Jack Nicholson: The True Superhero of Rogues

Hollywood’s leading villain has made a career from playing rogues and misfits, characters who seem uncommonly comfortable with their oddness. His back catalog is as riddled with  unsettlingly self-assured performances as it is Oscar nominations and Golden Globes, but as Jack settles into his well-earned retirement his output is rapidly changing. While in the past this actor’s uneasy charm stole scenes everywhere he went, his new mode is far more understated, as he becomes the quiet philanthropist spreading help and assistance behind the scenes. 

Jack Nicholson: The True Superhero of Rogues
A young Nicholson in Easy Rider

Meet The Nicholsons

Jack was born in 1937 in New Jersey into a family situation that was, to put it mildly, complicated. Growing up he, like everybody else in his neighborhood, referred to a woman called Ethel May Rhoads Nicholson as “Mud”, an affectionate local contraction of “Mother”, but Ethel May was in truth Jack’s grandmother. His mother, June, was a showgirl, and just 17 years old when she became visibly pregnant with Jack. The father, Donald Furcillo-Rose, was a musician who played the Jersey clubs, and was also already married. He offered to divorce his existing wife and marry June, but Ethel May was having none of it, and banished her prospective son-in-law. Young Jack would be raised as Ethel May’s son, and June left the shores of New Jersey for Hollywood when Jack was just four years old.  

Jack Nicholson: The True Superhero of Rogues

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Hollywood’s leading villain has made a career from playing rogues and misfits, characters who seem uncommonly comfortable with their oddness. His back catalog is as riddled with  unsettlingly self-assured performances as it is Oscar nominations and Golden Globes, but as Jack settles into his well-earned retirement his output is rapidly changing. While in the past this actor’s uneasy charm stole scenes everywhere he went, his new mode is far more understated, as he becomes the quiet philanthropist spreading help and assistance behind the scenes. 

Jack Nicholson: The True Superhero of Rogues
A young Nicholson in Easy Rider

Meet The Nicholsons

Jack was born in 1937 in New Jersey into a family situation that was, to put it mildly, complicated. Growing up he, like everybody else in his neighborhood, referred to a woman called Ethel May Rhoads Nicholson as “Mud”, an affectionate local contraction of “Mother”, but Ethel May was in truth Jack’s grandmother. His mother, June, was a showgirl, and just 17 years old when she became visibly pregnant with Jack. The father, Donald Furcillo-Rose, was a musician who played the Jersey clubs, and was also already married. He offered to divorce his existing wife and marry June, but Ethel May was having none of it, and banished her prospective son-in-law. Young Jack would be raised as Ethel May’s son, and June left the shores of New Jersey for Hollywood when Jack was just four years old.  

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Jack’s childhood passed without much incident; young Jack was charming, talented, but also known for goofing off, and voted Class Clown in his high school yearbook. He swiftly developed ambitions of acting, and he took action on those ambitions quickly, heading out to Los Angeles in 1950 to pursue Hollywood dreams while staying with the woman he believed to be his older sister. The 13 year old Jack took a job as an office worker in the studios of famed cartoon producers Hanna and Barbera, but when they offered him a job as an animator he refused, stating his intention of finding a way in acting. His military service got in the way of these ambitions - he joined the California Air National Guard in 1957, although he has later claimed this was more out of a desire to avoid being drafted to Vietnam than anything else - but by the age of 21 he had appeared in his first feature film as the lead actor of 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer. This was also his first collaboration with legendary director and producer Roger Corman, who would direct Nicholdson numerous times over the following decade in films such as The Terror, The Raven, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and Little Shop of Horrors

Uneasy Rider

Towards the end of this period it seemed to Jack that his acting career was floundering, and increasingly he felt that his future may lie behind the camera, either as a writer or director. He collaborated with Corman as a writer on the 1967 counterculture movie The Trip, which starred Peter Fonda in the lead actor role. The following year, the connection with Fonda would lead to the most important part in Jack’s career when he landed the part of alcoholic lawyer George Hanson alongside Fonda in 1968’s Easy Rider. The movie was an enormous success, and Nicholson’s performance was a standout, securing the first Oscar nomination of his career as Best Supporting Actor. 

Over the following 30 years Jack would receive 11 more Oscar nominations, by far the most in history for a male actor - although Meryl Streep remains untouchable with 17 career nominations. The remainder of the 1970s would see Jack repeatedly nominated for Best Actor for his performances in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with the latter finally landing his first Academy Award. This sudden elevation to the top tier of Hollywood actors also led to a sudden increase in interest in jack’s family life, and in 1974, during the promotional period of Chinatown’s release, researchers from Time magazine uncovered Jack’s family secret. He begged them not to publish, but they went ahead without his permission. Both Ethel May and June had died by this stage, but Jack was able to confirm the story with June’s younger sister, Florence. Jack took the news hard, but while he described the revelation as dramatic he has stopped short of describing it as traumatizing, preferring instead to marvel at his mother and grandmother: “I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret, if nothing else, it’s done great things for me.” 

All work and no play...

Jack’s remarkable career has rumbled on ever since, as he has scooped Oscars in consecutive decades (Best Supporting Actor for terms of Endearment in 1984, and Best Actor for About Schmidt in 1998), but many of his most successful and popular films were ignored completely by the Academy. Perhaps most surprising is that arguably his most iconic role, that of Jack Torrance in The Shining, was overlooked, but the film was extremely poorly reviewed on release and is the only one of Stanley Kubrick’s late films to have received no nominations for either the Oscars or Golden Globes.   

Jack Nicholson: The True Superhero of Rogues

Despite this snub, Jack has not been short of critical acclaim at any point in his career, and in his retirement he is seeking out a quieter glory than that afforded by Hollywood award shows. He’s not appeared in front of a camera since 2010, with his last major performance coming in the 2006 Scorsese film The Departed, but now this True Superhero is seeking to use his celebrity in more philanthropic ways. He’s a regular participant in pro-celebrity golf benefits, but has also taken time to directly help causes he cares for, including a major role in the Hope For Haiti telethon that raised over $57m for the troubled island nation. Other causes he’s been involved with include ActionAid, pediatric AIDS relief and the Los Angeles Police Memorial Foundation, where he is a regular participant in the Foundation’s annual charity poker games that seek to raise funds for the city’s officers. Having spent a career playing rogues and villains on screen, it is perhaps a relief that this True Superhero’s offscreen performances are more civic-minded!

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