The Legendary Jack Nicholson: 5 Of His Career-Defining Roles

Jack Nicholson may finally be calling it a career if long time friend, Peter Fonda – who first appeared on screen with him in the 1969 film Easy Rider – is correct with his claim that Nicholson’s 2010 movie, How Do You Know, was actually his last.

“I think he is ­basically retired,” Fonda said. “I don’t want to speak for him, but he has done a lot of work and he has done very well as a person financially. Sometimes ­people have a reason that you don’t know, and it’s not for me to ask.”

In 2013, Tom Cruise made a serious run at getting Nicholson out of semi-retirement for El Presidente – which followed a straight-arrow Secret Service agent who is assigned to protect America’s worst former president – with alcoholic and womanizing tendencies – who has a threat made against him and must go on the run.

Cruise told Nicholson – with whom he starred in the 1992 classic A Few Good Men – that he wouldn’t do the movie without him. Ultimately, Nicholson didn’t bite.

Having played a variety of different roles, Nicholson still holds the record for the most actor nominations in Oscars history with 12.

Despite a deluge of celebrities in our collective consciousness, very few are on a first name basis with the public. With a number of extraordinaire performances to choose from, here are our five favorite “Jack” roles.

JJ “Jake” Gittes

Movie: Chinatown

Regardless of your personal opinions about controversial director, Roman Polanski, Chinatown ranks as the 21st greatest film ever made and is the gold standard of what film noir should look and feel like and certainly laid the groundwork for others that made noise in the genre like Blade Runner, LA Confidential and Pulp Fiction.

Nicholson was instrumental in getting the story of gumshoe, Jake Gittes, onto the big screen. At the time, Polanski was quite reluctant to take on any projects – especially ones with such strong connections to Los Angeles. Four years earlier, he had abandoned the city after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and several of his friends had been butchered in L.A. by disciples of Charles Manson.

Eventually, Nicholson got Polanski on board.

To say that Nicholson powered the film would be a vast understatement. His character appeared in every single shot/scene in the movie – and although morally conflicted himself – served as the voice of reason in an otherwise upside down city.

Randle McMurphy

Movie: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In Ken Kesey’s original novel, the character of Randle McMurphy is described by Nurse Ratched as, “Thirty-five years old. Never married. Distinguished Service Cross in Korea for leading an escape from a Communist prison camp. A dishonorable discharge, afterward, for insubordination. Followed by a history of street brawls and barroom fights and a series of arrests for drunkenness, assault and battery, disturbing the peace, repeated gambling, and one arrest — for rape.”

The book was ultimately shepherd to the film world in 1975 and centered on McMurphy’s relationship with his fellow mental patients before he ultimately urges them all to stand up to their iron-fisted head nurse.

The New York Times said of Nicholson’s portrayal that he “slips into the role of Randle with such easy grace that it’s difficult to remember him in any other film.”

In the end, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became the first film to win all “Big Five” Academy Awards in 41 years – including nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay – and wins for both Nicholson and Louise Fletcher for Nurse Ratched – with whom AFI listed as their No. 5 movie villain of all time. The feat would not be matched again for another 16 years until Silence of the Lambs also earned the distinction.

When Nicholson accepted his award, he said, “This proves there are as many nuts in the Academy as anywhere else.”

Jack Torrance

Movie: The Shining

While the horror genre has become decidedly more visceral in their depiction of brutality in recent years, The Shining remains one of the truly terrifying films ever made even without the use of over-the-top imagery and intense gore.

Not only is this a testament to Stanley Kubrick’s excellent direction – who managed to turn place into a metaphysical monster – but also heavily due to Jack Nicholson’s slow descent into madness as we watched his character go from caretaker to attempted perpetrator of familicide.

In recent years, the above clip emerged which showed Nicholson getting worked into a psychotic lather before shooting the now infamous, “hereeeeeee’s Johnnnnny,” scene in which he uses an axe to break through a door. Not only is it great to see a master in the waning moments before “action” is called, but it’s also quite terrifying. Nicholson was completely invested.

The Joker

Movie: Batman

Although Heath Ledger’s Joker remains engrained in people’s minds thanks to his gritty and sinister take on the character, Jack Nicholson was instrumental in establishing the tone for Tim Burton’s series of Caped Crusader films.

Whereas Ledger’s Joker relied on chaos and the absence of desire, Nicholson’s take felt more human. He had wants and desires that people could relate to; revenge, seduction and greed being hallmarks. But he didn’t lay it on too thick and suck the fun out of the role. Instead, he issued flashes of Vaudevillian humor.

Following the news of Ledger’s death, Nicholson told reporters, “Well,” I warned him.” Although he never clarified his remarks, one can only assume that Nicholson also felt the weight of expectations and the mental toll of having to let a maniac live inside his skull while shooting.

Colonel Nathan Jessup

Movie: A Few Good Men

At it’s core, A Few Good Men posed a question: if the military relies on its ridged hierarchy to maintain order, should a person carry out the actions of a superior even if that action is wrong or dangerous?

Jack Nicholson’s turn as Colonel Nathan Jessup produced one of the most recited statements in movie history, “you can’t handle the truth,” as it related to the cinematic premise. He’s equal parts smug and self-righteous as he is genuine in the belief that he did nothing wrong. Even though Nicholson only appears in three scenes in the film, it would be a drastically different project without him.


Report by Alec Banks for Highsnobiety