Jack of Hearts
Nicholson would likely prefer tiger. More than 30 years after stumbling onto fame in Easy Rider, the 65-year-old actor still appears ready to head out on life's highway looking for adventure. Devoted to his children, the L.A. Lakers and the single life, he shows no sign of slowing—or settling—down. By contrast, his character in the dark comedy Schmidt (opening Dec. 13) is a Winnebago-driving retiree wrestling with issues of mortality and—for once—a love interest close to his own age (Kathy Bates). Many critics predict the performance will earn him a fourth Oscar, which would tie the record held by Katharine Hepburn. "He's arguably the best actor of most people's lifetime," says James L. Brooks, who directed Nicholson to Oscars in 1997's As Good as It Gets and 1983's Terms of Endearment. "He continues not to make any safe choices. He just does the job like a guy hungry out of acting school."
Dates like one too. What's up with his on-again, off-again romance with Lara Flynn Boyle, 32? The intensely private Nicholson—even longtime friends find him mysterious at times—won't say, and neither will she, although they turned up together at a Lakers game on Dec. 3. "He's had his marriage, he has his children, he just kind of got set in his ways," longtime friend Peter Fonda says of Nicholson's aversion to romantic commitment. Still, paychecks of up to $20 million a film keep him in the good life. His lairs in Los Angeles—a four-bedroom mountaintop house next to Marlon Brando's where he has lived since the '70s—and a lodge in Aspen are packed with Picassos and Matisses. His other passions include golf ("he gets dreamy-eyed talking about it," says director pal Henry Jaglom), reading (particularly histories and mysteries), summers in the south of France and winters on the slopes. "I don't ski as much, but my kids are starting to ski now, so that's even better," Nicholson says.
Friends say Nicholson is a devoted father to Lorraine, 12, and Raymond, 10, his children with former flame Rebecca Broussard, 39, and grandfather to Sean, 6, the son of fashion designer Jennifer, 39, his daughter with ex-wife Sandra Knight. He ferries his younger kids, who live nearby with Broussard in L.A., to after-school lessons and takes them to see his beloved Lakers. For Thanksgiving, the three traditionally chow at the home of Nicholson's longtime Buddy Warren Beatty. Nicholson "plays ball with his children, rolls around," says Endearment costar Shirley MacLaine, Beatty's sister. "He's like a kid."
So what if he looks more senior citizen than sex symbol these days? "I do stare kind of sideways at myself in the mirror in the morning," he says. "I don't have plugs or tucks or this or that.... I look at it as mutilation." Growing older is just one more challenge. "Age is the first limitation on roles that I've ever had to encounter."
His talent certainly never held him back. Born in 1937 in Neptune, N.J., John Joseph Nicholson didn't learn who his real mother was until he was 37. June Nicholson was 17 when she gave birth to him out of wedlock. To avoid scandal, her parents—John, a window dresser, and Ethel May, a beautician—raised Jack as their son, telling him June, who became a chorus line dancer in New York City, was his sister. An aunt told Jack the truth after his grandparents and mother were dead. "He's definitely not a victim about it," says friend Cher, his costar in 1987's The Witches of Eastwick. "He recounts it so sweetly and ironically. He told me, 'I used to be such a son of a bitch to her. You know how brothers and sisters are.' "
Watching war films such as 1944's Thirty Seconds over Tokyo turned the youngster into a passionate movie fan. Graduating from Manasquan High School in 1954, Nicholson headed for Los Angeles. While working as a $30-a-week errand boy in MGM's animation department, he took acting classes with renowned teacher Jeff Corey. "It was clear Jack was the most talented in that class," recalls B-movie king Roger Corman, who gave Nicholson his first roles in flicks like 1958's The Cry Baby Killer and 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors. "He was brash and cocky but a very serious actor."
Serious success eluded him until friend Fonda asked him to step in for Rip Torn as a drunken lawyer in 1969's Easy Rider. "Jack had nearly given up on acting," says Fonda. "He had all this talent, but nobody was watching him." Soon everybody was. The counterculture hit earned Nicholson his first Oscar nomination, and he went on to become the 1970s' most acclaimed actor in films such as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Chinatown (1974) and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), for which he won his first Oscar.
He also became a leading lady-killer. After his six-year marriage to Sandra Knight, an acting classmate, ended in divorce in 1968, Nicholson's consorts included actress Mimi Machu, singer Michelle Phillips and Pieces costar Susan Anspach, who later feuded with Nicholson over what she called his refusal to acknowledge that he fathered her son Caleb, 32. (Nicholson has not publicly confirmed or denied parentage.) Says Cher, who never dated Nicholson: "I think he likes women more than any man I've ever known, I mean he really likes them."
In 1973 he met the woman he later called "the love of my life," Anjelica Huston, then 22. Their L.A. home became an epicenter of the era's drug-soaked social scene. (Nicholson was out of town when Chinatown director Roman Polanski was arrested and charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old model at the house in 1977.) Despite infidelities, mostly but not exclusively by Nicholson—"We both believe in keeping our freedom," Huston told PEOPLE in 1985—their relationship lasted until 1990, when Broussard, a young actress, became pregnant with Nicholson's child.
The '80s and '90s brought more memorable parts for Nicholson, in movies like 1980's The Shining and 1989's Batman. But before his As Good as It Gets Oscar win in 1998, friend Fonda witnessed his pal in a rarely seen role: real-life nervous wreck. "I ought to go out into the lobby and take a Valium," Nicholson told his fellow nominee. "I'd never seen him that way before or after," Fonda says. "Usually he's Mr. Casual Cool." The more famous he gets, the more difficult his job, Nicholson says: "You have to try and un-Jack the character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific fictional person."
The schlubs of As Good as It Gets and now About Schmidt represent a new stretch. Of his Schmidt character, Nicholson says, "I looked at him as the man I might have become if I wasn't lucky enough to wind up in show business." The folks of show business feel lucky to have him. "He's our Bogart," says his friend Jaglom. "He represents this whole period of history in a way Bogart represented the '40s and '50s on film." And off-screen? Says Jaglom: "I'm not sure that anybody knows Jack."
Rachel Biermann and Ruth Andrew Ellenson in Los Angeles and Jim Jerome in New York City