This article was originally published in January 2004.
In Something’s Gotta Give, his sixtieth–yes, sixtieth—movie, Jack Nicholson falls head over heels in love, and has steamy, and ecstatic, sex—not with his luscious on-screen girlfriend, Amanda Peet, but her mother. It’s classic Nicholson, confounding expectations. It’s also a very sexy scene, which says something extraordinary about Nicholson, given that the actor just celebrated his sixty-seventh birthday.
Few actors–American or otherwise–have matched Nicholson’s collection of awards, including twelve Oscar nominations and three statuettes, or his volumes of luminous praise. There are other living legends–his peers include Newman, Redford, Eastwood, Connery, Pacino, Hoffman–but none have dominated movies or the culture the way that Nicholson has. He is on the short list of the greatest actors of all time. “[He] is a beloved American presence, a superb actor who even more crucially is a superb male sprite,” says critic Roger Ebert. “The joke lurking beneath the surface of most of his performances is that he gets away with things because he knows how to, wants to, and has the nerve to. His characters stand for freedom, anarchy, self-gratification and bucking the system, and often they also stand for generous friendship and a kind of careworn nobility.”
Nicholson made his breakthrough movie, Easy Rider, the Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda classic, in 1960. Since then he has worked with most great actors and directors, starring in many of the most monumental movies ever made (even a partial list is mind boggling): Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Passenger, Missouri Breaks, The Shining, A Few Good Men, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Prizzi’s Honor, Terms of Endearment and The Witches of Eastwick. He was Eugene O’Neill in Warren Beatty’s Reds, and, in the best of the Batman movies, he embodied The Joker, a performance that The Washington Post called “brilliantly bonkers.” Last year, he earned the Golden Globe for best actor and another Oscar nomination for About Schmidt, and he starred with Adam Sandler in Anger Management.
Nicholson’s childhood is equally unusual. Born and raised in Mannasquan, New Jersey, he was abandoned by his father, and didn’t learn, until he was in his late thirties, that the woman who he had thought was his mother was actually his grandmother, while his sister—that is, the person he thought was his sister–was in fact his mother. After high school, Nicholson moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job as an office boy at MGM, and he was eventually given a screen test. It led to his first acting jobs in a series of low-budget movies directed by Bob Rafelson and Roger Corman, including the latter’s Little Shop of Horrors. He wrote Corman’s The Trip, about a bad LSD trip, and co-wrote Head, a bizarre feature starring the Monkees. Nicholson would go on to direct three movies, Goin’ South, now a cult classic, Drive, He Said, and the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes.
Nicholson has always seemed larger than life offscreen as well as on, balancing on the cutting edge of the time, serving as the epitome of cool in a way few actors can manage. He openly admitted experimenting with psychedelic drugs and he pushed the limits of the sexual revolution. He has been in and out of numerous relationships with some of the most intriguing, and beautiful, actresses of all time. His longest relationship was with Angelica Huston, and he dated Michelle Phillips, Rebecca Broussard and, most recently, Lara Flynn Boyle. His only marriage, to horror-film actress Sandra Knight, lasted seven years. He has three children, now eleven to forty years old.
Contributing Editor David Sheff met Nicholson at his compound high above Beverly Hills. In the actor’s living room–surrounded by Picassos, Magrittes, and a Dali previously shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art–Nicholson, with the trademark glint in his eye, wide Joker smile, and those infinitely arched eyebrows, was candid, possibly revealing more of himself than at any other time of his life.
PLAYBOY: You once said, “The older I get, the younger the woman who are interested in me.” How do you explain the phenomenon?
NICHOLSON: Apparently women are less sensible when they’re young. But I don’t know if it’s true anymore. I don’t know much in this area right now, to tell you the honest truth.
PLAYBOY: Does that mean that you’re between relationships?
NICHOLSON: “Between” implies that another one is on the horizon. I would hope so, but I don’t know.
PLAYBOY: Are you actively looking? Would you like a new girlfriend?
NICHOLSON: That would depend on who she was, and at this point I can’t imagine who.
PLAYBOY: In your new movie, Something’s Gotta Give, your girlfriend is Amanda Peet, but then you fall for her mother, who is played by Diane Keaton. In real life, we presume that you would choose the far younger Peet.
NICHOLSON: This may disappoint, but the reality is, I would be much more likely to wind up with Miss Keaton than Miss Peet. It’s a clear call.
PLAYBOY: Does that suggest that these days, contrary to your image, you are more interested in women your own age?
NICHOLSON: It depends on the woman, of course. I prefer to have a conversation. It’s nice to understand the references. In this case, I happen to think Keaton is fantastic, one of the most idiosyncratic, interesting people I know. But I have had a kind of open affection for Diane anyway, I have since I was with her in Reds.
