John Joseph Nicholson (born April 22, 1937) is an American actor and filmmaker who has performed for over sixty years. He is known for playing a wide range of starring or supporting roles, including satirical comedy, romance and dark portrayals of antiheroes and psychopathic characters. In many of his films, he has played the "eternal outsider, the sardonic drifter"; someone who rebels against the social structure.
His most known and celebrated films include the road drama Easy Rider (1969), the dramas Five Easy Pieces (1970) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), the comedy-dramas The Last Detail (1973), Terms of Endearment (1983), As Good as It Gets (1997), About Schmidt (2002) and The Bucket List (2007), the neo-noir mystery Chinatown (1974), the horror film The Shining (1980), the biopic Reds (1981), fantasy comedy The Witches of Eastwick (1987), the superhero film Batman (1989) as the Joker, legal drama A Few Good Men (1992), the romantic horror film Wolf (1994), the science fiction comedy Mars Attacks! (1996), the comedy Anger Management, the romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give (both 2003), and the crime drama The Departed (2006). Nicholson has not acted in a film since How Do You Know in 2010, but does not consider himself to be retired. He has also directed three films, including The Two Jakes (1990), the sequel to Chinatown.
Nicholson's 12 Academy Award nominations make him the most nominated male actor in the Academy's history. Nicholson has won the Academy Award for Best Actor twice - one for the drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and the other for the romantic comedy As Good as It Gets (1997). He also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the comedy-drama Terms of Endearment (1983). Nicholson is one of three male actors to win three Academy Awards. Nicholson is one of only two actors to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s; the other is Michael Caine. He has won six Golden Globe Awards, and received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2001. In 1994, at 57, he became one of the youngest actors to be awarded the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.
He has had a number of high-profile relationships, most notably with Anjelica Huston and Rebecca Broussard, and was married to Sandra Knight from 1962 until their divorce in 1968. Nicholson has five children – one with Knight, two with Broussard (including Lorraine Nicholson), and one each with Susan Anspach and Winnie Hollman.
Nicholson was born on April 22, 1937, in Neptune City, New Jersey, the son of a showgirl, June Frances Nicholson (November 5, 1918 – July 31, 1963) (stage name June Nilson). Nicholson's mother was of Irish, English, and German descent. She married Italian-American showman Donald Furcillo (stage name Donald Rose) in 1936, before realizing that he was already married. Biographer Patrick McGilligan stated in his book Jack's Life that Latvian-born Eddie King (originally Edgar A. Kirschfeld), June's manager, may have been Nicholson's biological father, rather than Furcillo. Other sources suggest June Nicholson was unsure of who the father was. As June was only 18 years old and unmarried, her parents agreed to raise Nicholson as their own child without revealing his true parentage, and June would act as his sister.
In 1974, Time magazine researchers learned, and informed Nicholson, that his "sister", June, was actually his mother, and his other "sister", Lorraine, was really his aunt. By this time, both his mother and grandmother had died (in 1963 and 1970, respectively). On finding out, Nicholson said it was "a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn't what I'd call traumatizing... I was pretty well psychologically formed".
Nicholson grew up in Neptune City, New Jersey. He was raised in his mother's Roman Catholic religion. Before starting high school, his family moved to an apartment in Spring Lake, New Jersey. "When Jack was ready for high school, the family moved once more—this time two miles (3 km) farther south to old-money Spring Lake, New Jersey's so-called Irish Riviera, where Ethel May set up her beauty parlor in a rambling duplex at 505 Mercer Avenue." "Nick", as he was known to his high school friends, attended nearby Manasquan High School, where he was voted "class clown" by the Class of 1954. He was in detention every day for a whole school year. A theatre and a drama award at the school are named in his honor. In 2004, Nicholson attended his 50-year high school reunion accompanied by his aunt Lorraine.
Nicholson first came to Hollywood in 1954, when he was 17, to visit his sister. He took a job as an office worker for animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at the MGM cartoon studio. They offered him a starting-level job as an animator, but he declined, citing his desire to become an actor.
