- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

Actor Jack Nicholson apologizes for bringing a raspy voice to a telephone interview anticipating his appearance as a Kennedy Center Honoree. "I went to a rock 'n' roll concert last night, so I'm a little husky," he says in that insinuating drawl, a reliably entertaining fixture of moviegoing since his breakthrough role in 1969's "Easy Rider" as the kibitzing, dropout, Southern lawyer who tags along with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on an ill-fated motorcycle trip.
Which rock performer had Mr. Nicholson shouting his approval? "Mighty Mick [Jagger]," he says. "He's the greatest."
Presumably, Kennedy Center programmers will offer a nostalgic summary of the Nicholson film career, which began with the 1958 exploitation howler, "The Cry Baby Killer." The future star, then a baby-faced 21-year-old, was cast as the sort of crazy, mixed-up teen-ager that proliferated in the wake of James Dean.
"We shot 'Baby Killer' in about seven days, and it made me think I was gonna be an instant star," Mr. Nicholson says. "[But] it was a year before it was even released, and it didn't do much for me at all. I think I was more or less out of work for a year. That was sort of a low point as far as salary goes. I think I averaged about $2,500 annually during that period. There were a lot of jobs that helped you scrape by. I could always go back to a certain gas station. The first 10 or 12 years as an actor were not that easy. But that was also one of the fun periods. A lot of friends from that time are still my closest friends. We had a great house in Hollywood and had a lot of fun there."
Born in Neptune, N.J., on April 22, 1937 easy to remember if you recall that the plot of "Chinatown," one of the great Nicholson vehicles, is set in Los Angeles in 1937 the actor moved to Southern California after graduating from high school. If he had acting aspirations, Mr. Nicholson says, they were "half-submerged."
"I really didn't have the nerve to say to myself, 'I think I'll be an actor,' until I was well into it. I sort of drifted into it. I went to work at MGM as an office employee in the cartoon department, which was still active at that time. My boss was Bill Hanna, who passed on this year. He encouraged me to follow up on acting classes and all that. I got started, in a kind of foggy way, but I'm grateful for the way it went," he says.
Mr. Nicholson was associated with a theater company called the Players Ring, which staged plays at two locations in Hollywood. "There wasn't a lot of television work in L.A. when I got started, or much theater work either," he says. "This was before the Huntington Hartford Theatre was even built. Most of the theater was national touring companies. So a lot of the really good and ambitious actors in Hollywood were happy to work at the Ring."
The first play he did there had Michael Landon in it. "He went directly into the 'Bonanza' series from it," Mr. Nicholson notes. "Same thing with Edd Byrnes, who got his Kookie role in '77 Sunset Strip' after making an impression at the Ring. And Robert Fuller, who went straight to a TV Western."
How did a television series elude Mr. Nicholson? "I had such small roles that nobody was interested at that point," he says with a chuckle. "But everything you do, one thing leads to another. The only guy who had a smaller part in the first play I did later became Nick Venet, who produced the Beach Boys."
While enrolled in an acting class taught by the late character actor Jeff Corey, Mr. Nicholson met two other students destined to write pivotal roles for him: Robert Towne of "Chinatown" and Carole Eastman of "Five Easy Pieces."
He recalls Mr. Corey as "a wonderful teacher," although "we had a rocky start before eventually getting used to each other." Mr. Nicholson regards all his acting instruction as valuable and remembers himself as "a good student" with the following caveat: "If I wasn't learning something, I left."
Mr. Nicholson had brought somewhat spotty high school transcripts to California but tested well enough to qualify for college entrance. "I thought I would sit out a semester when I arrived here to stay with my sister, then go to college," he says. But he went in a different direction.
"I really didn't want to work all night while attending college all day," he explains. "So there was a lot of uncertainty. I didn't feel comfortable for a long time. Not professionally. I was also trying to get on as a writer or producer or director while trying to get on as an actor. I didn't have a real success for 10 or 12 years, not until 'Easy Rider.'
"I like to think I'm a thoughtful moviemaker, and I think I learned from that period of struggle," he says. "I wouldn't have wanted it that way. But I had done a lot of different jobs in the movie business before the success kicked in. By the time there was some demand for my work, I had a good sense of what to do and what not to do."
Mr. Nicholson made fitful appearances in such major studio movies as "Ensign Pulver" and "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre," and such Roger Corman quickies (and semicamp classics) as "The Little Shop of Horrors" and "The Raven." He also got his feet wet as a novice director on a Corman horror obscurity titled "The Terror," supervising a few scenes without screen credit. A marriage to actress Sandra Knight began in 1962 and ended in 1967, producing one daughter, Jennifer, the eldest of four children by three women.
Mr. Nicholson was becoming an indispensable part of a low-budget Hollywood apparatus destined to make an impact in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when generational reinvigoration became both imperative and lucrative for the movie business.