PLAYBOY: The two of you have a very steamy sex scene. Is it different doing sex scenes now than when you were younger?
NICHOLSON: They’re different in the sense that they are different–there’s nothing generic about them.
PLAYBOY: But are you less comfortable doing them? Are you more self-conscious when you’re asked to take off your clothes?
NICHOLSON: If you want to give life to any situation, you just have to give life to the situation. It’s never exactly comfortable.
PLAYBOY: Keaton is fully nude in this movie, but the audience only sees a peek of your backside through a hospital gown. Would you do a full-nude scene?
NICHOLSON: In a less romantic film I would have no problem letting my tits and my gut and everything else spill all over the neighborhood. But that’s it, and in this genre–a romantic comedy—I wouldn’t even do that. You never see male frontal nudity, at least almost never, whereas it’s common for women. It’s not just in movies. Men are far more self-conscious, at least I am. I’m just not going to do it. Way back, I may have. I once decided I would get over being self-conscious about nudity, so I did an experiment. I decided to wear nothing. I lived here in my house as a nudist. It was summertime, so warmth wasn’t a problem. I did it for three or so months in the Sixties. Once I decide something, I don’t do it partially, so when I did this, I was nude no matter who came by.
PLAYBOY: Who did come by?
NICHOLSON: All kinds of people. [Director] Roger Corman came by and didn’t like it much. I wasn’t throwing my wang around or anything, but it startled him nonetheless. My daughters understandably didn’t like it. If I had an interview with you, I would have done it nude. I found it very comfortable.
PLAYBOY: Did some visitors embrace it? Did some join you?
NICHOLSON: Harry Dean Stanton loved it. He couldn’t wait to get over and be nude.
PLAYBOY: Was the experiment a success? That is, did you become less self-conscious about your body?
NICHOLSON: It worked at the time, but it didn’t last. I just think it’s a male thing, but maybe it’s just me.
PLAYBOY: Though apparently you still often prefer the buff, at least when you’re by yourself in the middle of the night. A newspaper in Omaha, where you lived while filming About Schmidt, reported that you were spotted walked around in the nude in your rented house.
NICHOLSON: How did I know they were outside looking in? This was Omaha! At two o’clock in the morning! I’m walking down to get my pie and somebody’s out there.
PLAYBOY: To get your pie?
PLAYBOY: Is that a typical routine–pie at two in the morning?
NICHOLSON: Sure. Or it could be sherbet.
PLAYBOY: You said that male frontal nudity is a rarity in movies, but you included some in Drive, He Said, your directorial debut.
NICHOLSON: For which they gave me an X rating, which we successfully fought. I didn’t want to do aRomper Room movie with people’s things behind magazines; that seemed to me to be more prurient.
PLAYBOY: Apparently the rating infuriated you. You remarked, “If you suck a tit, it’s X. If you cut if off, it’s PG.”
NICHOLSON: Which is true. The censors were even crazier then. A couple couldn’t sleep in a single bed. It was like shooting pool–one person had to have a foot on the floor. We got in trouble because you weren’t supposed to hear the sound of an orgasm. In England, they wanted me to cut one line from the movie: “I’m coming.” I refused, and the movie was never shown in England. No one cared that I had a character in the picture who was nude all the time.
PLAYBOY: Why was she nude?
NICHOLSON: For no purpose. I was sick of the convention. They would always ask about nudity and you would say, “It’s tasteful, integral to the story, not prurient.” I was so fed up with this that I just put a nude woman in for no reason. She’s just there without clothes on. For that movie, I also wanted to do a symphony of dicks–satirical, long-lensed, out-of-focus shots of all these guys in the shower. I thought it might have been a good title sequence, but the cameraman wouldn’t shoot it. Cameramen will shoot anything, so this shocked me.
PLAYBOY: Are women generally less self-conscious about disrobing for the camera?
NICHOLSON: Not only for the camera. Go to a group of adolescents and say, “Let’s all go over here and get naked.” All of the girls toss off their clothes, delighted. At least 90 percent. But the same percentage of men are appalled. Whether it’s the competitive penis thing or castration fear or some other phenomenon, it’s there. I’ve observed the difference over the course of my life, and it has nothing to do with age.
PLAYBOY: What has age changed when it comes to sex? Has the drive diminished?
NICHOLSON: Let’s just say that my libido will always exceed my possibilities. As a friend says, “One day I’ll come over and ask you how things are going and you’ll say, ‘The nerve is dead.’” Believe me, the nerve is not dead.
PLAYBOY: But diminished?
NICHOLSON: I’m actually not sure if it’s the libido that’s diminished or that the criteria behind your choices becomes narrower.
