Jack Nicholson is one of the most unique actors in Hollywood. His filmography is extensive and diverse just as much as his private affairs. Jack was never an attention-seeker but he was often the focus of tabloids. It wouldn’t be just to only outline the startling facts about his life, so here’s the astonishing, mesmerizing, and extraordinary short biography of Mr. Jack Nicholson.
On April 22nd, 1937 John Joseph Nicholson was born 50 miles away from his childhood home in Neptune, New Jersey. Jack grew up in Manasquan, NJ, raised by his mother June Nicholson, a dancer, and his maternal grandparents. June was 17 years old when she gave birth to Jack, leaving the father’s name in his birth certificate empty. Speculations swirled around his father’s identity later in life, when Jack was almost 40 years old by a New York Times journalist who revealed some fascinating information about the Nicholson family.
As it turned out, Jack grew up believing that June is his older sister and that his grandparents are his parents. June Francis, the showgirl, was his mother that had to go away from her hometown to have a baby. His mother never disclosed any information about his father. At first, it was believed that his dad was Donald Furcillo, an already married man at the time Jack was born. Later, some theories about June’s manager, Eddie King, being a father came up. In any case, Jack never held a grudge against his mother, and grandparents for keeping him oblivious about his true roots.
“I’d say it was a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn’t what I’d call traumatizing”, Nicholson said after the news in the NYT broke out. “After all, by the time I found out who my mother was, I was pretty well psychologically formed. As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me. If anything, I felt grateful”.
June Nicholson passed away in 1963, followed by his grandmother in 1970.
Jack the rebel
High school was an especially interesting time in Jack’s life. He was voted “the most optimistic” and “the most pessimistic” of all students in the same year. Let’s just call him a complex person from his early teens. Always a straight-A student was the most challenging troublemaker for his teachers. He was called to the principal office on the daily basis, mostly for smoking, inappropriate pranks, and swearing at teachers and other students.
Despite his constant defiance, Jack had a lot of friends with whom he kept in touch throughout his life. That connection with old friends grounded him pretty well later in life when he became a worldwide superstar. Manasquan High School alumni also honored his talent later when Jack became a renowned actor by naming a drama award by his name. In 2004 Nicholson reconnected with his classmates at the 50th graduation anniversary.
Jack Nicholson served his country
In the wake of the Korean war that lasted from 1950 to 1953, the Military Selective Service Act was still in effect. Recruits were obligated to answer the call and complete the two years of duty. Nicholson did 2-week drills per year for US Air National Guard and was assigned as a firefighter. Later, in 1961, he was called to fulfill his military duty for several months before finally being discharged in 1962.
In 1954, Jack Nicholson saw the light of Los Angeles for the first time. He did a string of dead-end jobs, like every other up-and-coming actor struggling to nail any roles. At the time, Hanna and Barbera were the big shots in Hollywood. Nicholson managed to get some low-level job as an office assistant. MGM cartoon studios were, and still are, world-famous for creating childhood memories for generations, like The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera saw the potential in Jack but were hesitant to offer him some real actor’s work. Instead, Nicholson was offered to work as one of the animators in their studio. Not seeing how this will further his career Jack declined the offer and carried on with searching for an actual job.
For the next three years, Jack Nicholson has been able to fight his way into some low-budget productions, scoring his first role in 1955. However, nothing major happened regarding his professional acting career. Still, he stayed put with his acting school – The Players Ring Theatre. It turned out to be some good investment for Jack since it got him his first part in 1958.
“The Cry Baby Killer” came out in 1958 with Jack playing one of the supporting parts. The movie was B-production, a crime film that was recognized decades later as being the Jack Nicholson breakthrough role. Much of the dialogs were changed since the director, Roger Corman was out of the country at the time of the production. The movie barely managed to earn enough for the production company to break even but it compensated the profits with the television showings. In 2006, in the honor of Nicholson, the film was issued on DVD. Nicholson and Corman worked on four more films – “The Little Shop Of Horrors”, “The Raven”, “The Terror” and “The St Valentine’s Day Massacre” – all noir thrillers.
The 1960s were challenging times with Nicholson’s career in recession. The roles were not coming his way, so instead of just sitting idly, Jack decided to start writing his own scripts. He teamed up with his old pal, Corman, and wrote the movie “The Trip” starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. A pretty amazing cast for a beginner writer. However, the movie ended up being a major flop causing outrage among actors especially Fonds, who was already an established movie star. Nicholson blamed the production for altering the script thus completely changing the film, making it unoriginal and corny.
“Head” from 1968 was another fiasco by Jack Nicholson, starring The Monkees. Initially, the movie was released as a two-hour feature in LA theatres. It was completely ignored by the audiences, after which the production decided to cut out more than 30 minutes and re-released it on the east coast. Again, with the same results – empty theatres and bad reviews from the critics.