The role in "Easy Rider," something of a self-portrait by the late humorist and screenwriter Terry Southern, had been intended for Rip Torn. Mr. Nicholson cannot quite recall the circumstances that shifted the role his way, but he was an intimate of the group that was putting the movie together. Mr. Fonda was a co-star and co-producer; Mr. Hopper was the director and also a star; and Bert Schneider, the son of a Columbia Pictures executive, was another producer.
"I was working at that company, Pando. I had written one of the movies, 'The Trip,' that Peter and Dennis had done shortly before. I was producing and writing and had a commitment to direct a picture for them. Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson were there. We had done 'Head' with the Monkees and went on to do 'Five Easy Pieces' after 'Easy Rider' became a phenomenon. Anyway, I had been working, a lot, in the so-called American film underground, the nonunion side of the business in Hollywood. I knew many of the solid the emerging filmmakers in that group," he says.
Mr. Nicholson had been in motorcycle movies before "Easy Rider." "I knew they were kind of a hidden gold mine," he says. "Most of the B movies of that time didn't make money. I had been in 'Hell's Angels on Wheels,' which did around 10 or 12 million dollars in gross receipts. That was pretty big for the period."
The same director, Richard Rush, and photographer, Laszlo Kovacs, did another motorcycle picture, "The Savage Seven," a pulp variation on "Seven Samurai," that was less successful in the exploitation market but had a distinctive look. Much of that look was transposed to "Easy Rider" when Mr. Kovacs was hired as the cinematographer.
"Bert asked me if I could play the part in 'Easy Rider.' I said, 'Sure.' I think anybody could have, it was such a wonderful part," Mr. Nicholson says. "Part of the understanding was that I could lend some production support while [Dennis and Peter] were making their film. We looked on the motorcycle movies as the new Westerns. One of my reasons for liking the idea of 'Easy Rider' is that it reminded me of 'Stagecoach.' Not so many passengers, of course, but it represented an escalation in the aspirations of people who were working with that genre, which had seemed kind of tacky to the business in general."
Mr. Nicholson became the most successful of the "Easy Rider" sidekicks. One thing or another prevented Mr. Hopper from sustaining a directing career. Mr. Fonda did not become a star of the same magnitude as his father and sister, although he enjoyed a comeback in 1997 on the strength of "Ulee's Gold." He was one of the best-actor finalists when Mr. Nicholson won for his role in "As Good as It Gets." That award brought Mr. Nicholson's number of Oscars to three; he also has been nominated 11 times.
Mr. Nicholson had won previously as best actor for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1975 and best supporting actor for "Terms of Endearment" in 1983. A 12th nomination for "The Pledge," released early this year, would not be surprising, or undeserved.
Despite career awards from the Golden Globes and now the Kennedy Center, Mr. Nicholson does not appear ready for the rocking chair or the emeritus chair.
"One of the great things about right now," he says, "is that I don't have to do anything, really. I've always been motivated, anyway, by wanting to do things keenly. I've lived a very privileged professional life. If you spend 10 or 12 years scrambling, you never allow yourself the luxury of saying you're home free. I knew my situation had changed drastically after 'Easy Rider,' but I hadn't anticipated a change that led to acting as the predominant thing.
"I thought I was on my way to being a director when I became a movie star, so to speak. I've been able to direct a couple, three movies ["Drive, He Said," "Goin' South" and "The Two Jakes"], and if they had met with significant commercial success, I might have done more. Maybe something in the seven-to-10 range. Now I don't think about directing opportunities as much as I used to, but I still do think about it. If I found something I wanted to direct and felt I could direct, I might still do it."
While not strictly schooled in the Method, Mr. Nicholson does acknowledge its influence and regards himself as a methodical sort of collaborator, up to a point.
"All modern movie acting is based on a very strong sense of immediacy," he says. "The standard always goes up on everything, I like to think, but kind of imperceptibly. I have a kind of an approach. I break a script down. I do go through it with a fine tooth comb. I think you have to know what's there.
"For a lot of reasons, immediate decisions are made while you're filming. But when it comes time, as all actors will tell you, you have to provide very specific moments, and they need to reflect a certain unpredictability. I do a lot of thinking, planning and note-taking. But when it comes time, you just have to kind of forget all that and hope something good happens."
Mr. Nicholson regards himself as a movie fan of such long standing that he could not list all the performers who give him enduring pleasure. "It would be an incredibly long list," he says. "If I said to you, 'Clarence Kolb,' you might think, 'Huh?' There are scores of wonderful old character actors who do it for me, in the Clarence Kolb way.
"At the other end of the scale, there's always Marlon Brando, who's kind of the patron saint of modern actors. |I had a wonderful time working with him on 'The Missouri Breaks.'As everyone knows, he's very unorthodox in the way he approacheshis career, but we had fun together. We all watch what the Big Fella does."

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