At 86 years old, Jack Nicholson has this physical status:
Nicholson first came to California in 1950, when he was 13, to visit his sister. He took a job as an office worker for animation directors William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at the MGM cartoon studio. They offered him an entry-level job as an animator, but he declined, citing his desire to become an actor. While accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 56th Golden Globe Awards, he recalled that his first day as a working actor (on Tales of Wells Fargo) was May 5, 1955, which he considered lucky, as 5 was the jersey number of his boyhood idol, Joe DiMaggio. He trained to be an actor with a group called the Players Ring Theater, after which 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 next decade, Nicholson frequently collaborated with the film's producer, Roger Corman. Corman directed Nicholson on several occasions, such as in The Little Shop of Horrors as masochistic dental patient and undertaker Wilbur Force; in The Raven; The Terror, where he plays a French officer seduced by an evil ghost; and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Nicholson frequently worked with director Monte Hellman on low-budget westerns; two of them—Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting—initially failed to interest U.S. film distributors but gained cult success on the French art-house circuit and were later sold to television. Nicholson also appeared in two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, and starred as a rebellious dirt-track race driver in the 1960 film The Wild Ride.
With his acting career floundering, 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), starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. After first reading the script, Fonda told Nicholson he was impressed by the writing and felt it could become a great film. But Fonda was disappointed with how the film turned out and blamed the editing for turning 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, and arranged the movie's soundtrack.
Nicholson's first big acting break came when a role opened up in Fonda and Hopper's Easy Rider (1969). He played alcoholic 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 writes that Nicholson's interpretation of his role placed him in the company of earlier "antihero" 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 Rip Torn, who withdrew from the project after an argument with Hopper. 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." Stanley Kubrick, who was impressed by his performance in Easy Rider, cast Nicholson as 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.
In 1970, Nicholson starred in Five Easy Pieces alongside Karen Black 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 played his waitress girlfriend. Black noted that Nicholson's character in the film was very subdued and very different from Nicholson's real personality. She said that the now-infamous 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.": 37 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 dated only 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.": 36
Within a month after its release that September, Five Easy Pieces became a blockbuster, making Nicholson a leading man and the "new American anti-hero", according to McDougal.: 130 Critics began speculating as to whether he might become another Marlon Brando or James Dean. His career and income skyrocketed. He said, "I have [become] 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.": 130 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:
Also in 1970, Nicholson appeared in the film 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.: 130
In 1971, Nicholson starred in Carnal Knowledge, a comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols and co-starring Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret, and Candice Bergen. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. Nichols felt few actors 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 lifelong friendship with Garfunkel. When he visited Los Angeles, Garfunkel stayed at Nicholson's home in a room Nicholson jokingly called "the Arthur Garfunkel Suite".: 127
Other Nicholson roles included Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973), with Randy Quaid, for which Nicholson won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and 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 the often censored one in this film, 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 the 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. Ebert called Nicholson's portrayal 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. That edge 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 Polanski long before the murder of Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family, and supported him in the days following her death.: 109–110 After Tate's death, Nicholson began sleeping with a hammer under his pillow and took breaks from work to attend Manson's 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, 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 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 afterward 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 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 of the same name, 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 afterward that DeVito grew up in the same area of New Jersey, and they knew many of the same people. The film received nine nominations at the Academy Awards, and won 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. : 273 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 a journalist, David Locke, who during an assignment in North Africa decides to quit journalism and 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 a great director. He said 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 40 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 one, a fact he sees as an accomplishment: "I'm still fooling them", he told Sean Penn. "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."
Although he garnered no Academy Award for Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining (1980), his role in the film as writer Jack Torrance remains one of his more significant. He was Kubrick's first choice to play the role, although the book's author, Stephen King, wanted more of an "everyman". Kubrick won the argument and called Nicholson's acting "on a par with the greatest stars of the past, like Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Cagney". In preparation for the role, Nicholson drew upon his own experiences as a writer and slept short hours to help remain in an agitated state during the shoot. His co-star Shelley Duvall recalled that she and Nicholson spent many hours discussing their characters, with Nicholson maintaining that his character be cold to her from the start. On the set, Nicholson always appeared in character and if Kubrick felt confident that Nicholson knew his lines well enough, he encouraged him to improvise beyond the script. : 434 For example, Nicholson improvised his now-famous "Here's Johnny!" line, : 433 along with a scene in which he unleashes his anger on his wife when she interrupts his work. : 445 There were also extensive takes of scenes, due to Kubrick's perfectionism. Nicholson shot a scene with the ghostly bartender 36 times. He said, "Stanley's demanding. He'll do a scene fifty times, and you have to be good to do that.": 38
In 1982, he starred as an 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. : 318 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". : 330
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); Heartburn (1986); 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 villain, the Joker. The film was an international smash hit, and a lucrative 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 mindset". 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). But his performance in Hoffa also earned him a Golden Globe nomination. 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 won 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 novelist with obsessive-compulsive disorder. "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 by the Academy Award for Best Actress for Helen Hunt, who played a Manhattan single mother drawn into a love/hate friendship with Udall, a frequent diner in the restaurant where she works as a waitress. The film was a box-office success, grossing $314 million, making it Nicholson's second-best-grossing film, after Batman.
Nicholson admits he initially disliked playing a middle-aged man alongside a 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 said. "It was just some frequency we both could tune into that was very, very compatible." Critic Jack Mathews of Newsday said Nicholson was "in rare form", adding, "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". 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 2001, Nicholson starred in The Pledge, a mystery drama where he portrays retired police detective Jerry Black, who vows to find a murderer of a young girl. Nicholson was praised for his performance; Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle called it "deeply felt" compared to some of Nicholson's other films. In About Schmidt (2002), Nicholson portrayed a retired Omaha, Nebraska, actuary who questions his own life after his wife dies. 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 the time, 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 awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for best 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 next film role saw him reunite with James L. Brooks, director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets, for a supporting role for the 2010 film How Do You Know. In a September 2013 Vanity Fair article, Nicholson said that he did not consider himself retired, but that he was now less driven to "be out there anymore".
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. He was reported to be starring in an English-language remake of Toni Erdmann in 2017 opposite Kristen Wiig, his first feature film role since How Do You Know, but the project was later abandoned by everyone, including the director.
In October 2019, with the release of The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, director Mike Flanagan confirmed Nicholson's retirement when asked if Nicholson had been offered a role in the film. Due to his character's death in the original film, Nicholson was invited to make a cameo appearance as another character, but turned down the offer while wishing the cast, crew and film the best. Flanagan also disclosed that Nicholson had previously been approached to appear in the 2018 film Ready Player One but declined.