For a movie star, Jack Nicholson keeps a fairly modest profile.
He doesn't do the talk-show circuit or grant many interviews to the press. If you see his face on a magazine, it's probably because the producers of his latest picture struck a publicity deal, not because he wants to sit in front of more cameras.
That may partly stem from the fact that the actor - one of only two male actors to win three Oscars - is so famous that he just doesn't have to bother shilling for the studios anymore. Or there may be another reason - one that stems from his desire to play a wide variety of roles, while needing to mine his psyche to bring life to everyone from the rebellious inmate of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to the obsessive-compulsive romance writer in "As Good as It Gets."
"My secret craft - it's all autobiography," he told an interviewer in 1986, the period that produced hits as different as "Prizzi's Honor" and "Broadcast News."
Yet he's aware that his credibility as an actor depends on his ability to make viewers think he's a new person with every picture. "That's always a hard job for an actor," he said in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival this year. "Anyone can act once or twice." But when audiences start to associate you with an off-screen persona, "you have to unconvince them of who you are" to make the character live and breathe on its own.
After working with Nicholson in "About Schmidt," which opens today in limited release, director Alexander Payne says a key part of the actor's brilliance is his commitment to the role at hand, not triumphs he's had in the past or an image he's trying to build.
"Any vanity he seems to have comes from wanting to be most truthful to the character he's playing," Payne said at Cannes, where "About Schmidt" premièred amid talk that Nicholson could receive his 12th Academy Award nomination. Payne went on to give his impression of the actor's attitude: "I'm being Jack Nicholson inside this thing, my body, which is an instrument.... What is the most appropriate way for me to play this instrument for this character?"
But while he may not be vain in the traditional sense, Nicholson can strut his stuff with the best of them. Take his appearance at the New York Film Festival in September. First, he waved to the Lincoln Center crowd with his patented impish smile. Then he swaggered across the stage for an amazingly long time, still grinning. And then he explained why he was making such a generous display of himself.
"I just want to show you I'm still good-looking!" he called out to his applauding fans, without bothering to take the microphone. "Not like in the movie you're gonna see!"
His character in "About Schmidt" is a 60-something suburbanite with a sagging face, a drooping spirit, and a paunch that's getting bulgier by the day.
Not that Nicholson has ever been handsome in the matinee-idol tradition of Cary Grant or Tom Cruise. His eyes are a tad squinty. His hairline started receding decades ago. His eyebrows - those eyebrows! - look like they're modeled on the flying buttresses of some ancient French cathedral.
But that ordinary-guy look is what makes him so likable, and his ability to combine it with screen-grabbing charisma is what makes him unique.
"A basic reason why Nicholson has been a star for more than 30 years is that he's not a leading man," says Barbara Siegel, coauthor with her husband, Scott, of "Jack Nicholson: The Unauthorized Biography.
"He's a character actor, and that's given him the opportunity - which he has wisely taken - to vary his roles," says Scott Siegel. "He's always moved on to new opportunities, and as a consequence, he's never worn out his welcome."
This wouldn't mean much if Nicholson didn't rise to the challenges he sets himself. But he does, and audiences have embraced him in every imaginable kind of part, even when the movies themselves weren't hits.
His characters range from the laid-back lawyer of "Easy Rider" to the snoopy sleuth of "Chinatown," from the military men of "The Last Detail" and "A Few Good Men," to the neurotic writers of "The Shining" and "As Good as It Gets." Then there's the moody astronaut of "Terms of Endearment" and melancholy retiree Schmidt, (not to mention turns as the Joker and the devil).
He has scored less resoundingly with the handful of pictures he's directed, including the 1971 basketball drama "Drive, He Said" and the 1990 detective movie "The Two Jakes," an unofficial sequel to "Chinatown."
But he has won the respect of his colleagues even when the final results were forgettable. He is "like a force of nature," said cinematographer Nestor Almendros after shooting "Goin' South" with Nicholson in the director's chair, adding that "his enthusiasm is contagious ... it sweeps the crew along like a cyclone."
Nicholson sees the variety as a key to his love of acting - and to his staying power in a profession that's quick to discard performers who grow stale. "I was a late-blooming success in a certain way," he says, "so I had a lot of ideas about how you establish some kind of longevity. I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that I don't [repeatedly] play the same thing.
"That's because you can get trapped in something - trapped by a success," he continued, speaking in a quiet drawl that sometimes sank almost to a murmur the assembled reporters had to strain to hear. "The tendency is to do it least one more time. And then if you want to do a departure and it doesn't work, you're dead.
"I say that from watching other people do it. From the very beginning, I always tried to do a movie I felt was more accessible, and then do something very different, and create my own peaks and valleys. Because you can't dictate to audiences what they're going to like."
Interestingly, none of this means Nicholson is one of the chameleon-like actors who seem to change their appearances and personalities with every new role.
"He isn't someone who strikes people as disappearing into a part, the way Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman do," says Mikita Brottman, who edited "Jack Nicholson: Movie Top Ten," a collection of essays on the actor.
"He turns every character into someone who's like Jack Nicholson, or like the way we think he is - a little sly, cynical, and selfish, but at the same time honest and sincere. He's the opposite of glib. He always seems genuine."
But "seems" may be the operative word.
"No one really knows the real Jack, anyway," Nicholson says. And he flashes his mischievous grin - making you wonder if it's "all autobiography" after all.