PLAYBOY: The criteria behind your choices?
NICHOLSON: I used to be able to do everything. I could work all the time, never stop, and have plenty of energy left over for other things. That’s no longer the case. Getting older, I don’t go out as much as I used to. It’s not that I do or don’t like the music any more or any less. What got me out there ain’t getting me out there now. I still like jazz, but I ain’t going out to listen to it now.
PLAYBOY: Over the years, did you encourage your reputation as a–
PLAYBOY: Was it deserved?
NICHOLSON: I wasn’t the king of it, but I was in the running. Did I encourage it? Did I like being thought of as a rogue? Sometimes, but there’s another answer. It was good for business.
PLAYBOY: Why is it good for business?
NICHOLSON: It’s better than being thought of as a shit. Or, for awhile I settled down, when I was about 25, and it was less good for my career.
PLAYBOY: Kim Basinger, your Batman costar, said, “[Jack’s] the most highly sexed individual I’ve ever met.” Guilty as charged?
NICHOLSON: She’s right, of course. [Wide smile] I always thought I had a certain charge going on in that department. I never felt it was attractive to flaunt it, though.
PLAYBOY: Though Meryl Streep lambasted you for flaunting it once. Apparently you said that you preferred dating women in what you described as the “sweet spot” between 25 and 38, explaining it as “glandular and has to do with mindlessly continuing the species.”
NICHOLSON: Yeah, Meryl made fun of me. She loved ragging me on it. All I was saying is that part of these external attractions come from something very basic and simple. Nature is not going to leave it to chance. It’s the most important thing we do. There’s a reason we have these drives.
PLAYBOY: But what’s the reason when you’re no longer impelled to procreate?
NICHOLSON: I think you’re impelled until you stop breathing, though you just have less energy for it, and you won’t go through the same machinations. I’m not, in some increment, as sexually active as I was, and it doesn’t have to do with the decrease in my libido. It has to do with the criteria to fulfill it. I can’t go through a lot of bullshit about it. Before, you could hurl the kitchen sink at me, and I’d keep on smiling until I got where I thought I wanted to get.
PLAYBOY: In the new movie, before sex with Diane Keaton, you ask her, “What about birth control?” She says, “Menopause.” Your reaction is unexpected.
NICHOLSON: [Big smile] “Look who’s the lucky guy.” I like to try and bring the sexuality of middle life into movies, to have it realistically portrayed.
PLAYBOY: Contrary to popular belief, are you suggesting that menopause, presumably along with Viagra, opens up new possibilities for sex as we age?
NICHOLSON: I’m not sure if I am an expert in that, but I can tell you that I notice another phenomenon related to Viagra. These have been troubled times in the area of sexual expression. I rank the publicizing of AIDS right up there with the atomic bomb as events that impacted our culture for the worse. We were moving toward a more feeling, freer society until AIDS, which came along and gave the right wing the chance to re-institute its idea that sex is negative. Anybody who owned a bar in the Seventies can tell you that was the end of the bar business, period. It’s a sign that society was reversing itself in terms of the enjoyment of freer sex, because sex was equated with death.
PLAYBOY: There was always safe sex.
NICHOLSON: But safe sex became the equivalent of “I won’t kiss you” for a girl; it became just another obstruction. Most people who investigated this knew that if you were not shooting up or getting fucked in the hiney, you were as likely to get AIDS as you were for a safe to fall on your head walking down Wilshire Boulevard. However, you could not proselytize this view. The facts were almost useless. You couldn’t give a woman the facts and have her respond, “Oh, all right.” Viagra comes along, however, and it is fantastic in another regard, and not in the obvious way. Over the years I have heard many people, after ending a marriage or relationship, say, “I would never have left her if I could have said, without fear of shattering her entire existence, ‘I just don’t want [sex] anymore.’” “The relationship could have continued if I would have been able to say, ‘Fuck someone else if you want;’ everything would have been fine between us.” Instead, the disinterest in sex that can come along becomes so intense that it can dominate the relationship. Viagra solves that. Once, twice a month—and regardless of what other people tell you, that’s enough–stimulate yourself with this pharmacological solution, go out there and tear mom up, baby, and everything is fine. It could save many relationships.
PLAYBOY: You once said that you were cynical about love. How about now?
NICHOLSON: I don’t think I’ve ever been cynical about love, though us Fifties guys had a hard time making that transition into the Sixties, “I love ya, man.” We thought “love” was a more sacred word. What can I say about love? In my life, I have had more of it than I expressed. There’s no doubt about that. One of the best definitions of it comes from Bertram Russell, who says, “There is love and everything else is staring into the abyss.” You feel better when you’re expressing love. I often have heard people confess, “I’m hoping for one more really big romantic experience in my life.” We want that feeling. You don’t forget that exhilarated state. It’s an exalted state, though I’m not the guy who should be saying this.
