Happy 80th birthday to Jack Nicholson! A prolific actor and filmmaker who has brought to life some of the most iconic characters in American film, Jack is also the most nominated male actor in the history of the Academy Awards.
In this special excerpt from Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder, author Robert Crane steps away from the stories surrounding his father and recounts the time he and coauthor Chris Fryer interviewed then up-and-coming actor Jack Nicholson for their film class at USC:
During the early 1970s the two of us had become great observers of the ascendant star of Jack Nicholson. Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and Carnal Knowledge were big, important films, at least to us. Jack represented an honesty, an abandon that I had seen elsewhere only in old Marlon Brando films. Nicholson crying in front of his paralyzed father in Five Easy Pieces was a landmark moment for me. It was a shocking and spellbinding scene. How could you be a man and allow yourself to show emotion like that in front of millions of people? I was stunned by it, but I felt nothing but admiration. Ultimately I wanted to be like that character. I wanted to be that honest and open with other people. That particular scene spoke to me about my relationship with my dad, because except when I was a really young kid I could never cry in front of him. I wouldn’t allow myself to be that exposed. Seeing Nicholson do that was a revelation.
The semester after the release of Five Easy Pieces Chris and I took a class at USC called The Film Heroes of the ’30s and ’60s taught by screenwriter Steven Karpf, and we had the idea of teaming up to interview Jack Nicholson as the “antihero” for the ages. It never occurred to us that a couple of tyros from Tarzana and USC film school might not be able to talk to Jack Nicholson for their class project. We just didn’t know any better. Hell, we’d been told no by curmudgeonly gift shop buyers in college bookstores all over this great land, but we still managed to sell them license frames. So even though we’d heard the word no umpteen times, it just hadn’t made that much of an impression. We weren’t deterred by the word. We weren’t put off by the word. We just stepped around it, coming at the target from a different direction.
I had seen Jack once on a film panel at USC, and at that point in his career he was a great supporter of film, foreign cinema, and up-and coming filmmakers. He’d been to the Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut, Drive, He Said, but he was still accessible enough that he could be persuaded to make an appearance at a college. This was well before the curtain of opportunity closed for nobodies to get near Jack Nicholson.
Talking to Jack Nicholson was remarkably easy. Through a family connection of Chris’s we got what turned out to be Jack’s home phone number, though we didn’t know it at the time. I dialed it, and damned if the guy himself didn’t answer the phone on the second ring. I knew who it was, but I still asked for Mr. Nicholson just to be polite. He asked, “Who’s calling?” and I introduced myself and launched into my pitch for an interview. To our incredible surprise and elation, Jack Nicholson agreed to sit down with us and talk film. It was absolutely unreal. Chris and I were bouncing off the walls.
Jack invited us up to his house on Mulholland Drive. To illustrate how different the world was in 1972, there was no gate on the driveway— the same driveway Jack shared with his next-door neighbor, Marlon Brando. We rolled up to the open front door and were escorted into the two-story ranch house as Michelle Phillips, Jack’s girlfriend at the time, passed us in the foyer. Chris and I exchanged looks, trying to be cool, as we stepped down into the living room. We were in a different world. There was a large, plush, brown suede couch opposite the wall of windows that overlooked Franklin Canyon and Los Angeles. The house was comfortable, lived-in. I felt pretty much at ease even though I was about to meet one of my film heroes. Jack came down the stairs wearing a navy blue bathrobe with a bat pin on the lapel. He might have just gotten out of bed, although it was well past lunchtime. As I discovered over the next several hours spent talking about film, Jack’s upcoming projects, his past experiences, and the future of cinema, Jack wasn’t wearing anything under that robe as he inadvertently flashed me several times.
After finally switching off the tape recorder, we took a few commemorative photos—for our benefit, not Jack’s—and left the house on cloud 99. We were so juiced that Chris almost killed us, spinning out his Porsche on a Mulholland curve and doing a 360 into a cloud of dust. We came to a stop between a telephone pole and the edge of a cliff. As the dust settled we could hear our pounding hearts, and then laughed like lunatics. Needless to say, we got As in that class.
Serendipitously, after that first interview, Chris and I, separately and together, began bumping into Jack around L.A. I saw him at a Rolling Stones concert, and we exchanged pleasantries. My date, Barbara Stephens, who had been my government teacher at Taft High School, was suitably impressed. Chris ran into Jack at an antiwar/pro-McGovern rally at UCLA. Jack was always where the action was.
Because these chance meetings made us think we were becoming pals, we did the only logical thing—we decided to write a book about our new best friend. There had never been a book about Jack Nicholson, and we felt it was high time and that we were just the guys to do it. Frankly, in 1972 the name Jack Nicholson wasn’t yet on the American public’s radar screen. On more than one occasion when I mentioned the idea I was told, “Gee, Bobby, I didn’t know you were that interested in golf…”
For more interviews and stories, check out Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder by Robert Crane, now in a new paperback edition.
In this poignant memoir, Crane discusses the terrible day that his father Bob Crane, known to Hogan’s Heroes fans as Colonel Hogan, was discovered brutally murdered and how he has lived with the unsolved murder of his father. But this storyline is just one thread in his tale of growing up in Los Angeles, his struggles to reconcile the good and sordid sides of his celebrity father, and his own fascinating life. Through disappointment, loss, and heartbreak, Crane’s humor and perseverance shine. Beyond the big stars and behind-the-scenes revelations, this riveting account of death, survival, and renewal in the shadow of the Hollywood sign makes a profound statement about the desire for love and permanence in a life where those things continually slip away. By turns shocking and uplifting, Crane is an unforgettable and deeply human story.
Robert Crane is coauthor of My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey through Hollywood, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years, and Bruce Dern: A Memoir, and a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.
Christopher Fryer is coauthor of Jack Nicholson: The Early Years and Bruce Dern: A Memoir, and a contributor to Hal Ashby: Interviews.