THE BECK/SMITH VAULT: For Jack Nicholson, It’s Up, Up, Up Ever Since His Part in ‘Easy Rider’

Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN (1974). Photo courtesy of Film Forum.

Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN (1974). Photo courtesy of Film Forum.

“If we merely responded to the cynicism within us, the world would be in rubble…”

August 10-11, 1974

For Jack Nicholson, It’s Up, Up, Up

Ever Since His Part in “Easy Rider”

By Marilyn Beck

He slouched in an easy chair, blue jean-clad legs a bridge onto an ottoman, belly pressed against white T-shirt to form a miniature snow drift.

Jack Nicholson: The Now actor’s Now actor; the recipient of three Academy Award nominations (“Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Detail“) within the last four years.

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda would enjoy just a brief burst of spectacular success following release of “Easy Rider,” the low-budget “bike” picture that was to spawn a tidal wave of social rebellion cinema statements.

For Nicholson, it has been up, up, up ever since “Rider” audiences viewed him as the Southern lawyer who takes up with two stoned hippies.

He doesn’t give many interviews these days, but when he talks he comes on strong – articulate and direct and often painfully introspective.

“I’ve been around this business a long time,” he reminded, “And I’ve seen the damage success can create. I’m glad I didn’t make it big when I was young, because no one can ever handle it flawlessly. I’ve been no exception.”

He shrugged. He rubbed a hand along a receding hairline. He commented, “Success represents too big a change to take on without problems. For me, there were over 12 years of trying to support myself and my family, worrying about bills. Then suddenly there were movie offers than I could possibly handle. And more attention than I might have been ready to handle.”

During those years of waiting, he grabbed television bit parts, became a regular on such daytime shows as “Divorce Court” and “Matinee Theatre” and made such forgettable films as “The Cry Baby Killer,” “Too Young to Love” and “Hell’s Angels On Wheels.”

“I’m not a very nostalgic person,” he said of the no-so-good-old days. “That period of my life was just bad.”

He had been on the verge of retiring from acting and limiting his attentions to filmmaking when “Easy Rider” came along. He made “Five Easy Pieces” to prove his performance in “Rider” wasn’t a fluke, and followed that up with a critically-acclaimed portrayal in “Carnal Knowledge,” “Because Mike Nichols asked me to do the picture – and who would ever turn Nichols down?”

The 37-year old actor can currently be seen in Bob Evans’ Paramount production, “Chinatown,” a stunning story of crime and corruption in the Los Angeles of the ’30’s. It’s Nicholson’s first detective movie, but he says he did not make it for the chance to play a private investigator.

“I developed the original concept of the film with Writer Robert Towne. What interested me was the chance to say something to people my age who have walked different paths of hopelessness and hope.

“My character in ‘Chinatown’ has had bad experiences listening to his heart. His mind tells him not to do the same thing again, to remain uninvolved. But he listens to his heart.”

Nicholson’s personal path has been littered since childhood with roadblocks marked Hopelessness. He was born and raised in Neptune, N.J., the son of an alcoholic father who drifted into the household for periodic, brief visits. “Home” was that portion of the house Jack’s mother hadn’t converted into the beauty shop she ran to support her two children.

In his background is one brief marriage to actress Sandra Knight, who bore him his 10-year-old daughter, Jennifer. There is also the memory of the two-year relationship she shared with actress/singer Michelle Phillips. For the last 12 months, he has been sharing his life – and his benedict Canyon home – with Anjelica Huston, daughter of Director John Huston.

“Will I marry again? One policy I’ve established,” he grinned, “Is not to set policies. I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow. I’m just trying to cope with today.”

Marriage or no, Nicholson says that, like his “Chinatown” character, he still listens to his heart.

‘If we merely responded to the cynicism within us, the world would be in rubble. We all know that our most beautiful gestures often go totally unappreciated, our best work frequently unrewarded – but some feeling of inner-self still inspires us to have standards of excellence.”

Nicholson is a member of the outspoken Hollywood community which has been vocal on beliefs ranging from politics to drugs.

Of the former, he told me, “I have become so disillusioned that I have lost heart. The men I support always seem to lose. The public knew they were voting for corruption when they elected Nixon President – and I must say the punishment they’re receiving is no more than their just reward.

He is convinced that Nixon’s “Operation Intercept” which closed the border to the flow of marijuana has been responsible for the upsurge in usage of cocaine.

“A fortune of cocaine can be smuggled in someone’s pocket – and that’s what’s been happening, while the supply of marijuana dries up and what’s available becomes more and more expensive.

Nicholson has admitted to using marijuana every day for one 15-year period of his life. He defended such usage to this reporter by comparing its effects to tobacco and alcohol and rationalizing, “Those are the two leading drugs Americans are hung up on, that are really harmful!”

He straightened himself out from near-reclining position and said “Look, I’m no authority on the situation, but I’ve observed the drug traffic in this town – and it makes me sick to see that cocaine is now used so commonly. It’s a bad drug. I don’t dig it. It brings on a burst of energy, then irritability. And it keeps getting used more and more.

“I still get uptight when I walk into a room and realize there are people there I’m supposed to recognize. I still get uptight when I’m late for an appointment, when I’m criticized or praised, and when I’m the victim of an unwarranted attack.

“And more than ever, I don’t like being confined. Now that I’ve finally learned not to set down rigid policies and positions for myself – I don’t like people trying to set them down for me.

“What do I want for the future? I suppose to understand myself and the frustrating realities of the moment better – and to be able to cope with those realities.”