PLAYBOY: Why shouldn’t you?
NICHOLSON: I don’t really offer the full catastrophe to a woman.
PLAYBOY: The full catastrophe?
NICHOLSON: Yeah, you know, the package. Children, whatever. I certainly haven’t ceased looking for a mate in life, but at the same time I’m not looking for what many other people seem to be looking for in that regard. Therefore, the probabilities, knowing my criteria, probably aren’t great. How do I meet her? I can’t have fun in a club where everybody’s 23. I can’t do it anymore. When something is over for me, it’s over. I can’t hang around a school yard too long after I graduate. This is not a lament. It’s just that I recognize the probabilities. I’m going to give the picture out there that I’m just sitting around. I’m not, but you revise what interests you throughout your life. Now, a lot of inter-human communication is not about gender or sex. It was once.
PLAYBOY: One gets the sense that monogamy was always a problem for you. Is that accurate?
NICHOLSON: For awhile I’ve felt that it wouldn’t be as big a problem as it might have been ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Divorce doesn’t appeal to me, though I’m a divorced person.
PLAYBOY: Have you been able to stay friends with most of your ex-girlfriends and your ex-wife?
NICHOLSON: I have.
PLAYBOY: Does it take time after a breakup to get to be friends again?
NICHOLSON: I’ve been thinking about that a little bit lately. One of the things I noticed is that some of the most ardent disapproval that I’ve received has come from the people that I love. It’s an interesting observation.
PLAYBOY: Is it because your behavior with women hasn’t always been stellar?
NICHOLSON: I think it’s been stellar. [Smiles.] On the other hand, they may not always have agreed.
PLAYBOY: If you run into them, whether it’s Angelica Huston, Michelle Phillips, Lara Flynn Boyle–
NICHOLSON: I’m always delighted to see them and them me. I mean, the things that were attractive to you about someone remain attractive about them. That doesn’t change.
PLAYBOY: Yet there are those lingering resentments from, say, when you were seeing one woman and announced that you were having a child with someone else, like you did with Angelica Huston when you got Rebecca Broussard pregnant. Huston probably didn’t much appreciate that.
NICHOLSON: One of the covenants of Angelica and my separation is that I don’t talk about her. It’s all she ever asked, and it’s a reasonable request.
PLAYBOY: How about some of the other women: Michelle Phillips, Lara Flynn Boyle?
NICHOLSON: I love all the women I have been with, and I’m friends with most of them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PLAYBOY: Are you disinclined to want to work with women with whom you are, or were, in love?
NICHOLSON: No, and it was actually a plus to work with them when I did.
PLAYBOY: When your relationships ended, were you usually the one who left?
NICHOLSON: No. It was always a matter of discussion, though you might ask, “Were you forcing them into a position where they had to leave?” Maybe. “Were you determining it, but pretending to be innocent?” That’s an interesting thought. It all seems like divine madness.
PLAYBOY: The press said that you were devastated by the end of your most recent long-term relationship to Lara Flynn Boyle.
NICHOLSON: I didn’t read what was written about it, but I’ll take your word for it. Like all my relationships, it was different and unique. I have ongoing connections with a lot of people that I’ve been with, and she’s certainly no exception.
PLAYBOY: How good are you at commitment?
NICHOLSON: The women would have a different answer than I would have.
PLAYBOY: What would they say?
NICHOLSON: They would say that I wasn’t committed. I would say I always was ready to be committed. The truth? I may always have had some trap doors. Now? Who knows, since I’m content to stick around here for the most part.
PLAYBOY: Are young actors and directors intimidated when they show up to work with you?
NICHOLSON: It’s like the elephant in the living room that no one pays attention to. It exists, but I ignore it, or sometimes I use it. I try not to use it in any negative ways.
PLAYBOY: Do you generally get your way on movie sets?
NICHOLSON: I usually have my say, but that doesn’t mean I get my way. I try hard not to argue too much. I don’t usually do it, but if I do, and then I get home and realize I was wrong, it’s one of the grimmest nights I have. It’s not so bad if I’m wrong, but if I’ve been forcefully wrong, calling people morons or something–oh, God.
PLAYBOY: Your temper is somewhat notorious. Didn’t you go after someone with a golf club, breaking his car window?
NICHOLSON: That was a lapse. Most of what has been published about me isn’t true, but that was. I may have felt justified–you can bet I felt justified. Also, I didn’t think I would do any harm. It was a graphite golf club; I thought it would shatter. And after all, he was trying to run me over.