He trained to be an actor with a group called the Players Ring Theater, after which time he found small parts performing on the stage and in TV soap operas. He made his film debut in a low-budget teen drama The Cry Baby Killer (1958), playing the title role. For the following decade, Nicholson was a frequent collaborator with the film's producer, Roger Corman. Corman directed Nicholson on several occasions, most notably in The Little Shop of Horrors, as masochistic dental patient and undertaker Wilbur Force, and also in The Raven, The Terror where he plays a French officer seduced by an evil ghost, and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Nicholson also frequently worked with director Monte Hellman on low-budget westerns, though two in particular, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, initially failed to find interest from any US film distributors but gained cult success on the art-house circuit in France and were later sold to television. Nicholson also appeared in two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show.
With his acting career heading nowhere, Nicholson seemed resigned to a career behind the camera as a writer/director. His first real taste of writing success was the screenplay for the 1967 counterculture film The Trip (directed by Corman), which starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. After first reading the script, Fonda told Nicholson he was totally impressed by the writing and felt it could become a great film. However, he was disappointed with how the film turned out, and blamed the editing which turned it into a "predictable" film, and said so publicly. "I was livid", he recalls. Nicholson also co-wrote, with Bob Rafelson, the movie Head, which starred The Monkees. He also arranged the movie's soundtrack.
After a spot opened up in Fonda and Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), it led to his first big acting break. Nicholson played hard-drinking lawyer George Hanson, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. The film cost only $400,000 to make and became a blockbuster, grossing $40 million. Biographer John Parker states that Nicholson's interpretation of his role placed him in the company of earlier "anti-hero" actors, such as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, while promoting him into an "overnight number-one hero of the counter-culture movement".
The part was a lucky break for Nicholson—the role had been written for actor Rip Torn, who withdrew from the project after an argument with Hopper. In interview, Nicholson later acknowledged the importance of being cast in Easy Rider: "All I could see in the early films, before Easy Rider, was this desperate young actor trying to vault out of the screen and create a movie career."
Nicholson was cast by Stanley Kubrick, who was impressed with his role in Easy Rider, in the part of Napoleon in a film about his life, and although production on the film commenced, the project fizzled out, partly due to a change in ownership at MGM and other issues.
Nicholson starred in Five Easy Pieces alongside Karen Black in 1970 in what became his persona-defining role. Nicholson and Black were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. Nicholson played Bobby Dupea, an oil rig worker, and Black was his waitress girlfriend. During an interview about the film, Black noted that Nicholson's character in the film was very subdued, and was very different than Nicholson's real-life personality. She says that the now-famous restaurant scene was partly improvised by Nicholson, and was out of character for Bobby, who wouldn't have cared enough to argue with a waitress. "I think that Jack really has very little in common with Bobby. I think Bobby has given up looking for love. But Jack hasn't, he's very interested in love, in finding out things. Jack is a very curious, alive human being. Always ready for a new idea." Nicholson himself said as much, telling an interviewer, "I like listening to everybody. This to me is the elixir of life."
Black later admitted that she had a crush on Nicholson from the time they met, although they only dated briefly. "He was very beautiful. He just looked right at you ... I liked him a lot ... He really sort of wanted to date me but I didn't think of him that way because I was going with Peter Kastner ... Then I went to do Easy Rider, but didn't see him because we didn't have any scenes together ... At the premiere, I saw him out in the lobby afterward and I started crying ... He didn't understand that, but what it was was that I really loved him a lot, and I didn't know it until I saw him again, because it all welled up."
Within a month after the film's release that September, the movie became a blockbuster, making Nicholson a leading man and the "new American antihero", according to McDougal. Critics began speculating whether he might become another Marlon Brando or James Dean. His career and income skyrocketed. He said, "I was much sought after. Your name becomes a brand image like a product. You become Campbell's soup, with thirty-one different varieties of roles you can play." He told his new agent, Sandy Bresler, to find him unusual roles so he could stretch his acting skill: "I like to play people that haven't existed yet, a 'cusp character'", he said:
There is James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda. After that, who is there but Jack Nicholson?
Also in 1970, he appeared in the movie adaptation of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, although most of his performance was left on the cutting room floor. His agent turned down a starring role in Deliverance when the film's producer and director, John Boorman refused to pay what Nicholson's agent wanted.
Nicholson starred in Carnal Knowledge in 1971, a comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols, which co-starred Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. As director, Mike Nichols was limited in the actors who he felt could handle the role, saying, "There is James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda. After that, who is there but Jack Nicholson?" During the filming, Nicholson struck up what became a life-long friendship with co-star Garfunkel. When he visited Los Angeles, Garfunkel would stay at Nicholson's home in a room Nicholson jokingly called "the Arthur Garfunkel Suite".
