HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Jack Nicholson stood in front of a Van Gogh painting. When he walked into the museum, there wasn't a soul around. He took advantage of the silence, and for five minutes just drank in the vigor of the famed artist's strokes. He sighed, and turned around, only to find eight people not looking at the masterpiece on the wall, but staring at him.
"That's the most uncomfortable example of the fascination with film stars," recalls Mr. Nicholson in a recent interview.
"When you're out and about, not in L.A. or New York, it's different.... To some of these people, just seeing a celebrity will be one of the huge events in their life....
Truth be told, there was also a time when Nicholson himself was star-struck.
"When I came from New Jersey to L.A., I got a job as an office boy at MGM Studio, primarily to see movie stars. It was fake, but I loved it."
Now, after 43 years in films, the three-time Oscar winner ("One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Terms of Endearment," and "As Good As It Gets") is familiar with the goldfish bowl of fame. "I don't expect not to be recognized, I say immodestly," Nicholson says with his trademark Cheshire grin.
In his new film, "The Pledge," fans will see him playing an older detective who is retiring. On his last six hours on the job, a brutal murder takes place, and he makes a pledge to the parents of the slain child to find the killer. "The Pledge" was first brought to Nicholson by good friend Sean Penn, who has also directed him in "The Crossing Guard." "The thing I admire about Sean is the material he selects is good, and you're not in competition with a [special effects] blue screen or a dog," says the actor."He's interested in human observation. When he directs, I know he's going to draw on the best of what I can do on the job."
Penn gave Nicholson the novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt and then brought him a script. Nicholson was sold. The actor admits, "I liked the story, for the audience will never guess the ending."
One thing puzzles him. "Why do the TV promotions for 'The Pledge' say 'Jack's back after three years!' Where have I been? I only took one year off, but I do that from time to time. I wanted to spend time with my young family."
Although Nicholson doesn't do TV interviews, you can often see him with his two little girls and son ringside at the Los Angeles Lakers games. "I love basketball, and I'm a fanatic Laker fan. You can't introduce kids too soon to sports." Even when he was on location in Canada for the film, he was able to keep up with his favorite team.
"Sean shot the film in 55 days.It was really less when you deduct the two to four hours driving to the different mountain locations," he says.
Nicholson knows a lot about the business end of filmmaking. "I'm not jaded, but I do get furious at the dealmaking process. What gets me agitated is I don't always go for the top money. I want the negotiations to go easy, I want the studioto feel I'm giving them a bargain, so the project will get the green light faster. That doesn't always work.
"But once that's over, the fun begins. One of the great things about acting is there's no credit. You still have to open the door, and say, 'Hello, Mrs. Jones' in a way that's believable. What you did in your last movie doesn't count. That's the edge of it - moment by moment, you do the job.There are no laurels to rest on - that thinking takes you nowhere."
Last year, Nicholson and Clint Eastwood got into a deep conversation about retirement. They saw each other recently, and Eastwood said, "Neither one of us has retired yet."
Nicholson replied, "No, but I'm glad we took the time to talk about it, because here's why we're still acting - we need to be expressive. Strip everything else aside - the negotiations, the deal, the aggravations - and what you get down to is what brought us here: We need to be expressive or we're not happy."
Nicholson's mother and grandmother raised him to be well-rounded. When he was in his 30s, he'd tell friends his own age, "If we don't develop our own social graces, we'll be bored by the time we're 50. You just can't sit back, you have to maintain interests in life, or you'll begin to lose your own light."
He's practicing what he preached. He's active in athletics - ski, golf, and some tennis. He travels a lot, has friends all over the world, and as he said, "My new children (under 10) are a boon to my life and I spend a lot of time with them."
Usually Nicholson isn't so free with his thoughts. "I don't want people to know everything about me. I prefer audiences to be interested in the character I play."
Now that he is a star attraction, he tries not to misbehave. He just keeps remembering his mother, who used to cut out words of wisdom from a column in the neighborhood newspaper in Newark. "One of the truest is: 'Self-praise stinks!' " says the actor. "It deserves a magnet on every actor's refrigerator!"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society