Happy Birthday, Jack Nicholson!

Photo by Jon Furniss/WireImage

Today marks the 78th birthday of John Joseph “Jack” Nicholson, perhaps the greatest living male Hollywood actor. Born in 1937, over Nicholson’s illustrious six-decade film career he’s made a slew of great films and become one of the most decorated actors ever, winning three Oscars and receiving a record 12 nominations.

Now 78, the ever-cool Nicholson continues to wear the trademark sunglasses, sport the sly grin and speak in the slow drawl that have made this Zoomer a worldwide movie star. Let’s take a look at his life in the spotlight.

1. The character-building days
Like any struggling Hollywood actor, the young Nicholson was forced to take on a number of excruciatingly bad roles. His screen debut came in 1958, in the teen-angst B-movie The Cry Baby Killer
(Trailer: “The story of pent-up, twisted kids!”) being the first. He followed that dud with a long string of forgettable movies, none of which is likely to appear on anyone’s Top-100 list. Perhaps the best known these is Little Shop of Horrors where you can see a young Nicholson working on the character he would later reprise in many of his later movies.

2. Getting in the groove
Next came the 60s, which saw Nicholson landing roles in such gonzo flicks as Hells Angels on Wheels and Psych-Out. In 1967, he wrote the screenplay for The Trip, a bizarre homage to LSD, starring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. This trio famously reunited in 1969 for Easy Rider, another booze and drug love-in filled that tried to capture the zeitgeist of the times. By almost any standard, Easy Rider is a truly awful film. However, over time, it has become one of his better-known movies and the obligatory starting point for any discussion of films made about the 60s.

3. A fabulous run
It wasn’t until 1970 that Nicholson finally began hitting his stride, with a tremendous run of well acted and critically acclaimed movies, many of which achieved box-office success. Starting in 1970 with (the highly recommended) Five Easy Pieces Nicholson began his epic roll with Carnal Knowledge (1971), China Town (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Shining (1980) “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In each of these movies, he performs versions of the classic Nicholson role, that dark, angry and – in many cases – insane man who still exhibits a curious, humorous and strangely appealing insight into the human condition.

4. Hollywood icon
By the 1980s, Nicholson had established himself as a superb actor with massive box office appeal. And as he moved into the 90s and 2000s, he’s continued to deliver razor-sharp efforts – unlike contemporaries Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, who have frequently been accused of taking on easy roles and mailing in performances. And while the characters Nicholson portrays always display similar traits, he still manages to bring something fresh, unexpected and unique to each persona. In the three decades since the eighties, he’s showed this range in a number of memorable roles, including:

A decrepit astronaut in 1983’s Terms of Endearment – “A hundred and six astronauts in the whole f***ing world and I’m one of ’em!”
The Joker in 1989’s Batman
An old-school Colonel in 1992’s A Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth!”
A misanthropic novelist in 1997’s As Good as it Gets
A retiree struggling to come to grips with life in 2002’s About Schmidt
A crazed Boston gangster in 2006’s The Departed. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.”

5. Show Time
No retrospective of Nicholson would be complete without a mention of his love of basketball. Although many Hollywood celebrities show up to Los Angeles Laker games just to get face-time on national television, Nicholson is a legitimate fan. For over 30 years he’s been a courtside regular, cheering on the hometown side, cursing referees and trash-talking opposition players. Recognizing his long-time dedication, the Lakers honoured him in 2007 on his 70th birthday with a basketball-themed cake, presented by a couple of lovely Laker Girls. Happy birthday, Jack!