Other Nicholson roles included Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973), with Randy Quaid, for which Nicholson won for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, and he was nominated for his third Oscar and a Golden Globe. Television journalist David Gilmour writes that one of his favorite Nicholson scenes from all his films was in this one, when Nicholson slaps his gun on the bar yelling he was the Shore Patrol. Critic Roger Ebert called it a very good movie, but credited Nicholson's acting as the main reason: "He creates a character so complete and so complex that we stop thinking about the movie and just watch to see what he'll do next."
In 1974, Nicholson starred in Roman Polanski's noir thriller, Chinatown, and was again nominated for Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Jake Gittes, a private detective. The film co-starred Faye Dunaway and John Huston, and included a cameo role with Polanski. Roger Ebert described Nicholson's portrayal as sharp-edged, menacing, and aggressive, a character who knew "how to go over the top", as he did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It is that edge that kept Chinatown from becoming a typical genre crime film. Ebert also notes the importance of the role for Nicholson's career, seeing it as a major transition from the exploitation films of the previous decade. "As Jake Gittes, he stepped into Bogart's shoes", says Ebert. "As a man attractive to audiences because he suggests both comfort and danger ... From Gittes forward, Nicholson created the persona of a man who had seen it all and was still capable of being wickedly amused."
Nicholson had been friends with the director Roman Polanski long before the murder of Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson Family, and supported him in the days following the deaths. After Tate's death, Nicholson began sleeping with a hammer under his pillow, and took breaks from work to attend the Manson trial.
In 1977, three years after Chinatown, Polanski was arrested at Nicholson's home for the sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, who was modeling for Polanski during a magazine photo shoot around the pool. At the time of the incident, Nicholson was out of town making a film, but his steady girlfriend, actress Anjelica Huston, had dropped by unannounced to pick up some items. She heard Polanski in the other room say, "We'll be right out." Polanski then came out with Geimer, and he introduced her to Huston, and they chatted about Nicholson's two large dogs, which were sitting nearby. Huston recalled Geimer was wearing platform heels and appeared quite tall. After a few minutes of talking, Polanski had packed up his camera gear, and Huston saw them drive off in his car. Huston told police the next day, after Polanski was arrested, that she "had witnessed nothing untoward" and never saw them together in the other room.
Geimer learned afterwards that Huston herself wasn't supposed to be at Nicholson's house that day, since they had recently broken up, but stopped over to pick up some belongings. Geimer described Nicholson's house as "definitely" a guy's house, with lots of wood and shelves crowded with photos and mementos.
One of Nicholson's greatest successes came in 1975 with his role as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The movie was an adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, and was directed by Miloš Forman and co-produced by Michael Douglas. Nicholson plays an anti-authoritarian patient at a mental hospital where he becomes an inspiring leader for the other patients. Playing one of the patients was Danny DeVito in an early role. Nicholson learned afterwards that DeVito grew up in the same area of New Jersey and they knew many of the same people. The film swept the Academy Awards with nine nominations and won the top five, including Nicholson's first for Best Actor.
The role seemed perfect for Nicholson, with biographer Ken Burke noting that his "smartass demeanor balances his genuine concern for the treatment of his fellow patients with his independent spirit too free to exist in a repressive social structure". Forman allowed Nicholson to improvise throughout the film, including most of the group therapy sequences. Reviewer Marie Brenner notes that his bravura performance "transcends the screen" and continually inspires the other actors by lightening their mental illnesses with his comic dialogue. She describes his performance:
Also in 1975, Nicholson starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975), which co-starred Maria Schneider. Nicholson plays the role of a journalist, David Locke, who during an assignment in North Africa decides to quit being a journalist and simply disappear by taking on a new hidden identity. Unfortunately, the dead person whose identity he takes on turns out to have been a weapons smuggler on the run. Antonioni's unusual plot included convincing dialogue and fine acting, states film critic Seymour Chatman. It was shot in Algeria, Spain, Germany, and England.