NICHOLSON: I never knew what ticked the guy off, but I can tell you is this. Within the last year I got a letter of apology from the guy. And I accept his apology. That case was fairly adjudicated, but there have been other times when I have paid sums of money not to deal with something, one extortion or another, and not because the other person was in the right. Through these experiences, I have learned something that’s the opposite of what I would have thought. I came to realize that ill-gotten gains are never good for the person receiving them. It doesn’t help them; the contrary is true. So when you’re paying an extortionist, there’s a little bit of diabolical delight and contempt in handing over that check. It’s like when you get robbed. You would think I’d be furious, but pretty soon I always feel bad for the person who has to lead that kind of life.
PLAYBOY: Back to your temper. Are you better at controlling it than you were when the golf-club incident occurred?
NICHOLSON: I have an ongoing temper, which I have, I’m proud to report, learned to modify.
PLAYBOY: Without consulting somebody like your loony character in Anger Management?
NICHOLSON: Yeah, not like the guy in Anger Management. I used to not be able to let it slide. Now I can. I was down at the ball game one night and I get this tap on the shoulder. Most taps on the shoulder are, I’m happy to say, “Hi Jack. How you doing?” Nice. But I turn around, the guy’s just looking at me, and says, “Why are you such an asshole?” I said, “What?” He said, “Why do you treat people like such shit?” I smiled at him, turned around, and walked away. Then I heard him over my shoulder say, “Yeah, that’s it, smile, you fucking asshole.” As big as he was, I really wanted to at least say something, but I didn’t. So that’s learned behavior. As you can see, though, I’m still furious about it.
PLAYBOY: Anger Management with Adam Sandler seems an unlikely choice for you. Why did you do that movie?
NICHOLSON: He interested me. It’s all a learning experience, as far as I’m concerned. I think you have to defy your own conventions.
PLAYBOY: Do you like Sandler’s type of humor?
NICHOLSON: Frankly, I’m not into farting and vomit jokes, but I felt as if we got some legitimate laughs, and it was a great collaboration. You learn every time, like in the new picture, I worked with Keanu Reeves, who was my doctor.
PLAYBOY: What did you think of Reeves in The Matrix movies?
NICHOLSON: I don’t like movies in which special effects totally dominate, but those are the movies that get the kids, and therefore get the big numbers. Even though I’ve made many successes, they aren’t like that.
PLAYBOY: Other than Batman. Would you do another Batman-like movie or would you likely to resist one?
NICHOLSON: There’s nothing wrong with mixing it in there. I wouldn’t want to do nothing but, but why not?
PLAYBOY: Is there a correlation between your movies that were successful and the ones in which you consider to did your best work?
NICHOLSON: Ironweed to me is one of the best movies I did, yet was it commercial success? Some movies are jazz, some are rock-n-roll. You do look for crossovers, though. Sometimes you know when you read the script. Cuckoo’s Nest was like that.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever watch your old movies?
NICHOLSON: Sometimes I like them, sometimes not. I might hate one and then see it again in a month and think it’s pretty good. Before I directed Two Jakes, I thought I should watch the other ones I directed, so I got Drive, He Said and then Goin’ South. I saw them, and that was fine. It was good seeing Goin’ South. Danny DeVito showed it again and had everyone over for the movie’s twentieth reunion. It was a particularly good group of people. The movie wasn’t particularly successful, but I love it. And I love the people who love it.
PLAYBOY: You have had more than your share of hits, including some of the best movies ever made.
NICHOLSON: [Smiles] My true admirers consider me underrated.
PLAYBOY: In them, can you tell in advance when a line will become bigger than the movie–remembered and repeated, such as “Here’s Johnny,” from The Shining, or, from A Few Good Men, when you tell Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth!”
NICHOLSON: With “Here’s Johnny,” I was so anti television at that point that I didn’t even know where the line came from. Stanley [Kubrick] had to explain that it was a line from a TV show. Sometimes, though, when you read a script, you can tell when you reach the writer’s favorite line. They are my least favorite lines, because of the expectations. “You can’t handle the truth” was one. You knew when you read the script.
PLAYBOY: Since becoming successful, have you had to resist directors who want you to do what have become your trademarks–the eyebrows, the smirk?
NICHOLSON: Yeah, and much of my job, in order to suspend belief, is to un-Jack the parts. When I read a script I look for when they want me to be Jack-be-wild or Jack-be-nimble or Jack-be-whatever.
PLAYBOY: How important are the accolades, whether from critics or your peers. Robin Williams has said, “There’s Jack, and then there’s the rest of us.”
