One morning in New York with Jack Nicholson

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – When he was a major star, Robin Williams told me where he thought Jack Nicholson stood in the Hollywood hierarchy. ‘There’s the rest of us,’ he said, ‘and then there’s Jack.’

One of the finest movie actors ever, Nicholson has long been retired but, as he turns 85 today, he remains an indelible and iconic figure. I met him in New York in 1975 at the junket for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (pictured below).

He appeared in the breakfast room of a fancy Manhattan hotel on a Saturday morning in a baggy brown suit, no tie, his dark shirt collar inside his jacket and dark glasses. He lighted a Marlboro and scrounged a coffee and said,  ‘You mean you guys actually got up for breakfast?’ He cursed lazily, shaking his head. ‘I’m wrecked.’

It was the morning after the launch party for Milos Forman’s long-awaited film version of the Ken Kesey novel. Nicholson was relaxed knowing that the film was one of the best American movies in years. It was a huge box office hit and earned nine Academy Award nominations with five wins including best picture, best actress for Louise Fletcher and best actor for Nicholson, the first of his three Oscars.

Even back then, the actor knew he had a problem with each movie he made.  Then 38, he had received massive acclaim for his performances as the alcoholic lawyer in ‘Easy Rider’, the disillusioned pianist in ‘Five Easy Pieces’, the sarcastic sailor in ‘The Last Detail’ (below) and the shrewd but gullible  private eye in ‘Chinatown’.

‘As you become better known, that is a problem,’ he said. ‘Audiences tend to have expectations based on what you’ve done previously and what they know about you. I’ve been very lucky as an actor. I’ve thought for a while that it’s not to an actor’s credit to be too successful too soon. No-one’s that good at acting in films until he’s done it for a while. In my case, it was learned by doing.’

As a result of not being well-known for much of his career up until then, he said, his instincts were more about the aesthetic of his pictures than the money. ‘It’s the challenge of what I can with a character that I look for,’ he said. ‘If you’re not growing as an actor, it’s not too much fun to do.’

I spoke to Nicholson again when ‘As Good As it Gets’ (top picture) was up for seven Academy Awards in 1998 including his eleventh nod. The Hollywood Reporter ran a series on the nominees and we asked the actor if he would talk to us. He agreed, but on one condition. He would talk only about his leading lady, Helen Hunt, for whom he had rapturous praise. He spent the entire campaign talking about his co-star from Paul Reiser’s TV sitcom ‘Mad About You’ and he was as persuasive as both of their performances in the picture. They won the film’s only two Oscars.

What I especially liked was that while I knew that Nicholson was to call me at some point, when the phone rang and I heard that deep familiar drawl, he said only, ‘Ray? Hey. It’s Jack.’ He didn’t to say anything else.

When Nicholson turned 80, I ran a feature about some of his less heralded films that I have enjoyed.

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Lois Chiles on the trouble with James Bond

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Lois Chiles, who turns 75 today, was the first American Bond girl as Holly Goodhead in ‘Moonraker’ opposite Roger Moore (above) but she told me that it hadn’t done much for her career. ’Has it anybody’s?’ she asked. Continue reading

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When Tom Clancy feared losing his mind

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Tom Clancy, who would have turned 75 today, wrote best-sellers adapted into hit films such as ‘The Hunt For Red October’, ‘Patriot Games’  and ‘Clear and Present Danger’ featuring CIA man Jack Ryan but he told me in 1988 that he was finished with writing because he thought he would go mad. Continue reading

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Why Elmer Bernstein smiled about Richard Strauss

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – American composer Elmer Bernstein, who would have turned 100 today, wrote wonderful film music and he was terrific company with a fine wit.

He was an early favourite of mine with scores for pictures such as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Love With the Proper Stranger’.  Continue reading

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When Warren Beatty changed Hollywood forever

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – One afternoon early in September 1967, the film writers and critics of London gathered in a West End cinema for a screening of a gangster movie starring a pretty-boy Hollywood actor. The cinema was packed although few there believed the Warner Bros. crime picture would have any merit. 

The general mood was not helped when there was a problem with the projector. We were beginning to voice our impatience when on the screen suddenly came a series of snapshots of men and women in Thirties attire.  Continue reading

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Recalling Carl Reiner and his favourite film

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The late American comic and film director Carl Reiner, who was born 100 years ago today and died in 2020, made some classic comedies but he told me ‘Dead Men Don’s Wear Plaid’ (above) was his favourite. Continue reading

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Recalling Tommy Hunter, a star who knew his limits

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Country music singer Tommy Hunter, who turns 85 today, was one of the most popular entertainers in Canada for decades but he was never tempted to become a star in America. Continue reading

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When Ry Cooder discovered the blues

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Ry Cooder, who turns 75 today, told me that he knew  that he would be a musician when he discovered the blues as a kid. When I first heard his slide guitar, I imagined he came from from some swamp in Louisiana or Mississippi but I was wrong. The legendary guitarist, singer-songwriter and film composer Ryland Peter Cooder is a California boy from Santa Monica by the sea. Continue reading

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Shannon Tweed on being naked in films and magazines

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Many women I interviewed in Hollywood expressed disappointment or regret over appearing nude in movies or photo spreads. Shannon Tweed, who turns 65 today, was not one of them. ‘I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t like to be sexually desired,’ she told me. ‘Every woman wants to be and as long as that’s not the absolute essence of what I am, then that’s just fine. If this is being exploited, bring it on.’ Continue reading

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Recalling Cristina Raines and why she hated to sing

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Like many a young man who saw Robert Altman’s classic ‘Nashville’ in 1975, I was a little bit in love with Cristina Raines, who turns 70 today, She played a singer in a folk trio that featured her then boyfriend Keith Carradine (pictured above) but she told me she hated the sound of her own singing voice. ‘When I sing, I hyperventilate and get dizzy,’ she said. ‘It’s very hard for me to listen to myself. I cringe. It’s the worst thing I ever heard in my life.’ Continue reading

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