The film received good reviews, and revived Antonioni's reputation as one of cinema's great directors. He says he wanted the film to have more of a "spy feeling [and] be more political". Nicholson began shooting the film from an unfinished script, notes Judith Crist, yet upon its completion he thought so highly of the film that he bought the world rights and recorded a reminiscence of working with Antonioni. Critic and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt provides an overview of Nicholson's role:
He continued to take more unusual roles. He took a small role in The Last Tycoon, opposite Robert De Niro. He took a less sympathetic role in Arthur Penn's western The Missouri Breaks (1976), specifically to work with Marlon Brando. Nicholson was especially inspired by Brando's acting ability, recalling that in his youth, as an assistant manager at a theater, he watched On the Waterfront about forty times. "I'm part of the first generation that idolized Marlon Brando", he said.
Nicholson has observed that while both De Niro and Brando were noted for their skill as method actors, he himself has seldom been described as a method actor, a fact which he sees as an accomplishment: "I'm still fooling them", he told Sean Penn during a phone conversation. "I consider it an accomplishment because there's probably no one who understands Method acting better academically than I do—or actually uses it more in his work. But it's funny, nobody really sees that. It's perception versus reality, I guess."
His work is always interesting, clearly conceived, and has the X-factor, magic. Jack is particularly suited for roles which require intelligence. He is an intelligent and literate man, and these are almost impossible to act. In The Shining you believe he's a writer, failed or otherwise.
Although he garnered no Academy Award for Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining (1980), it remains one of his more significant roles. He was Kubrick's first choice to play the lead role, although the book's author, Stephen King, wanted the part played by more of an "everyman". However, Kubrick as director won the argument, and described Nicholson's acting quality as being "on a par with the greatest stars of the past, like Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Cagney".
On the set, Nicholson always appeared in character, and if Kubrick felt confident that he knew his lines well enough, he encouraged him to improvise and go beyond the script. For example, Nicholson improvised his now famous "Here's Johnny!" line,:433 along with the scene in which he's sitting at the typewriter and unleashes his anger upon his wife after she discovers he has gone insane when she looks at his writing ("all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" typed endlessly).:445 There were also extensive takes of scenes, due to Kubrick's perfectionism. Nicholson shot a scene with the ghostly bartender thirty-six times. Nicholson states that "Stanley's demanding. He'll do a scene fifty times, and you have to be good to do that."
In 1982, he starred as in immigration enforcement agent in The Border, directed by Tony Richardson. It co-starred Warren Oates, who played a corrupt border official. Richardson wanted Nicholson to play his role less expressively than he had in his earlier roles. "Less is more", he told him, and wanted him to wear reflecting sunglasses to portray what patrolmen wore. Richardson recalled that Nicholson worked hard on the set:
Nicholson won his second Oscar, an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for his role of retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment (1983), directed by James L. Brooks. It starred Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. McGilligan claims it was one of Nicholson's most complex and unforgettable characters. He and MacLaine played many of their scenes in different ways, constantly testing and making adjustments. Their scenes together gave the film its "buoyant edge", states McGilligan, and describes Nicholson's acting as "Jack floating like a butterfly".
Nicholson continued to work prolifically in the 1980s, starring in such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Reds (1981), where Nicholson portrays the writer Eugene O'Neill with a quiet intensity, Prizzi's Honor (1985), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Broadcast News (1987), and Ironweed (1987). Three Oscar nominations also followed (Reds, Prizzi's Honor, and Ironweed). John Huston, who directed Prizzi's Honor, said of Nicholson's acting, "He just illuminates the book. He impressed me in one scene after another; the movie is composed largely of first takes with him."
In the 1989 Batman movie, Nicholson played the psychotic murderer and villain The Joker. The film was an international smash hit, and a lucrative percentage deal earned him a percentage of the box office gross estimated at $60 million to $90 million. Nicholson said that he was "particularly proud" of his performance as the Joker: "I considered it a piece of pop art", he said.
For his role as hot-headed Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992), a movie about a murder in a U.S. Marine Corps unit, Nicholson received yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. One review describes his performance as "spellbinding", adding that he portrayed "the essence of the quintessential military mind-set". Critic David Thomson notes that Nicholson's character "blazed and roared".
The film's director, Rob Reiner, recalls how Nicholson's level of acting experience affected the other actors during rehearsals: "I had the luck of having Jack Nicholson there. He knows what he's doing, and he comes to play, every time out, full-out performance! And what it says to a lot of the other actors is, 'Oooooh, I better get on my game here because this guy's coming to play! So I can't hold back; I've got to come up to him.' He sets the tone."