NICHOLSON: He’s freaking accurate, isn’t he? [Smiles] I’m always not wanting to seem too full of myself, and so I have this funny relationship with this subject. In some superstitious way I’m hesitant to take responsibility for the successes. I’m tempted to say, “I’ve been lucky.” It’s harder for me to say, “Well, I went to classes for a long time, I worked hard, I’ve always tried to be as selective as I could, to try and relate to the best principles of my professional, and so on.” I know it’s statistically unusual to be in this position, and there is no shortage of good actors or actresses. In the spirit of how I’m thinking today, not to say that I did in some way plan this huge, extensive career that I’ve managed would be poor-mouthing myself. People sometimes say what we do is easy: “I can do that.” I’m usually less likely to disagree–“Yeah, it’s easy”–but the truth is, it isn’t, and just anybody can’t do it. Sometimes I have to say to myself, “Wait a minute, Jack, don’t be so mealy mouthed.” Even for me, sometimes I think it’s easy and the work doesn’t matter, but sometimes I think I’m carrying the whole thing on my back: “It’s up to you, Jack.” I know the poles of the delirium. I also know that if I don’t think that what I’m doing is worth a shit, it won’t be worth a shit. That’s all there is to it.
PLAYBOY: Do awards, including Academy Awards, retain their meaning when you have won so many of them?
NICHOLSON: They are important, to varying degrees, and I generally enjoy the parties.
PLAYBOY: This past year, an old friend of yours, Roman Polanski, won an Oscar for The Piano. Was it gratifying to see him win?
NICHOLSON: Oh, yes.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel that his conviction for statutory rape, which has kept him from returning to the US, was justified?
NICHOLSON: The remarkable thing is that he changed his mind about it.
PLAYBOY: How did he change his mind?
NICHOLSON: You have to remember that the crime for which he was convicted isn’t even a crime in his own country.
PLAYBOY: Having sex with a minor?
NICHOLSON: Whatever the age was. Right. It’s not under age where he comes from. He has always maintained that he didn’t feel as if he did anything wrong. The girl has also said that she doesn’t feel as if he did anything particularly wrong. However, the minute he had children, Roman changed his mind. He decided he did in fact do something wrong. As an honest man, he admitted that, though he didn’t have to.
PLAYBOY: It all happened in this very house.
NICHOLSON: I wasn’t here, thank heavens for that. He was staying here, and I was up in Colorado. Roman, God love him. It’s really our loss. He’s a wonderful guy and a great artist. There aren’t that many world-class movie directors and he’s one of them. Having children apparently changed him, though. It does change things. It did for me.
PLAYBOY: How did it change you?
NICHOLSON: By the time of my daughter’s birth, I thought there were a few things that I had wired. Then a sudden avalanche of new vulnerabilities–ones that let me know my life had changed forever—came; they came at the moment of her birth. As they say, you are a hostage to your children for your whole life. My children are predominantly responsible for the joy and focus that I feel in life. Everything else comes and goes—your health, other relationships, your work. But not your children. When people are worried about having kids, I always say, “Don’t worry about it because this is nature’s only guaranteed, bona fide, upside surprise.” I know there’s a lot of responsibility and all that, but they are an antidote in life. My kids were here this morning before they went to school. Part of me doesn’t want to wake up at six-thirty. I won’t do it for a million dollars, or even twenty, but I do it for them. Seeing them is simply one of the highlights in my life. Earlier you asked about love. When you have children, you learn about a different variety of love. It’s an altering experience–the most altering I’ve had. I may be a weak person in terms of being a disciplinarian, but we’re always delighted to be together. It’s a purely joyful experience.
PLAYBOY: After having a father who abandoned you and your family, did you struggle to learn how to be a father?
NICHOLSON: I think it is instinctual. At least for me.
PLAYBOY: Is it accurate that you learned, at 30, that the woman who raised you, who you thought was your mother, was your grandmother, and the woman who you thought was your sister was your mother?
NICHOLSON: Yes, 30 something.
PLAYBOY: It seems like a bizarre coincidence if the line in Chinatown–when you slap Faye Dunaway, who is uttering the famous line, “She’s my daughter, she’s my sister…” –wasn’t based on your experience. Your mother was your sister!
NICHOLSON: I know. I’m trying to think if I knew about it yet when I did that movie. No. I found out about it doing The Fortune, I don’t know the year. I gave up remembering dates awhile ago. [Ed note: The Fortune was released in 1975, a year after Chinatown.]
PLAYBOY: How did you find out the truth?
NICHOLSON: Time magazine did a cover story on me. Investigating it, they stirred up the information. They didn’t put it in the article; a friend of a friend was an editor there, and he said, “We don’t need it.” But they told me, and I investigated on my own. I asked the people who were still living and learned the truth.
PLAYBOY: Were you angry about the deception?
NICHOLSON: I can’t remember exactly what I felt when I found out, but I came to feel only gratitude. The ensuing time has led me to the following thought: I’d like to meet two broads today who knew how to keep a secret to that degree.
