Besides outright admitting to being a womanizer, a 2011 interview with Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson revealed truths about the actor that were both illuminating and muddling. When asked if he had any regrets in life, he responded, “Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively, you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do.”
Just a few years later, Nicholson apparently began feeling tendrils of remorse creeping up his spine. In a recent interview with Closer, he said, “I would love that one last romance, but I’m not very realistic about it happening. What I can’t deny is my yearning… I have had everything a man could ask for, but no one could say I’m successful with affairs of the heart.”
It’s not that Jack has been lonely his entire life. Quite the contrary. He’s a legendary lothario, deemed “Jack the Jumper” and the “Great Seducer” for his abilities to fill his bed with women. But carnal pleasures have a price when you take them for granted. “It’s dangerous,” Anjelica Huston — Nicholson’s long-time love — said to Closer. “Because you can get what you want with charm, but it is devious.”
Rock & Roll
By the time Nicholson had his first breakthrough role in 1969’s Easy Rider, he already experienced the lost love that would characterize his off-camera life. In 1968, he divorced his wife of six years, Sandra Knight, with whom he co-starred in The Terror. “I could see Jack was going to become a big star and have lots of temptations,” Knight told Closer in 2015. “I couldn’t go along for the ride.”
What a ride it was. The trip began in 1954 when Nicholson moved to the West Coast in search of a career in film, a dream he shared with his sister, June, who also took up residence in Los Angeles. After working small jobs at film companies — like the runner position he held at MGM Animation studios — Nicholson began acting in B-grade films. It was around this time — the late ’50s, early ’60s — that Nicholson’s hedonistic tastes began to develop. Along with an assortment of Hollywood buddies like Bruce Dern and Harry Dean Stanton, he began experimenting with drugs: LSD, cocaine, marijuana.
According to Marc Eliot’s memoir Nicholson, LSD was apparently a game-changer for the actor. “Jack’s experiences with the drug were life-changing. He believed after taking it the first time that he had seen the face of God. He also had castration fantasies, homoerotic fantasies, and revelations about not being wanted as an infant.”
When Knight and Nicholson began to seek marriage counseling to fix their damaged relationship — exacerbated by Jack’s escalating womanizing and drug use — both allegedly took hits of acid before one session with the therapist. Nothing, not the union of drugs, love, or therapy could save the marriage, though. It would be Jack’s only walk down the aisle. The actor with the threatening eyebrows and lascivious grin was now single, and it was “off to the races.”
Nicholson’s drug use became less recreational, embedding itself in his career and culture. Bob Woodward — in his John Belushi biography Wired — described the “upstairs” and “downstairs” drugs Nicholson would keep in his abode; “upstairs” being the term for the “good stuff” he’d keep for his friends and sex partners, and “downstairs” being the lesser quality stuff he supplied for guests. According to Eliot, he wrote 1967’s The Trip, and 1968’s Head while taking acid and smoking pot. During his breakout Oscar-nominated performance in 1969’s Easy Rider, it was cocaine and alcohol. In the classic 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, his girlfriend at the time, Susan Anspach, claimed that, “Jack took one toot (cocaine) for every six takes.”
Jack’s experience with LSD — he told Rolling Stone in 2006 this was done in a “clinical setting” — led to some revelations. “Just let it be. Release. Kind of be where you are, where we are, where it is, in a kind of fearless, unconscious way.”
The drug-inspired fearlessness is possibly what led Nicholson to spend three months naked in his home.
I felt it was totally necessary. I’m self-conscious about body image. I don’t have a great body shot. And it was an era of ‘Let’s get free.’ I know it drove my oldest daughter insane. I just wanted to be more relaxed within my skin. But it didn’t totally resolve all that, like many experiments you think you’ve concluded on yourself but you haven’t really.
Despite his healthy appetite for substances, Nicholson was on a hot streak. From 1970 to 1976, he was nominated five times for an Academy Award, finally winning Best Actor (along with the Golden Globe and a slew of other awards) in 1976 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is considered to be one of his best performances.
