On this day in 1937, John Joseph Nicholson, who will become known as one of the greatest actors of his generation and famous for his roles in such movies as Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and As Good As it Gets, is born in Neptune, New Jersey.
Nicholson’s father left his mother before Jack was born, and he grew up believing that his grandmother was his mother and his mother was his older sister. Nicholson didn’t learn the truth until the early 1970s, long after they were both dead, when he found out from a reporter then working on a story about the now-famous actor. After high school, Nicholson won a scholarship to the University of Delaware, but he decided to try acting instead. After moving to Los Angeles, he landed a job in the animation department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He began studying acting at the Players Ring Theater and won a few small parts in television shows.
In 1958, Nicholson played a troubled teenager in his first film, a low-budget horror flick called The Cry Baby Killer. This was the first of many appearances in horror and biker films and other second-rate genre movies that Nicholson would make over the course of the next decade. He also tried his hand at screenwriting, penning scripts for The Trip (1967), directed by B-movie king Roger Corman, and Head (1968), which starred the musical group the Monkees. Nicholson married the actress Sandra Knight in 1962, but the marriage lasted only five years.
Nicholson finally got his big acting break in 1967, when the actor Rip Torn dropped out of Easy Rider (1968) and Nicholson was able to step into his place. Playing an alcoholic lawyer opposite Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s drug-dealing bikers, Nicholson stole his scenes and picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
After the success of Easy Rider, Nicholson’s career was on the fast track. As a talented musician stuck working on an oil rig in Five Easy Pieces (1970), he turned in another Oscar-nominated performance, this time as Best Actor. After two more nominations–for The Last Detail (1973) and Roman Polanski’s noir thriller Chinatown (1974)–Nicholson took home the Best Actor Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which he played an inmate in a mental asylum. The film was the first to sweep all five major Oscar categories: Best Actor, Best Actress (Louise Fletcher as the sadistic Nurse Ratched), Best Screenplay, Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Picture.
Now at the top of the A-list, Nicholson appeared sporadically in films over the rest of the 1970s. He emerged with a string of notable performances in the 1980s, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Oscar-nominated turns in Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983) and Ironweed (1987). Showcasing his more campy side, he played Satan in The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and gave an outrageously over-the-top performance as the Joker in Batman (1989), both box-office hits. Playing a hard-line Marine colonel in A Few Good Men (1992), Nicholson racked up his tenth Oscar nomination, a record for a male actor.
In 1997, Nicholson and co-star Helen Hunt both won Oscars for their leading performances in the quirky comedy-drama As Good as It Gets. Still at the top of his game, Nicholson continued to appear frequently in leading roles in films throughout the next decade, earning praise (and a 12th Oscar nomination) for his uncharacteristically understated performance in About Schmidt (2002); indulging his softer side in the romantic comedy Something’s Gotta Give (2004), opposite Diane Keaton; and headlining the stellar cast of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning Mob drama The Departed (2006).
Nicholson, an avid basketball fan, can frequently be found in courtside seats at Los Angeles Lakers games.