PLAYBOY: Was the reason for the deception that your mother was young?
NICHOLSON: Yes. She was way too young.
PLAYBOY: Was it to protect you or were they worried what other people would think?
NICHOLSON: I can’t know about their motivations, but whatever it was, I have no resentment. As I say, only gratitude.
PLAYBOY: Wasn’t it sort of creepy to think that moments you shared with your sister were actually with your mother?
NICHOLSON: No, though there were certain things about my relationship with my actual mother, whom I thought was my sister, that clarified when I learned the truth. Just small things. Body English. Your mother relates to you differently than your sister does. I felt a new empathy for my mother. I remember thinking, What are you worried about? when my sister doted on me, but of course a mother would worry. Another thing that I have thought about was that others must have kept the secret, too. I grew up in a very small town. I don’t know why I never heard an inkling about this. Too many people that I know had to have known, and yet I never heard anything. Either that or I had the most outstanding selective hearing imaginable. It doesn’t matter. I had a great family situation there. It worked great for me.
PLAYBOY: It such a cinematic story. Have you thought about doing a movie based on your mother and sister?
NICHOLSON: I have, and I have thought that I would like to write it myself.
PLAYBOY: Was this a major subject in your ongoing psychotherapy?
NICHOLSON: I’ve done a lot of psychology at different times, and mulled it over. When I learned about it, both people—my mother and grandmother–were deceased. I didn’t have a ton of reshuffling to do. By now, I’m well beyond it. I have been in therapy many times in my life, though I’m not now.
PLAYBOY: What has been the result of the therapy?
NICHOLSON: It certainly gave me a surer sense of what my reality was. It probably, in a number of ways, clarified things about which I was equivocating and therefore focused. It certainly supported whatever sense of self-esteem I have. There were certain things that worried me before I got there and they don’t worry me now.
PLAYBOY: Now, when you’re not working, what’s your life like? Do you often go out to see new movies?
NICHOLSON: I like to see them, but I’ve been working a lot. I haven’t seen many for awhile.
PLAYBOY: Are there actors whose work you are watching?
NICHOLSON: I’m not much for lists. I could make one but it would be counterproductive. There’s no shortage of great people. They don’t give us work because they can’t get someone else.
PLAYBOY: Are you, or anyone else, worth $20 or $25 million a movie?
NICHOLSON: I don’t think they are into giving out charity.
PLAYBOY: Even so, do you ever reflect on the amounts you earn?
NICHOLSON: I lived in this house when I didn’t have a nickel and I’m still here, so that hasn’t changed. It’s ephemeral. I get a guarantee against a percentage [of what a movie makes]. Often, once they have my involvement, the rest of the pieces come together. That’s the way the business works. For the most part, my movies have exceeded the guarantee that’s given me, so I’m not reaching into somebody else’s pocket. I’ve always tried to make dealing with me a bargain. One of the oldest principles is if you want to be successful, be sure your partners make money. Mine do. I’ve been good for the movie business and, sure, it’s been good for me. That’s why they call people like me “the money.” I’ve always been uncomfortable with it, but it’s the way it is. “Where’s the money?” I am the money. As the money, you had better understand what the money is; through some kind of intricate interrelationships, it has become a part of the movie-making process. But am I giddy with success? Yes is the short answer. I don’t do much with it, but [gesturing around the room] here’s some art. Most people that look at this [he points to a painting] don’t know that’s a Picasso. Most people standing right in front of it think it’s a poster. That’s a Dali. [He indicates a canvas] The Met had that for a while. So I have my own little museum, and it’s nice to have, sure.
PLAYBOY: How many Lakers’ games have you been to?
NICHOLSON: I couldn’t count.
PLAYBOY: What do you get from going?
NICHOLSON: It’s entertainment. I can’t just sit around in my room. I enjoy going. I thought I might have been a sports writer when I first got out of school.
PLAYBOY: Is the lack of anonymity a downside to your success?
NICHOLSON: There’s no downside. We all seek attention in the first place, and you don’t get to complain about it after you get it.
PLAYBOY: Many actors with your level of success at some point seem to just go through the motions.
NICHOLSON: That’s just bad work.
PLAYBOY: But how do you keep motivated after nearly 50 years in this business?
NICHOLSON: With me it’s pretty much instinctual. I don’t think I have much choice. At the same time, my friend Elmer Valentine used to say, “Jack, some people score and they don’t know it. We scored and we know it.”
PLAYBOY: Are you ever tempted to quit?
NICHOLSON: Always. The people around me tease me, because in the middle of every picture, I say, “This is it. I’ve had it. This is the last one.” At some point I will quit. Maybe now. I don’t have any plans to make another movie.
