About Jack

When Humphrey Bogart was dying of cancer, when he was in a wheelchair and being ferried between the floors of his house in a dumbwaiter meant for dishes, he did something that Jack Nicholson admires the hell out of: he invited young actors to his place and told them some of the stuff he knew. Nicholson remembers reading about it in the Hollywood trade papers. Now he sometimes imagines doing it himself. What would he tell the pilgrims? "Well, it would depend on what they wanted to ask," he says. "It might be as simple as, 'Darling, stop using so much mousse on your hair.' Or, 'You have got to play a real son of a bitch now or they'll never let you do it'.'' Men, of course, would ask for advice about women, but Nicholson laughs at the idea. "This is the one thing my close friends never come to me for advice about. They think I'm too goofy about women. In love with love. Too easily injured. Idealistic. They think I'm not really as sharp there as I am in other areas. I do not agree with them, incidentally." In all likelihood, Nicholson would not be able to stop himself from talking about art, either, or about Churchill and Napoleon. And he would certainly make a few Delphic pronouncements that next to nobody would understand, such as: "You can get many kinds of balance toward any seemingly grinding postulate of life." Nicholson's brain is an aviary and, God bless him, there are some really strange birds flying around in there.

At 65, he lives where he has lived since God was a child: on a ridge on Mulholland Drive, high above Los Angeles. Nicholson owns three modest, welcoming houses nestled so closely together that when he gets hungry or wants a more comfortable chair, he says, "Let's move one house over." He has a small pool. A putting green. And Marlon Brando for a next-door neighbor. "I don't see him much lately. I don't know what he's up to. I hear him. He plays classical music late at night, and if I'm out walking around in the moonlight, I hear it up there. He's the perfect neighbor."

On a Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving, the actor sits down in the billiard room in his middle house for what will stretch into a four-hour interview. The phone rings regularly and a series of intercom chimes go off, but he ignores them--later he will explain that they were "escape valves," in case he wanted to cut the conversation off. He happily fields all manner of questions about his life and his dark new comedy "About Schmidt," which will almost certainly snag him his dozenth Oscar nomination. In person, Nicholson is gracious and self-effacing. ("He punctures any bubble you try to put him in," says Alexander Payne, who directed "About Schmidt.") He smokes steadily, but scoops and re-routes the secondhand smoke away from his visitor. He seeks to charm--the impulse seems hard-wired--but he does not do "Jack." "There are a lot of crazy nitwit things that I can't do any longer," he says, an hour into the interview. "I can't work on a movie for 12, 14 hours a day, then go out and burn the streets down to the ground all night and get wild and, you know, tear through other people's lives. I don't have the energy for it." Later, he picks this thread up again: "I'm a different guy here in my 60s. I don't have the same libido. It used to be that I didn't think I could go to sleep if I wasn't involved in some kind of amorous contact or another. Well, I spend a lot of time sleeping alone these days. That's different. And very liberating. It wasn't until the last few years that I became completely comfortable with it. You know, my fear is that I'm beginning to prefer it."

If Nicholson's life seems autumnal, his work remains audacious, though not in quite the way you might expect. In "About Schmidt," he plays Warren Schmidt, a bland, tubby Nebraska actuary who retires one day and who, to forestall the flooding realization that his life has been a joke and a waste, hits the road in an RV and attempts to stop his daughter (Hope Davis) from marrying a water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney). Even more than in the grave 2001 thriller "The Pledge," Nicholson jettisons all his trademark bells and whistles, and delivers a magnificently controlled ode to the ordinary that's somehow both merciless and humane (review).

Not that there's anything wrong with his trademark bells and whistles, by the way. He became famous as the pothead lawyer in 1969's "Easy Rider," and one of the astonishing things about his trajectory is how long he's managed to be both a subversive and an institution. Possibly you remember him lacerating a waitress who refused to bring him toast ("Five Easy Pieces"). Getting his nose sliced ("Chinatown"). Descending into mortal combat with Nurse Ratched ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). Making a meal out of Jessica Lange atop a kitchen table ("The Postman Always Rings Twice"). Thundering "Heeere's Johnny!" ("The Shining") and "You can't handle the truth!" ("A Few Good Men"). Cavorting manically in lipstick and whiteface ("Batman"). Sticking his hand down Shirley MacLaine's blouse ("Terms of Endearment"). Dropping a dog down a garbage chute ("As Good As It Gets"). What Nicholson has achieved over the decades is almost too vast and various to get your head around: trying to explain what's cool about his career is like trying to explain what's cool about the ocean.

John Joseph Nicholson grew up carefree on the New Jersey shore ("I would be the leader of high jinks, as a rule"), and was raised by three women. His mother was unwed, so--this gets tricky--his grandmother pretended to be his mother, and his mother and his aunt pretended to be his sisters. Nicholson didn't learn the truth until he was in his 30s. The news didn't faze him particularly, and it didn't change the overarching lesson he'd taken away from childhood: it's good to be around a lot of women. In 1962, while still an aspiring actor and screenwriter, Nicholson married the actress Sandra Knight. Did he believe the union would last? "I got married on Friday because on Wednesday Sandra said she wanted to. And I didn't have any reason not to. I mean, I just said, 'Yeah, that's good. I like that.' While the ceremony was going on, that part of me that, at night, half believes in God was looking upward and saying, 'Now, remember, I'm very young, and this doesn't mean I'm not ever going to touch another woman.' It's a humiliating thing and a horrible thing, allegedly, to admit to, but I remember this very clearly." Years later, Kim Basinger would refer to Nicholson as "the most highly sexed individual I have ever met." (And she dated Prince!) Asked what statistics she might have been basing that on, Nicholson purses his lips to suppress a smile: "Well, you know, I have had a very expressive life in that area."