An unexpected empty spot in “Easy Rider” from 1969 was a stroke of luck for Jack Nicholson. Regardless of having some previous bad experiences with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Nicholson turned out to be a perfect fit for the drunken lawyer that got him his first Academy Award nomination. The role also paved the way for Jack for playing anti-hero parts in the future. As for the movie, it was an absolute megahit in the movie theatres making $40 million, ten times more than what was invested.
Nicholson caught the eye of the famous director, Stanley Kubrick, for the role of Napoleon but the movie eventually fell through mostly as the result of the film production company.
Unlike the 60s, the 70s were very productive and abundant in life-changing roles for Jack. “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) was a blockbuster earning four Oscar nominations, and five Golden Globes. In 2000 it was added to National Film Registry considering it a national treasure in movies. Nicholson played a low-key drilling platform worker Bobby Dupea, with a big secret about his well-off family and his musical talent. Karen Black portrayed his rough-around the edges girlfriend, Rayette. Black later admitted that she had a crush on Nicholson but was in a relationship at the time and they only had a brief romance.
The movie catapulted Jack to the top of the A-listers in Hollywood. Critics and audiences alike began comparing him with Marlon Brando, who later became his good friend, predicting him a stellar career particularly in villain roles. Jack was officially Hollywood’s new bad boy and he certainly lived up to the expectations. Nicholson was startled by his overnight fame, and consequently a fortune, explaining that his name suddenly became a brand that sells.
In 1970, Nicholson made some blunders. He starred in one movie, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” which was a flop that went unnoticed by the public. At the same time Jack, with the approval of his agent, passed on the role of Ed Gentry, the protagonist of “Deliverance” that eventually went to John Voight that received Golden Globe for the Best Actor Reward. Nicholson’s agent, carried on the wings of Jack’s success, asked for a major pay raise. It was denied by the director. The movie went on to win three Academy Awards, and five Golden Globes, including for the best picture.
In the next three years, Jack Nicholson had some notable roles. In 1971, “Carnal Knowledge” got him a nomination for the Golden Globes. “The Last Detail” got him an award for the best actor in Cannes. As far as the audience, there wasn’t anything mentionable until the year later.
In 1974 Roman Polanski’s masterpiece came out – “Chinatown”. Mistery thriller became one of the cult movies of all times. The unforgettable role of the aggressive, razor-sharp detective Jake Gittes, brought Jack an Academy Award nomination for the best actor and forever gave him a place in the movie business as one of the most authentic, professional, and talented actors.
The making of “Chinatown” is a film in itself. First of all, the screenwriter, Robert Towne, was offered five times more money to write the script for “The Great Gatsby” but he turned it down in order to write the trilogy. “Chinatown” was the first tome that tackles social circumstances and morals behind the big corporations led by beyond rich tyrants. Nicholson portrayed a nosy investigator threatening to disassemble the carelessness and fraud.
The character of Evelyn Mulwray was played by Faye Dunaway that hires J.J. Gittes to follow around her husband, Hollis Mulwray, stumbling across the great conspiracy about the newly built water reservoir. The role of Hollis was based on William Mulholland who engineered the Los Angeles Aqueduct. “Chinatown” was only the first part of the trilogy that never came to life. In 1990, Jack Nicholson produced the second part named “The Two Jakes” which received bad reviews from critics.
Roman Polanski struck a friendship with Nicholson that lasts for decades. Polanski stayed in Nicholson’s home in LA whenever he was in town filming, and during some periods in life, the two were inseparable. When Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate was killed in 1969 by members of the notorious Manson family, Jack was right there to support Roman.
He was even an often visitor in the courtroom during the trials. In 1977, Polanski was arrested in Nicholson’s home and charged with the sexual assault on a minor, a 13-year old model Samantha Geimer. Right before the sentencing, Polanski fled the US and he is still considered a fugitive from the justice system.
A role that Jack Nicholson will be remembered for came in 1975 in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest”. The movie won Oscar in every major category including the one for the best actor. Playing a patient in the mental hospital was like a role written for Jack. At the time he was getting tired of being typecast as the bad guy, and asked his agent to find acting parts that will give him more space to show off his talents. Director Milos Forman specifically asked for Nicholson for the role of the authoritarian mental patient, Randle P. McMurphy, and it turned out to be the role of a lifetime.
Jack Nicholson talked many times about Marlon Brando’s acting, and for that reason, he took the role of Arthur Penn in “The Missouri breaks”(1969). Playing alongside a Hollywood legend like Brando was Jack’s dream. His idol was also his neighbor on Mulholland drive in Los Angeles. When Brando died, Jack bought his home and tore it down.
“The Shining” came in 1980 with Jack scoring another memorable role. The movie was based on Stephen King’s novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick. King was against Kubrick’s choice for the leading role, since the character from the book is portrayed as an ordinary man. In the end, the director won over, and Nicholson got the part. Jack improvised many dialogues, including the “Heeeereeee’s Johnny!” line. The movie became a smash hit, even though it didn’t produce any awards.