PLAY BOY: How likely is that?
NICHOLSON: Not likely.
PLAYBOY: Why? Do you get bored?
NICHOLSON: Almost never. But why quit? This is a Darwinian business, in a Darwinian world, and maybe I think I should keep doing it because I can. When someone overtakes me and I can no longer do it, I’ll bow out gracefully. I never want to overstay my welcome. It’s always made clear to you in the movie business when your welcome is over.
PLAYBOY: Has it been hard to watch some of your peers who have overstayed their welcome?
NICHOLSON: I haven’t noticed. I guess that means I’m kind of insensitive.
PLAYBOY: Marlon Brando, your neighbor, has made some ill-advised comebacks, playing caricatures of himself.
NICHOLSON: There’s nothing ill advised for Marlon Brando. He is a horse of a different color. He can do what he wants.
PLAYBOY: Do you see him often?
NICHOLSON: We don’t hang out much lately. We’re like the perfect neighbors. We don’t go to the bowling alley together, but we watch each other’s back.
PLAYBOY: In a review of About Schmidt the LA Times wrote: “[Schmidt is a] nowhere man at the end of his run and he might not grab your attention if not for the fact that the senior citizen with the exquisitely anguished comb-over and the potato physique is played by Jack Nicholson.” It’s high praise, but potato physique?
NICHOLSON: I thought I was never going to recover. I thought, God damn, is this it? It was frightening.
PLAYBOY: To prepare for the role, did you allow yourself to eat whatever you wanted?
NICHOLSON: No. Unfortunately a lot of that has to do with acting. It’s not all, I’m going to eat lemon meringue day and night.
PLAYBOY: In general, do you eat what you want?
INICHOLSON: I’ll never be able to eat what I want. I’ll never get around to preferring salads. I will never crave butter lettuce. I crave butter, cream, steak.
PLAYBOY: Do you have less energy–never mind for sex, but for work–than when you were younger?
NICHOLSON: I had boundless energy. Who cared when I went to sleep. Now I care.
PLAYBOY: Does it piss you off that you don’t have the same energy any more?
NICHOLSON: Yes. Oh yes. It’s like anything else. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone. I can’t hop, skip and jump anymore. I can’t run two miles. The diminution of a man’s powers is very, very humbling. You live on barbed wire and bug juice until you’re 28, and there’s no price to pay. After a certain point, you pay for everything.
PLAYBOY: Do you fight it or go with it?
NICHOLSON: I fight it to the degree that I think it’s healthy. Recall the old Chinese saying: “A man does not fall in love if he’s dead.” I keep that in mind, and now I do yoga every morning.
PLAYBOY: Somehow Jack Nicholson and yoga seem anathema.
NICHOLSON: Yeah, but it’s fighting back. After 20 years in a row of waking up and looking over and saying, “Well, I’m not going to go work out today. I’ll try tomorrow.” It eventually sinks in. Yoga kicks me over at the beginning of that day. I want to have a realistic view of myself. I’m not ever probably going to know where the world is, but I like to know where I am. There’s always that whispering voice in your head that you don’t always want to listen to. However, it’s pretty much a source of your integrity and truth. I’d like to hear it as well as possible.
PLAYBOY: Have you generally been able to hear it?
NICHOLSON: Yes, though I spend a certain portion of my waking hours in self-delusion. I’m either over inspired or under inspired. I am influenced by people and thoughts. However, I’m pretty comfortable with my own thinking. I don’t feel too rigid or flighty.
PLAYBOY: Did having a heart attack in Something’s Gotta Give, though it was for the camera, shake you up?
NICHOLSON: Lying on the ground I was very vulnerable. The minute I laid down on the gurney and looked up at Keanu [Reeves, who plays the ER doctor], I knew where I was at. You know what I’m saying. One of the things I don’t like to do at my tender age is to be portrayed as a beached whale lying on the ground, and that’s exactly what I do in the new movie. Lying there—vulnerable, exposed, helpless–represents everything dropping away, and it’s terrifying. Nothing is more pulverizing in life than a brush with the grim reaper. I’m kind of a fraidy cat in that way anyway. I wouldn’t quite call myself a hypochondriac, but I’ve had moments of feeling a lump under my arm and thinking I’m going to vomit and pass out in the shower. When people of your own generational group begin to appear in obituaries, you sweat. On the other hand, it’s just another part of the rogues gallery of characters. I can keep my distance from it that way; it’s a job. It’s another role, another character–like the devil itself. And people have a certain affection for the guy who played the devil.
January 2004, Vol. 51, Iss. 1, pg. 79-88+284-285, by David Sheff, “Playboy Interview: Jack Nicholson”