8 Things You Might Not Know About Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson.
Jack Nicholson. / Keystone/GettyImages

Few actors can boast the resume of Jack Nicholson. Films like Chinatown, The Shining, A Few Good Men, Terms of Endearment, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Easy Rider, Batman, and, yes, even Mars Attacks! have helped the actor, who turns 85 this year, achieve a level of respect and stature unparalleled in Hollywood. For more on the now-retired icon, including his peculiar upbringing and his extreme dislike of television, keep reading.

1. Jack Nicholson’s childhood had a twist ending.

Jack Nicholson was born on April 22, 1937 and raised in Manasquan, New Jersey, Nicholson lived what appeared to be a conventional middle-class, mid-century existence with his parents, John and Ethel May Nicholson, and two sisters: Lorraine and June. It wasn’t until 1974 that—thanks to an inquisitive Time magazine reporter—Nicholson discovered that John and Ethel May were not his parents, but his grandparents. June, the woman he believed to be his sister, was actually his mother.

Why was Nicholson told otherwise? The social mores of the time compelled June, who was only 17 years old and unmarried when she had Jack, to ask her parents to raise him as their own. Both June and Ethel May had already passed away by the time Nicholson learned about his true parentage. He would later say that because he found out the truth as an adult, it didn’t have as seismic a psychological impact on him as it might have had he learned this family secret when he was younger.

2. He worked at a toy store when he first arrived in Hollywood.

In the 1950s, Nicholson followed his sister (nee mother) June to California so he could, in his words, “see movie stars.” He worked at a toy store as well as in the animation department for MGM. At the studio, he was spotted by producer Joe Pasternak, who believed Nicholson could have a career as a leading man. (Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, of Hanna-Barbera cartoon fame, referred Nicholson to an acting troupe.) That led to work in a series of low-budget films, including some movies for legendary B-movie maven Roger Corman, who cast Nicholson as a sadomasochistic dental patient in Little Shop of Horrors (1960). That film was famously shot over the course of several days, and Nicholson had to climb over a studio fence to audition for it: Corman was too cheap to pay for a guard to stand by and open the gate.

3. Nicholson wrote a movie for The Monkees.

While not unheard of, it’s somewhat unusual for actors to devote a lot of time to the craft of screenwriting. But Nicholson aspired to be a filmmaker, so was ready to tackle a number of roles. While pursuing parts in B movies, he was also writing some. Most famously, Nicholson wrote Head, a psychedelic 1968 vehicle starring The Monkees. (It was a critical failure.)

It wasn’t until the success of 1969’s Easy Rider at the Cannes Film Festival that Nicholson decided to move away from writing and directing and pursue acting with singular focus. “At Cannes my thinking changed,” he told Film Comment in 1985. “I’d been there before and I understood the audience and its relative amplitudes. I believe I’m one of the few people sitting in that audience who understood what was happening. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m back into acting now. I’m a movie star.’”

4. He turned down The Godfather.

The list of people who are reported, presumed, assumed, or rumored to have turned down a part in 1972’s mob classic The Godfather is basically the entirety of Hollywood at the time. But Nicholson once admitted that, at least in his case, it was absolutely accurate. “I turned down the original Godfather because I thought it should’ve been played by an Italian,” he said. “I both do and don’t regret that decision, but I know it was right. Al Pacino was the perfect actor for it and the picture’s better because of him.”

5. He once owned a commune that was taken over by bandits.

Nicholson, who was friendly with LSD advocate Gabe Katz and part of the hippie movement of the 1960s, once bought some land in New Mexico for Katz and friends to use as a commune. Speaking with Andy Warhol for Interview magazine in 1976, Nicholson explained that it didn’t go well.

First, according to Nicholson, Katz wrote him to say someone “with guns” had driven Katz and his peace-and-love friends off the property. Next, Nicholson got a letter from someone claiming to be a clown who wanted permission to stay there:

“About three days after I read [the letter] a girl rides up to my house in Beverly Hills on a horse and claims to have ridden all the way down from New Mexico on this horse because they hadn’t got a reply to this letter and was it alright if they stayed? I said, ‘Sure. Go ahead.’ I still haven’t seen it. So the next thing that happens—this is the last thing I’ve heard—is I leased part of it through my business manager and now they have been pushed off literally by a Butch Cassidy group. They’re bandits living on this land and it’s a very high mountain and nobody will go up and get ‘em. So it’s now an outlaw’s hide-out. And I’ve never seen it.”

6. He predicted Batman's success—and was rewarded for it.

Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 'Batman' (1989).
Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's 'Batman' (1989). / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

Tim Burton's Batman (1989) was a tremendous hit at a time comic book movies weren't exactly guaranteed successes, and much of that has to do with Nicholson's unhinged portrayal of the Joker. Nicholson arranged a deal in which he got a cut of the merchandising, a prescient move that earned him more than $50 million. It was, he said, a thorn in the side of Warner Bros., whom Nicholson asserted had little idea of the licensing bonanza the movie would become.

"They didn’t!" he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. "They would never have given me that deal. I was the one who told them how much it was going to gross. Hey, they didn’t even ask me to do Batman Returns. Never even came up. You think they want to give me all that money? But hey, they honorably lived up to it. I had to go down and do a little checking here and there but that’s only understandable."

7. He's probably never going to sit down for a talk show.

For all of the hit movies he has had over the decades, it’s an exceedingly rare occurrence for Nicholson to appear on a talk show. While he was a friend of late night legend Johnny Carson, he never did Carson’s Tonight Show. Co-star and former partner Angelica Huston told Larry King in 2013 that Nicholson “refrains from television. And he’s never done television ... The only time you’ll see Jack on television is at a Laker game.”

Huston speculated it could have been Nicholson’s desire to maintain some mystery as a film actor. But Nicholson appeared to have some disdain for the medium as a whole, telling Rolling Stone in 1986 that TV was devouring the movie business. “I don’t like what the light box has done to America at night—turned everybody into a f***ing pinball-machine moth,” he said. “If they had just outlawed these light boxes, the world would simply look bigger. But we can’t even get them to stop acid rain—how can you get them to think about what’s beautiful? Because what’s beautiful is all that counts, pal. That’s all that counts.”

8. In 2004, he attended his 50th high school reunion.

Five decades after graduating from Manasquan High School, Nicholson returned for the class’s 50th reunion in 2004. It was, attendees said, a low-key affair in which classmates caught up with “Nick.” Organizers gave Nicholson a plaque to commemorate his acting achievements. The auditorium at the school is known as the Jack Nicholson Theatre.