Fresh off his Oscar win for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the defining actor of his generation sat for a tribute at the 1976 San Francisco International. In an onstage interview, he chatted about difficult leading ladies, working under independent producer Roger Corman and falling into his role in Easy Rider.
By Ben Friedland
“Why do people identify with me?” asked Jack Nicholson at a packed Palace of Fine Arts during the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1976. “Watching this series of clips from my performances I felt maybe it was because I can’t quite play the part I’m thinking of.”
It’s sometimes hard to remember that for the first ten years of his acting career Jack Nicholson floundered in obscurity. For nearly all of the ’60s, Nicholson’s story is typical Hollywood stuff: unnoticed performances in overlooked movies that forced him to question his place in the industry. He even considered giving up acting altogether.
But those little-seen screen appearances forever shaped what would become one of Hollywood’s more legendary acting careers. While playing supporting roles in Hollywood B pictures like Little Shop of Horrors, Nicholson became a member of independent producer Roger Corman’s stable of workhorse players (which also included the likes of future ’70s stars Robert DeNiro and Bruce Dern), appearing in films like Too Soon to Fly and The Wild Ride.
Under the exploitation filmmaker’s “shoot ’em quick and cheap” edict, Nicholson also wrote and produced films with director Monte Hellman and another Hollywood unknown, Francis Ford Coppola. His script credits from that period include the Monkees vehicle Head, Flight to Fury and Hells Angels on Wheels. Though dismissed by critics as a derivative B movie, the revisionist western Ride in the Whirlwind, which he penned and starred in, played at the 1966 International (with Nicholson in attendance), after wowing Festival audiences in Cannes, Berlin and Montreal for its startling take on vigilante violence.
But it was a motorcycle movie, not a Western, that sent him soaring. That film was Easy Rider, and the year was 1969. The next few years found Nicholson performing in The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge and Chinatown—flaunting an attitude, a voice, a grin and a general vibe that would be imitated (for better or worse) for years to come. His work not only captured and defined the decade’s zeitgeist but shaped the entire industry for the next 30 years.
In 1976, one year after winning his first Oscar for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson attended the 20th San Francisco International Film Festival to receive a tribute. Fellow honorees that year included Burt Lancaster, Dyan Cannon and producer Robert Evans.
Fans swarmed the Palace of Fine Arts on Saturday October 16, and legend has it that scalpers were selling the $3 ticket outside for $40. Hordes of people were turned away—so many that Festival Associate Director Mark Chase noted that just as many people waited anxiously outside the theater as were seated inside. The program included clips from 15 of his films followed by an extensive Q&A.
Nicholson enthralled the audience, discussing his career working with the likes of Barbara Streisand, Faye Dunaway, and Marlon Brando and the director Michelangelo Antonioni.
“Barbara came down very hard at first,” Nicholson said. “But she loosened up. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are supposed to be hard to work with, and I haven’t had all that much trouble. They haven’t always gotten along with the directors, but then I love it when the director and some other actor have problems. It gives me lots of rest.”
Nicholson then explained that in an interview in Italy, the press asked what he was doing next, and Nicholson jokingly said that he and Antonioni, who directed Nicholson in The Passenger, “were making a comedy about vampires called I’d Rather Drink Tomato Juice. When I got back to Rome, he called me and said the newspapers had reported that when asked if I’d make another picture with him, I’d said ‘I’d rather drink tomato juice.’ I’m glad he’s a good friend.”
Writing in the Herald Examiner, Bridget Byrne said Nicholson’s tribute was noticeably less stuffy than the rest of the Festival. “The intellectual snobbism which often afflicts Festival audiences has fallen away. These people are fans, responding to the anarchistic magic they see on screen, and the dry yet warm humor they witness off screen, as Jack handles their questions with a witty lack of pretension.”
Unsurprisingly, he was asked early on about Easy Rider. “Neither Dennis Hopper nor Peter Fonda wanted me,” Nicholson said. “They thought other actors could be better. But because I had worked in some strange situations I knew a lot of nonunion production people whom they needed to make the film. My help in this area, coupled with producer Bert Schneider saying, ‘Shut up, put him in the movie, the man’s going to be a star,’ got me the role.”
Nicholson also griped that he never wants to hear a director tell him to talk faster or, worse, cry. He likes parts that allow him “to work late in the morning to early evening” but that he looks for the opposite in a woman. He continued: “I am extremely fortunate in that there isn’t just a type of woman that specifically attracts me. In fact now that I’m spoken for, no other woman attracts me.” He then paused, pulled back his head and burst out laughing.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Nicholson first headed west in 1954 at the age 17. While working as an office boy at MGM and acting in the Players Ring Theater troupe, he won the lead role in the Corman production The Cry Baby Killer. After watching a clip from that film, Nicholson said, “Seeing that now, the rawness affects me so. I see this guy trying to hurl himself into show business. The effort shows. I had only decided to be an actor six weeks before I got that lead. I was just out from New Jersey. I didn’t know anything, but I was very sincere. I didn’t work for a year after that.”
For the next decade, Nicholson drifted back and forth between bit roles in Hollywood fare and acting and producing in Corman’s independent films until his breakthrough part as the football-helmeted Southern hitchhiker in Easy Rider. The Festival’s Program Guide that year said, “Given a tour-de-force showcase in Five Easy Pieces, he demonstrated that he was a leading man of astonishing depth, and he has since structured his career around challenging roles and innovative directors.”
Nicholson has been nominated for 12 Oscars, winning three times, for Cuckoo’s Nest, Terms of Endearment, and As Good As It Gets. His 12 nominations are more than any other male actor, and only Meryl Streep (with 13) has more; and his three wins are tied with Walter Brennan for the most male wins, but second to Katharine Hepburn’s four.
After Easy Rider, Nicholson’s resumé reads like a laundry list of classic American cinema. His credits include Reds, The Shining, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown. In some ways, what is most shocking about Nicholson’s appearance at the 1976 SFIFF is how much he’s accomplished since then. From those early films to A Few Good Men, Batman, About Schmidt and the recent The Departed, Nicholson still remains one of the most versatile and engaging American screen stars. But in 1976 there was not another actor more of the moment than Nicholson.
Back at the Palace, Nicholson admitted that he loves playing cowboy. “Yet a grown man cannot admit this. You can’t run around your house playing cowboy, but in this business, they pay you to do it.” The tribute ended shortly after this, when Nicholson stood up, flashed a grin and declared, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom, and I’m sure some of you must too?”