
Susan Sarandon, Actor: The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Witches of Eastwick was a fairly long and tumultuous shoot and I had an 18-month-old daughter at the time, so it was a bit of a weird situation. Jack couldn't have been more generous. He would invite my daughter Eva and me to special lunches in his trailer, along with Cher and Michelle [Pfeiffer], although I probably ate more than all of them combined. Eva adored Jack. One day, when he was at the height of the devil make-up and dragging his leg across the square in Boston, she ran up to him with her arms open, crying, 'Jack, Jack'. He just looked at me and said: 'I told you this wasn't scary enough.'
Our first son was named Jack, with Jack's blessing. I was warned by people that he would turn out to be a womanising gambler if I gave him that name, and that is indeed what he turned out to be. Well not quite, but he is charming and generous and very friendly with the girls.
Jack is such a worldly guy, but people take advantage of him because he's such a soft touch. He's sweet and playful and funny as hell, although half the time you don't know what he's talking about because he uses so many metaphors and analogies. His intelligence is evident in every part he plays and he's not afraid of being unsympathetic on screen. Jack is very brave in that way.
Robert Towne, Screenwriter: The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), The Two Jakes (1990)
I met Jack when he was 18 and working as a messenger in the cartoon department of Hanna-Barbera. We were attending a class given by acting coach Jeff Corey and Jack used to do these little improvisations that knocked me out. In those days, he was called Jacko, so I went up to him and said: 'Jacko, you're going to be a movie star and I'm going to write for you.' That's how it all started, but it certainly didn't happen straight away.
Actors with highly individual personalities, although they make the most vivid impressions, often take time to ignite. Jack was one of those. There were some very dark times. We roomed together for a while and I remember him coming back one day full of rage because the guy in the unemployment office was telling him to get a real job. He broke his finger once and couldn't get it treated because he didn't have the money. All the girls in Jeff's class tended to want to go out with guys who had cars and were 10 years older than we were.
I wrote the leads in The Last Detail and Chinatown with Jack in mind, as a result of watching him improvise over five or six years. We got together a few years ago and watched Chinatown again. The film ages very well. When it came out, I thought the ending [which Roman Polanski famously made Towne change] was heavy-handed and overdone, but with the passage of time, I feel it's appropriate.
Jack has endured so well because he has been able to very consistently be Jack. He's always been this wild kid and, even though he has aged, that force has never diminished. He's a guy who is not going gentle into that good night - something that has enormous appeal for us all - and I think the fact that he has never hidden the things he takes pleasure in has endeared him to people. Jack has always been capable of expressing great joy and having a great time, but there's also a dark side to him. That kind of schizo attitude is what makes his work so exciting.
James L Brooks,Writer, director: Terms of Endearment (1983), Broadcast News (1987), As Good as it Gets (1997)
I met Jack in passing, years before I directed him in Terms of Endearment. I was pretty dumbstruck back then, so you can imagine what is was like when, as a first-time director, I actually had him in my movie. He would give me these critiques: 'You wanna know what the worst thing you did yesterday was? You wanna know what the best thing you did yesterday was?' But it was amazing - his goodwill was extraordinary. For one of the more sombre sequences in the movie, I suggested that the actors visit the Rothko exhibit in Houston for inspiration. I think Jack was the only one who took me up on it.
He's always alive with ideas. In As Good as it Gets, he saved me by questioning my judgment on a wardrobe matter. There's a social evening, a pivotal scene in the film, and it was important for Jack's character to look good, but I wasn't going to go that way. It turned out he was absolutely right. It transformed the scene and made the picture electric at that moment, because suddenly you're seeing this troubled man as attractive for the first time.
What makes Jack great is the vulnerability, the thing that scares young actors, which is somehow still alive in him - the desire to explore the part and the nerve to go into himself and walk past the point of comfort. There's no posturing; he's hubris-free. Nothing can kill the artist in Jack Nicholson.
Danny DeVito, Actor: includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Goin' South (1978), Hoffa (1992, also directed)
My good buddy Jack and I, we were born in the same neighbourhood in Jersey, down the shore. Everybody used to tell me about him. My sisters were friends with his sister and they would always talk about this really dashing, handsome man who went out to California to be a movie star.
Then I got a part alongside Jack in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. During rehearsals, we would shoot pool at the breaks and go out to dinner together but I never revealed this connection we had. In the end, my good friend Michael Douglas told him I was from Asbury Park. He couldn't believe it. After that, we'd ramble on and on about the places we used to go to and mutual friends.
He gave me a part in Goin' South, which he directed, and I had the privilege of directing him in Hoffa. He's a team player, always giving you more than you asked for, but also lots of fun, always clowning about. I remember bumping into him while we were promoting Hoffa in Paris and we were both out shopping. It was the funniest scene because here were these two guys from Jersey, walking around after their women, loaded down with packages. 'What the hell are we doing here, D?' he said to me. 'We should be watching a ball game or something.'
Jack has a reputation as a wild man, doing all kinds of interesting things, but I always experienced the fun side of it. He's big into golf and we were staying at a hotel once during a shoot. I was sitting in the community room in the middle of the night, looking out at Detroit and all of a sudden I heard a 'puck' and this ball rolled by. Two o'clock in the morning and Jack was up practising his putting.
Whatever's going on while you're filming, when Jack comes on to the set, things elevate to a really good place. He has a great energy about him and he enjoys going to work. The secret is to have faith in your work and to enjoy it, and he does both in spades.
Tim Burton, Director: Batman (1989), Mars Attacks! (1996)
Jack appreciates the absurdity of the business and the fun of it. On Batman, he was great. He was so supportive and helped me when there was trouble and the studio freaked out. He would say: 'Get what you need, get what you want and just keep going.' He'd do six takes and on each he'd give it something else. You'd almost wish you could play all six takes in the movie. He was very exciting to watch. In Mars Attacks!, I thought he was the perfect President - I would vote for him. To get him out of his trailer, we'd blare 'Hail to the Chief' over the loudspeakers. Jack marched around and got so into it we'd have to play it again and he'd do a couple more laps around the set and then go for it. (Interview by Mark Salisbury)
Interviews by Killian Fox