In 1996, Nicholson collaborated once more with Batman director Tim Burton on Mars Attacks!, pulling double duty as two contrasting characters, President James Dale and Las Vegas property developer Art Land. At first, studio executives at Warner Bros. disliked the idea of killing off Nicholson's character, so Burton created two characters and killed them both off.
Not all of Nicholson's performances have been well received. He was nominated for Razzie Awards as worst actor for Man Trouble (1992) and Hoffa (1992). However, Nicholson's performance in Hoffa also earned him a Golden Globe nomination. While David Thomson states that the film was terribly neglected, since Nicholson portrayed one of his best screen characters, someone who is "snarly, dumb, smart, noble, rascally—all the parts of 'Jack'"
Nicholson went on to win his next Academy Award for Best Actor in the romantic comedy, As Good as It Gets (1997), his third film directed by James L. Brooks. He played Melvin Udall, a "wickedly funny", mean-spirited, obsessive-compulsive novelist. "I'm a studio Method actor", he said. "So I was prone to give some kind of clinical presentation of the disorder." His Oscar was matched with the Academy Award for Best Actress for Helen Hunt, who played a Manhattan wisecracking, single-mother waitress drawn into a love/hate friendship with Udall, a frequent diner in the restaurant. The film was a tremendous box office success, grossing $314 million, which made it Nicholson's second-best-grossing film of his career, after Batman.
Nicholson admits he initially didn't like playing the role of a middle-aged man alongside much younger Hunt, seeing it as a movie cliché. "But Helen disarmed that at the first meeting", he says, "and I stopped thinking about it." They got along well during the filming, with Hunt saying that he "treated me like a queen", and they connected immediately: "It wasn't even what we said", she adds. "It was just some frequency we both could tune into that was very, very compatible."
Critic Jack Mathews of Newsday described Nicholson as being "in rare form", adding that "it's one of those performances that make you aware how much fun the actor is having". Author and screenwriter Andrew Horton describes their on-screen relationship as being like "fire and ice, oil and water— seemingly complete opposites". Nonetheless, Hunt was Nicholson's perfect counterpart, and delivered "a simply stunning performance", writes critic Louise Keller. Co-star Greg Kinnear's role was also seen as showing his full range of acting in an "exquisitely heartfelt performance".
In 2001, Nicholson was the first actor to receive the Stanislavsky Award at the 23rd Moscow International Film Festival for "conquering the heights of acting and faithfulness".
In About Schmidt (2002), Nicholson portrayed a retired Omaha, Nebraska, actuary who questions his own life following his wife's death. His quietly restrained performance earned him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. In Anger Management (2003), he played an aggressive therapist assigned to help an overly pacifist man (Adam Sandler). In 2003, Nicholson also starred in Something's Gotta Give, as an aging playboy who falls for the mother (Diane Keaton) of his young girlfriend. In late 2006, Nicholson marked his return to the dark side as Frank Costello, a nefarious Boston Irish Mob boss, based on Whitey Bulger who was still on the run at that time, presiding over Matt Damonand Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning film The Departed, a remake of Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs. The role earned Nicholson worldwide critical praise along with various award wins and nominations including a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actor.
In 2007 Nicholson co-starred with Morgan Freeman in Rob Reiner's The Bucket List. Nicholson and Freeman portrayed dying men who fulfill their list of goals. In researching the role, Nicholson visited a Los Angeles hospital to see how cancer patients coped with their illnesses.
Nicholson's last film role to date saw him reunite with James L. Brooks, director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets, for a supporting role as Paul Rudd's character's father in the 2010 film How Do You Know. It had been widely reported in subsequent years that Nicholson had retired from acting because of memory loss but in a September 2013 Vanity Fair article, Nicholson clarified that he did not consider himself retired, merely that he was now less driven to "be out there any more".
On February 15, 2015, Nicholson made a special appearance as a presenter on SNL 40, the 40th anniversary special of Saturday Night Live. After the death of boxer Muhammad Ali on June 3, 2016, Nicholson appeared on HBO's The Fight Game with Jim Lampley for an exclusive interview about his friendship with Ali.
In February 2017, it was reported that Nicholson would be starring in an English-language remake of Toni Erdmann opposite Kristen Wiig. It will be his first feature film role since 2010.