With his devil-may-care attitude and potent charisma, Jack Nicholson emerged as the most popular and celebrated actor of his generation. A classic anti-hero, he typified the new breed of Hollywood star -- rebellious, contentious and defiantly non-conformist. A supremely versatile talent, he uniquely defined the zeitgeist of the 1970s, a decade which his screen presence dominated virtually from start to finish, and remained an enduring counterculture icon for the duration of his long and renowned career. Born April 22, 1937 in Neptune, New Jersey, and raised by his mother and grandmother, Nicholson travelled to California at the age of 17, with the intent of returning east to attend college. It never happened -- he became so enamored of the west coast that he stayed, landing a job as an office boy in MGM's animation department.
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Nicholson studied acting with the area group the Players Ring Theater, eventually appearing on television as well as on stage. While performing theatrically, Nicholson was spotted by "B"-movie mogul Roger Corman, who cast him in the lead role in the 1958 quickie The Cry Baby Killer. He continued playing troubled teens in Corman's 1960 efforts Too Soon to Love and The Wild Ride before appearing in the Irving Lerner adaptation of the novel Studs Lonigan. He did not reappear on-screen prior to the 1962 Fox "B"-western The Broken Land. It was then back to the Corman camp for 1963's The Raven. For the follow-up, The Terror, he worked with a then-unknown Francis Ford Coppola and Monte Hellman. A year later, he enjoyed his second flirtation with mainstream Hollywood in the war comedy Ensign Pulver.
Under Hellman, Nicholson next appeared in both Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury. Together, they also co-produced a pair of 1967 Corman westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. A brief appearance in the exploitation tale Hell's Angels on Wheels followed before Nicholson wrote the acid-culture drama The Trip, which co-starred Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. He also penned 1968's Head, a psychedelic saga, and wrote and co-starred in Psych-Out. After rejecting a role in Bonnie and Clyde, Nicholson was approached to star in the 1969 counterculture epic Easy Rider. As an ill-fated, alcoholic civil-rights lawyer, Nicholson immediately shot to stardom, earning a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar nomination as the film rose to landmark status.
Nicholson appeared briefly in the 1970 Barbra Streisand musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, followed by Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, in which his notorious diner scene remains among the definitive moments in American cinematic history. The film was much acclaimed, earning a "Best Picture" Oscar nomination; Nicholson also received a "Best Actor" bid, and was now firmly established among the Hollywood elite. He next wrote, produced, directed and starred in 1971's Drive, He Said, which met with little notice. However, the follow-up, Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge, was a hit. After accepting a supporting role in Henry Jaglom's 1972 effort A Safe Place, Nicholson reunited with Rafelson for The King of Marvin Gardens, followed in 1973 by the Hal Ashby hit The Last Detail, which won him "Best Actor" honors at the Cannes Film Festival as well as another Academy Award nomination.
Nicholson earned yet one more Oscar nomination as detective Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski's brilliant 1974 neo-noir Chinatown, universally hailed among the decade's greatest motion pictures. The next year, Nicholson starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, then delivered a memorable supporting turn in the musical Tommy. The Fortune, co-starring Warren Beatty and Stockard Channing, followed, before the year ended with Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; the winner of five Oscars, including "Best Picture" and, finally, "Best Actor." The film earned over $60 million and firmly established Nicholson as the screen's most popular star -- so popular, in fact, that he was able to turn down roles in projects including The Sting, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now without suffering any ill effects.
Nicholson did agree to co-star in 1977's The Missouri Breaks for the opportunity to work with his hero, Marlon Brando; despite their combined drawing power, however, the film was not a hit. Nor was his next directorial effort, 1978's Goin' South. A maniacal turn in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror tale The Shining proved much more successful, and a year later he starred in Rafelson's remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. An Oscar-nominated supporting role in Beatty's epic Reds followed. Even when a film fell far short of expectations, Nicholson somehow remained impervious to damage. Audiences loved him regardless, as did critics and even his peers -- in 1983 he won a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar for his work in James L. Brooks's much-acclaimed comedy-drama Terms of Endearment, and two years later netted another "Best Actor" nomination for John Huston's superb black comedy Prizzi's Honor.
The following year, Heartburn was less well-received, but in 1987 Nicholson starred as the Devil in the hit The Witches of Eastwick -- a role few denied he was born to play. The by-now-requisite Academy Award nomination followed for his performance in Hector Babenco's Depression-era tale Ironweed, his ninth to date -- a total matched only by Spencer Tracy. Nicholson did not resurface until 1989, starring as the Joker in a wildly over-the-top performance in Tim Burton's blockbuster Batman. The 1990s began with the long-awaited and often-delayed Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes, which Nicholson also directed. Three more films followed in 1992 -- Rafelson's poorly-received Man Trouble, the biopic Hoffa, and A Few Good Men, for which he earned another "Best Supporting Actor" nod. For Mike Nichols, he next starred in 1994's Wolf, followed a year later by Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard. In 1996, Nicholson appeared in Blood and Wine, Burton's Mars Attacks! and The Evening Star, reprising his Terms of Endearment role.
In 1997, Nicholson enjoyed a sort of career renaissance with James L. Brooks' As Good As it Gets, an enormously successful film that netted a third Oscar (for "Best Actor) for Nicholson. Subsequently taking a four-year exile from film, Nicholson stepped back in front of the camera under the direction of actor-turned-director Sean Penn for the police drama The Pledge. Though many agreed that Nicholson's overall performance in The Pledge was subtly effective, it was the following year that the legendary actor would find himself back in the critics' good graces, when Nicholson would receive an Oscar nomination for his performance in About Schmidt.
The next year he appeared in a pair of box office hits. Anger Management found him playing an unorthodox therapist opposite Adam Sandler, while he played an aging lothario opposite Diane Keaton in ancy Myers's Something's Gotta Give. After taking a three year break from any on-screen work, Nicholson returned in 2006 as a fearsome criminal in Martin Scorsese's undercover police drama The Departed, the first collaboration between these two towering figures in American film. A starring role in Rob Reiner's comedy-drama The Bucket List followed, with Nicholson and Morgan Freeman co-starring as terminal cancer patients who decide to live it up during their final days. The film itself received mixed reviews, though many critics singled out Nicholson's fine work in it. 2010 reunited Nicholson with Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets collaborator Jim Brooks for the romantic comedy How Do You Know, co-starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd.
Nicholson's personal life has been one befitting a man who has made his mark playing so many devilishly charming characters. He has fathered a number of children from his relationships with various women, including a daughter, Lorraine (born in 1990), and a son, Raymond (born 1992) with Rebecca Broussard. It was Broussard's pregnancy with their first child that ended Nicholson's 17-year relationship with a woman who is known for her similarly enduring charisma, the actress Angelica Huston. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi