[Biography] Here’s Johnny!: A Biography of Jack Nicholson

Julio Tanton

Early Life

On April 22,1937, John “Jack” Joseph Nicholson, who will become known as one of the greatest actors of his generation and famous for his often dark-themed portrayals of neurotic characters with his iconic grin, was born in Neptune, New Jersey.

Nicholson’s father left his mother before Jack was born, and he grew up believing that his grandmother was his mother and his mother was his older sister. Nicholson didn’t learn the truth until the early 1970s, long after they were both dead, when he found out from a reporter then working on a story about the now-famous actor. After high school, Nicholson won a scholarship to the University of Delaware, but he decided to try acting instead. After moving to Los Angeles, he landed a job in the animation department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He began studying acting at the Players Ring Theater and won a few small parts in television shows.

Acting Career

In 1958, Nicholson played a troubled teenager in his first film, a low-budget horror flick called The Cry Baby Killer. This was the first of many appearances in horror and biker films and other second-rate genre movies that Nicholson would make over the course of the next decade. He also tried his hand at screenwriting, penning scripts for The Trip (1967), directed by B-movie king Roger Corman, and Head (1968), which starred the musical group the Monkees. Nicholson married the actress Sandra Knight in 1962, but the marriage lasted only five years.

Nicholson finally got his big acting break in 1967, when the actor Rip Torn dropped out of Easy Rider (1968) and Nicholson was able to step into his place. Playing an alcoholic lawyer opposite Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s drug-dealing bikers, Nicholson stole his scenes and picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

After the success of Easy Rider, Nicholson’s career was on the fast track. As a talented musician stuck working on an oil rig in Five Easy Pieces (1970), he turned in another Oscar-nominated performance, this time as Best Actor. After two more nominations–for The Last Detail (1973) and Roman Polanski’s noir thriller Chinatown (1974)–Nicholson took home the Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which he played an inmate in a mental asylum. The film was the first to sweep all five major Oscar categories: Best Actor, Best Actress (Louise Fletcher as the sadistic Nurse Ratched), Best Screenplay, Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Picture.

Now at the top of the A-list, Nicholson appeared sporadically in films over the rest of the 1970s. He emerged with a string of notable performances in the 1980s, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Oscar-nominated turns in Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983) and Ironweed (1987). Showcasing his more campy side, he played Satan in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and gave an outrageously over-the-top performance as the Joker in Batman (1989), both box-office hits. Playing a hard-line Marine colonel in A Few Good Men (1992), Nicholson racked up his tenth Oscar nomination, a record for a male actor.

In 1997, Nicholson and co-star Helen Hunt both won Oscars for their leading performances in the quirky comedy-drama As Good as It Gets. Still at the top of his game, Nicholson continued to appear frequently in leading roles in films throughout the next decade, earning praise (and a 12th Oscar nomination) for his uncharacteristically understated performance in About Schmidt (2002); indulging his softer side in the romantic comedy Something’s Gotta Give (2004), opposite Diane Keaton; and headlining the stellar cast of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning Mob drama The Departed (2006).

Academy Awards History

With 12 Academy Award nominations (eight for Best Actor and four for Best Supporting Actor), Nicholson is the most nominated male actor in Academy Awards history. Only Nicholson (1960s-2000s), Michael Caine (1960s-2000s), Paul Newman (1950s-1960s, 1980s-2000s), and Laurence Olivier (1930s-1970s) have been nominated for an acting (lead or supporting) Academy Award in five decades. With three Oscar wins, he also ties with Walter Brennan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ingrid Bergman, and Meryl Streep for the second-most Oscar wins in acting categories. Only Katharine Hepburn, with four Oscars, has won more. In 2013, Nicholson co-presented the Academy Award for Best Picture with first lady Michelle Obama. This ceremony marked the eighth time he has presented the Academy Award for Best Picture (1972, 1977, 1978, 1990, 1993, 2006, 2007, and 2013). Nicholson is an active and voting member of the Academy.

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