More than any other film star, Jack Nicholson's off-screen character seems to match that of his on-screen persona. The way his lips purse and his eyebrows arch; that famous shark's smile. He is perhaps the only star that everybody is capable of impersonating.
There are two Jacks, however pre-Easy Rider and post-Easy Rider. The pre-Easy Rider Jack was a B-movie actor with a long list of Westerns, horror films and biker movies to his credit. Following the landmark 1969 road movie, he was transformed into a superstar with his pick of parts. And the actor remembers the exact moment it happened midway through the movie's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
"I had been to Cannes a couple of times before, and I knew the place like a guttersnipe," he says. "I was a back-street movie hustler, and I could smell it when something really big was going on. I had been around long enough to know while I was sitting in that audience, I had become a movie star. Nobody's ever had that experience, I don"t think."
Jack was born John Joseph Nicholson on April 22, 1937, in Neptune, New Jersey. Within weeks of graduating from Manasquan High School, he was off to Hollywood on what was supposed to be a short trip before going to college. He never came back.
His first role a lead came in the 1958 B-movie, The Cry Baby Killer, playing a troubled teen. It seemed an auspicious start, but a follow-up part didn't appear for another two years. "He was not that self-assured at the beginning," says Roger Corman, who produced The Cry Baby Killer. "He had that flamboyance... but he was not convinced he would be recognised."
By the tail end of the Sixties, Jack had appeared in 20 movies, written two screenplays, and was signed to direct his first film. Then, in 1968, when Rip Torn dropped out of Easy Rider, Jack stepped in. The film persona he projected somewhere between world-weary disillusion and cool cynicism captured the mood of the times, and the rest was history.
Within a few years he reached his peak a nuanced performer mastering his art from film to film. Jack made his name playing fallen angels, whether in the guise of the self-destructive artist in 1970's Five Easy Pieces, the defeated rebel five years later in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest which earned him his first Best Actor Oscar or the grounded astronaut of 1983's Terms Of Endearment, which brought a Best Supporting Actor gong. But for many, his tour de force was a turn as the embittered romantic of Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece Chinatown.
Perhaps because he is bigger than many of the roles he plays, Jack's personal life has been played out before the public gaze. When, while making Chinatown, he discovered that the woman he had called his "mother" was in fact his grandmother, and his "sister" was his mother, it was through a reporter who had been researching a story. The revelation came long after both had been claimed by cancer, but art seemed to be echoing life in the eerie parallels with the disturbing family secret of Chinatown.
In 1990, his on-off relationship with Angelica Huston came to an unhappy and very public conclusion when it was revealed he had fathered a daughter, Lorraine, by the actress Rebecca Broussard. Two years later, the couple also had a son, Raymond, but they split up in 1999. Jack also has an adult daughter, Jennifer, from an earlier marriage.
In the 1980s, Jack cultivated his on-screen persona with a series of outlandish roles. He was devilishly well-cast as Satan in modern-day guise in 1987's The Witches Of Eastwick and won a second Best Actor Oscar for 1997's As Good As It Gets. However, he has also been accused of abandoning his more subtle interpretations for over-the-top hamminess and, at worst, self-parody. His turn as the Joker in Batman for which he earned a reported $60 million was a case in point.
But there is no doubt that Jack is still capable of delivering a streamlined performance. His frill-free turn in Sean Penn's 2001 movie The Pledge proved that, as did his outstanding role in Martin Scorsese's The Departed. "How many jobs can you really get better at after 30-something years," he said in 1996, flexing that trademark Nicholson smile. "You can in mine. I can guarantee I'm better now than I was in Five Easy Pieces. I'm still working at it."