A 1980 interview with People highlighted Jack’s love affair with substances. “I still love to get high, I’d say, about four days a week. I think that’s about average for an American. Last year, on a raft trip, I had a little flavor of the season — peach mescaline — but it was not like the hallucinatory state of the ’60s. This was just kind of sunny. I don’t advocate anything for anybody. But I choose always to be candid because I don’t like the closet atmosphere of drugging. In other words, it ain’t no big thing. You can wreck yourself with it, but Christ, you can wreck yourself with anything.”
The interview caused a backlash against Nicholson, peaking with Carol Burnett penning a brief letter to the actor in a following issue of the publication (this would also lead to Jack losing the Daddy Warbucks role in 1982’s Annie):
Drugs “ain’t no big thing”? Maybe not in your home.
With love and hope,
Drugs weren’t the only vices Nicholson partook in during these brilliant years. Sex was also revving Jack’s engine.
Sex And Lies
His trysts have been highly publicized in books and magazines, the stuff legends are made of. There were many long nights at the Playboy Mansion and the seemingly countless actresses and models Jack’s been reportedly linked to: Candice Bergen, Michelle Phillips, Kelly LeBrock, Jill St. John, Diane Keaton, Margaret Trudeau, Rebecca Broussard, and Janice Dickinson among them, along many more lesser-known models and actresses. Playboy model Karen Mayo-Chandler once said, “He’s a nonstop sex machine. He’s into fun and games… like spanking, handcuffs, whips and Polaroid pictures.” Kim Basinger referred to him as “the most highly sexed individual I have ever met.” One of Anjelica Huston’s nicknames for him was “The Hot Pole.”
“I was very driven,” Nicholson noted in his interview with Rolling Stone. “I remember being at least mentally sexually excited about things from childhood, even sooner than eight, in the bathtub. I mean, I had a large appetite.”
Eliot’s tell-all book also shed light on the highly sexual soireés Jack and his friends would throw regularly.
There was round-the-clock partying, drinks, drugs, sex, lots of tea (of the smoking kind), and beautiful, hot, willing girls who loved to get just as high as the boys and have a good time. The refrigerator never had any food in it. Just milk (for Jack’s sometimes sensitive stomach), beer, and pot in the freezer to keep it fresh. On weekends, Harry Dean (Stanton) liked to throw sex parties that started on Friday night and ended sometime Monday morning. ‘Orgies,’ he proudly called them, that gathered the hottest starlets and all the available young men, some single and some not, who wanted to get whacked out and share beds filled with these naked, luscious, beautiful women.
Nicholson had specific tastes when it came to sex. “I can’t help but notice that women, especially when they’re in any sort of amorous mood, don’t say my name that much, so I like it when they do. I like being called ‘Jack.’ I like being identified by my name. At that moment.”
He also had a methodology behind his cravings of the flesh. “It’s not that sex is the primary element of the universe,” he told Rolling Stone in 1972. “It’s just that when it’s unfulfilled, it will affect you.”
Something else was affecting Jack during his golden run in the ’70s. In 1974, Time was researching a cover story on the actor when they discovered startling news that would change Jack’s life forever. His “sister,” June, was actually his mother, and his “mother,” Ethel May, was actually his grandmother. Jack’s father — when he learned of June’s pregnancy — deserted the family, leaving June as a single mother. Because the situation was so disparagingly viewed in the ’30s, Ethel May — June’s mother — opted to call the baby her own, and Jack’s entire family agreed to the pact. When Time‘s researcher contacted Nicholson to explain to him the validity of his family tree, he hung up the phone, devastated. June and Ethel May had already been dead for some time. Jack felt deceived, and it was a feeling that perhaps influenced his view of women and his choice of coping mechanisms of the chemical variety.
“I got back to a terrible realization I had as an infant that my mother didn’t want me — remember, my parents had separated just before I was born — and along with that came desperate feelings of need,” he told People in 1975. “Basically, I still relate to women by trying to please them as if my survival depended on them. In my long-term relationships, I’m always the one that gets left.”
In 1977, Roman Polanski was accused of raping a young teenage girl at Jack’s Hollywood home while he was out of town. Polanski fled the U.S., and the roaring, sexually-free ’70s were coming to an end, and so was Jack’s wild run. Maybe he was used to driving women away from him, but as the ’80s progressed, there would be one woman — who he described as “the love of his life” — who would also leave, and it would hurt him worse than any other departure.