Tag Archives: Jack Nicholson

Happy 80th Birthday, Jack Nicholson!

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…”


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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.

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Jack Nicholson is 79 today!

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Today is legendary film star Jack Nicholson’s 79th birthday! Before you bust out the cake and start toasting his health, let’s take a moment to see what other Hollywood legends have to say about the life of the A-lister (the following opinions are excerpted from Jack Nicholson: The Early Years by Robert Crane and Christopher Fryer):

Roger Corman – The film director credited with discovering Nicholson
Question: Can you tell us how you first discovered Jack Nicholson?
Roger Corman: As a director I enrolled in an acting class of Jeff Corey’s,feeling I wanted to know a little bit more about acting. I wasn’t trying to be an actor, but just to add to my working background as a director, and Jack was in the class and I was very much impressed by his work. So Jack and I became friends, and we worked together in a number of films. This was about ten or twelve years ago [side note: this book was originally published in 1975].
Question: Where do you think Jack Nicholson ranks among American actors today?
Corman: I think he’s one of the most important American actors for this reason: he’s one of the few leading men who will take a chance on extremely unusual and offbeat material, and I think that’s one of the reasons he will probably stay a major actor for most of his life, or as long as he wants to work. He will not run the danger of being typecast and tossed aside when that particular type of film fades from favor. His willingness, if not eagerness, to go to offbeat material will stand him in good stead. I think somewhere along the line he will make a mistake, and one or two of those films will be unfortunate choices, but I think this is the nature of the game.

Bruce Dern – Well-known Hollywood actor and close friend of Nicholson
Question: Do you think at this point you could pick out one performance and call it his best?
Dern: Easy Rider.
Question: Why?
Dern: It was the first time that we’d seen him. He was definitely the character. He was more a deep part of Jack than what we’ve seen before. Now his overall performance in Five Easy Pieces was outstanding, but it was closer to Jack. He didn’t have to reach as far. I think probably the years will tell us that the work in Five Easy Pieces was greater than Easy Rider. But for me, Easy Rider was the World Series for him, and he won the car. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. For me, Marvin Gardens is the World Series, and I won the car. They may not know I won the car, but I won the car, because I know I was great in the film. I’ve never done as good work in my life. And we’re talking about two guys that always do great work, but somehow the thing that’s the most gratifying is when a guy does it under the pressure of knowing that this is his shot. A guy like Redford will always have a shot, that’s why his work ain’t never worth a shit. He’s good; he’s always good, but he ain’t never great. Beatty’s the same way, only I think Redford is a good deal better actor than Beatty is. He’s always Warren Beatty. He’ll give you a couple of variations, but Jack was not just Jack in Easy Rider, nor was he in Five Easy Pieces, and there’s no way he’s Jack in this, and there’s no way I’m Bruce in this. But there’ll be a whole new flock of fans that will see this movie and say, “That’s Jack Nicholson, and that’s Bruce Dern.” That’s why I think Easy Rider was the best thing.

What Jack Nicholson had to say about himself:
Question: How important were your early films to the advancement of your career?
Nicholson: Very important. Any work that you do as an actor is important to you as an actor in learning it. This is how you develop; you have to work. Very few actors have been any good in movies before they’ve done a few. What’s happened in the commercial marketplace is that only the young people are pulling the people into the theaters right now. John Wayne, or any of these guys, aren’t really pulling people. This has caused the young actor to be more prominent than he would be normally. I always felt that I was lucky to be doing all those movies, even though I felt that at least half of them were really stinky. A lot of actors are having to learn—like I was having a conversation with Warren Beatty, and it’s hard for someone like Warren to have to learn the acting while doing it at a very important commercial level. It’s a painful and difficult experience—one that I’m glad I didn’t really have to go through. Warren did it very well, I think. He did mostly good, interesting films.Question: Can you characterize Jack Nicholson in one sentence?
Nicholson: He just wanted to make it nice.

We sincerely hope Mr. Nicholson has an enjoyable birthday today. If you would like to learn more about his life, be sure to check out the only biography he has actively taken a part in, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years.