As Nicholson's career took off and his personal life unfolded, a theme developed: he gave us everything and denied himself nothing. (He would probably quibble with this, just as he always quibbles when people tell him he can't just go around eating as much as he wants: "I have never eaten as much I want.") In any case, it's pointless to apply conventional ideas of right and wrong to his behavior--Nicholson has his own particular moral code, just as the Vatican has its own police force--and it's clear that he still loves every woman he ever loved and regrets her departure, without entirely regretting whatever he might have done to hasten it. Anjelica Huston, his lover for 17 years, left him because he'd had an affair with a model and impregnated the actress Rebecca Broussard. Lara Flynn Boyle is still in his life, in a capacity he declines to define.

Nicholson praises every woman whose name passes his lips. Not long ago, he was quoted saying that his penchant for dating women in the "sweet spot" between 25 and 38 was partly "glandular and has to do with mindlessly continuing the species." This was taken to mean that he believed himself to be on a mission for the good of the planet. What he actually meant was closer to this: we're all just stupid mammals. In any event, the remark irritated people close to him. "He said, 'I've got every woman I know up my a-- on this one'," says his old friend Meryl Streep. "I said, 'Deservedly so, my love!' Oh, I love giving him s--t."

When it gets to be 5 o'clock in the billiard room, Nicholson asks his visitor if he's hungry, and suggests moving one house over for what he refers to as lunch. (Left to his own devices, he sleeps from 3 or 4 in the morning to 11 a.m.) As he passes the pool table, he says that he plays a game or two with his kids sometimes; when Lorraine, 12, and Raymond, 10, were little, he built them a rolling platform so they'd be up high enough. Otherwise, he hasn't played in a couple of years. "I can't see the end of the table, goddammit."

In the house next door, which serves as his living quarters and which he bought for $90,000 more than 30 years ago, Nicholson asks his housekeeper, Gloria, if she'd make a couple of steak sandwiches, without too much mustard. He settles into a cozy leopard-print armchair in the living room, facing a small gallery of paintings--by Picasso and Bonnard, among others. At the coffee table in front of him, there's a silver tray filled with shredded cash and credit cards--long story, he says--and four alphabet blocks. "Who keeps doing this?" he says when he sees the blocks. "They keep turning this into jack." What does he want it to spell? "Nothing. I just like to change it all the time." He fiddles with the blocks, then sinks back into his chair. The blocks now spell laid.

The more time you spend with Nicholson the realer he becomes. He rakes his hands through his hair, then plasters it down again. He shouts to Gloria to tell him when the 49ers game comes on. He raves about Lorraine and Raymond. (Broussard is their mother; Nicholson also has a thirtysomething daughter, Jennifer, with Knight, and a thirtysomething son, Caleb, with actress Susan Anspach.) "Ray is very emotional--he's never sure he's any good," he says. "I think it has to be genetic. I look at him and I think, 'S--t, I'm still dealing with this problem.' I'm 65 years old, you know, and I'm still thinking, 'Am I good enough?' God knows I tell Ray he's the greatest thing there is 24 hours a day, but that's not the answer."

It's strange to hear someone of Nicholson's stature claim to have insecurities. But, as director Payne puts it, "they're real. He's an actor. What are you talking about?" Nicholson freely admits to having passed through dark phases in his life, and to being occasionally uncertain of how to proceed in an industry where--"About Schmidt" notwithstanding--actors his age get relegated to supporting roles he refers to as "Judge Hardy and Uncle Bim." This spring, he will play Adam Sandler's rage counselor in Peter Segal's inspired-sounding comedy "Anger Management." And he's already committed to another broad comedy (as yet untitled) in which he'll play a man who's dating a woman young enough to be his daughter--and then falls for her mother (Diane Keaton). It's an auspicious burst of activity from an actor who not so long ago had pretty serious misgivings about his future. "I have had a charmed life," he says. "I got to do most of what I ever wanted to do. I mean, I started thinking about quitting acting a little while ago. You think, 'Who wants to see anything I would do? Who cares?' It was regular depressive thinking, where you're down on yourself and you think you're not growing. But then I remembered why I started acting: I'm not happy if I'm not expressive. Everything backs up on me." He leans forward in his chair. The blocks now spell dial.

The steak sandwiches arrive (without too much mustard), and they're great, though so rare that they call to mind the fact that Nicholson played a werewolf in "Wolf." "Yeah," he says, nodding and chewing. "Grrrrr." Afterward, he walks his visitor out. It's dark by now. L.A. is lit up down in the basin: it's as if you're in a airplane preparing to land. Over the years, he says, various women he's lived with have wanted him to move, and he always challenged them to find something better. "You know, I liked to think that I wasn't going to get attached to anything," he says, "but here I am." So the women came and went, the house stuck around. Nicholson says that some part of him envies Warren Schmidt for having spent his life with one woman, and occasionally (very occasionally, probably) wishes he had: "You know, then the archives of our memories and so forth would be intertwined." If it's any comfort, for 30 years he's been intertwined with ours.