Collaboration with James L. Brooks at “Terms of Endearment” got Jack another Academy Award for the best supporting actor.
“Batman” from 1989 is especially memorable for Jack’s role as Joker. The madness intertwined with supreme intelligence that the character was supposed to bring in order to trigger the reaction from the audiences was perfectly played by Nicholson. He also got some hefty commission from the movie, grossing at around $90 million.
Two movies marked the 1990s in Jack’s career – “A Few Good Men”, and “As Good As It Gets”. The first one was released in 1992 and got Jack another Academy Award nomination. Nicholson was absolutely carrying the whole movie’s narrative while portraying a drill Sergeant. Rob Rainer, and the rest of the cast, including Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, later said that Jack came to shooting so ready that he raised the bar for everyone on the set. The whole crew was on top of their game during the whole filming.
In 1997 Nicholson did a phenomenal job as an aging guy falling in love with a much younger woman played by Helen Hunt. Initially, Jack almost denied the part due to its cliche story. In the end, it got him an Oscar for the best actor. When talking about Jack, and the whole atmosphere on the set, Hunt, who also got an Academy Award for the best actress, said: “It was just some frequency we both could tune into that was very, very compatible”. Jack Nicholson holds the record with three Oscars out of 12 nominations.
The last two decades were also fruitful for the aging actor. Nicholson did a remarkable role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. The movie was a blockbuster, with Jack, again, standing out with his portrayal of Frank Costello, the mob boss.
“The Bucket List” was widely accepted by the audience and praised by critics. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson play two dying friends trying to fulfill their life wishes. To prepare for the role, Jack spent days in the hospital with the cancer patients in their last days. A true pro.
For the past years, it was reported several times that Jack Nicholson is suffering from dementia, and has retired. Jack denied the allegations saying that he doesn’t feel the need anymore to be so much in the spotlight. Being that the actor is 84 with over $400 million on the bank account, the explanation makes sense.
The bad boy of Hollywood has six children from five women. However, he married only once, to Sandra Knight, from 1962 to 1968. They have a daughter together, Jennifer. His grandson, Duke, is also an actor who took his famous grandpa’s last name – Duke Nicholson.
With the actress Sandra Anspach, he has a son, Caleb born in 1970. For years, Nicholson denied being the boy’s father, only to admit him as his son in 1994, and pay for his college expenses.
Probably, his biggest love was Anjelica Houston. The couple had a turbulent relationship for almost two decades, before finally splitting in 1990. While with Houston, Jack has a romance with a model Winnie Hollman, fathering a daughter in 1981. Anjelica and Jack have no children together.
After the break-up, Jack embarked on the relationship with Rebecca Broussard. The couple has two children, a son Raymond, and a daughter Lorraine.
In 1995, Jack had another child, this time a daughter with Jennine Gourin.
From 1999 to 2004 Jack dated a much younger actress Lara Flynn Boyle – no children this time.
Regardless of his wild private life, romances, and on and off relationships, Jack was always a good father, keeping in touch and making sure his children have everything they need.
Charges and lawsuits
In 1994 while driving in North Hollywood, Jack’s quick temper was felt in full force by an innocent driver Robert Blank. At the trial, Jack claimed that Blank cut him off, which somehow warranted him breaking the roof and the windshield of Blank’s car. In the end, Nicholson apologized for his aggressive behavior and wrote a check for half a million in Blank’s name.
Two years later a very interesting suit was filed against Nicholson by an unnamed woman for tearing her breast implants. Another one claimed that Jack promised to pay her $1000 “for the time spent” but changed his mind and left her without her promised pay. To avoid dragging through tabloids, Nicholson wrote her a check for $40K and that was the end of the dispute.
Sports, politics, and religion
Jack is a passionate fan of the LA Lakers and NY Yankees. Nicholson holds season tickets for Staples Center and Forum for the past 50 years. He was so fiery that he almost got kicked out several times from the game for yelling at the referees.
Nicholson is a Democrat but he says that he is not necessarily against any other president. In 2023 he wholeheartedly supported Bernie Sanders, who lost to Joe Biden, the current President.
Jack was raised Catholic by his grandparents and his mother but declared that he does not believe in God anymore in a 1992 interview for Vanity Fair. Since then, Jack has been lip-tightened about faith and religion.
Mulholland Dr in Hollywood got the nickname “Bad Boy Drive” for three reasons: Marlon Brando, Warren Beaty, and Jack Nicholson. The trio was tight friends and next-door neighbors for life.
In the end, John Joseph Nicholson had a book-worthy life. His complex personality, diverse acting, and capability to completely transform into the character he’s playing made him one of the legendary icons of Hollywood. His love affairs were a real-live romance movie. He lived and loved to the fullest. Now, he is still living in California evoking memories and telling remarkable stories to his grandchildren.