Jack Nicholson was born in Neptune, New Jersey, on April 22 1937, and grew up in Manasquan, New Jersey, about 50 miles south of the city on the Jersey Shore. The people he believed to be his parents were named John and Ethel May Nicholson. John was a department store window dresser and Ethel May was a hairdresser as well as a talented oil painter. June Nicholson, whom he believed was his older sister, was an aspiring actress.
June died of cancer in 1963, when Jack Nicholson was 26 years old. More than a decade after her death, in 1974, a ‘TIME‘ magazine reporter researching a cover story on Nicholson discovered some shocking information: June was in fact Nicholson’s mother and John and Ethel May were his maternal grandparents. Since June was 17 years old, unmarried and uncertain of the father’s identity at the time of Nicholson’s birth, her parents agreed to treat Nicholson as their own child and never reveal to him his true parentage. One of June’s ex-boyfriends, Don Furcillo-Rose, has since claimed to be the father, but Nicholson decided not to have paternity testing performed. “I’d say it was a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn’t what I’d call traumatizing,” Nicholson said about discovering his family’s secret. “After all, by the time I found out who my mother was, I was pretty well psychologically formed. As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me. If anything, I felt grateful.”
In 1954, Nicholson moved out to Los Angeles, California, where June, whom he still believed was his older sister, had an apartment. There, he worked part-time in a toy store and also landed a job as a gopher for the animation department of MGM Studios. By this time, Nicholson had matured into a lean and attractive young man, prototypical of the leading men of Hollywood movies at that time. An MGM producer named Joe Pasternak noticed Nicholson’s good looks one day and landed him a spot in Jeff Corey’s famed acting classes, as well as an apprenticeship at The Players Ring theater.
Jack Nicholson made his film debut in the 1958 low-budget crime flick ‘Cry Baby Killer’, playing a teenager who mistakenly believes he committed murder. Throughout the 60’s, he continued to appear in mostly low-budget horror films. After a small role in the 1960 dark comedy Little Shop of Horrors, Nicholson appeared in ‘The Terror’ (1963), ‘Back Door to Hell’ (1964), ‘Ride in the Whirlwind’ (1965) and ‘The Shooting’ (1966).
Nicholson turned in one of the most acclaimed performances of his career in director Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 neo-noir ‘Chinatown’. He portrayed a private eye named Jake Gittes who is tasked with tracking down a murder in perhaps his most nuanced and complex role. The part earned Nicholson his fourth Oscar nomination, but again he did not win the award. He finally broke through with his first Academy Award for Best Actor in the 1975 film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Based on Ken Kesey’s famous novel of the same name, the film follows R.P. McMurphy (played by Nicholson), a convict who is placed in a mental institution where the nurses and doctors attempt to quash his rebellious spirit. In 1980, Nicholson delivered an eerie if perhaps over-the-top performance as a deranged hotel caretaker in the acclaimed film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel ‘The Shining‘.
Jack Nicholson is unquestionably one of the greatest actors of his generation. In addition to his sheer volume of iconic roles, Nicholson stands out for the incredible range of characters he has convincingly portrayed. Nicholson’s wide variety of characters have also made him one of his generation’s most mysterious actors, as audiences have attempted unavailingly to figure out which of the many divergent personalities they’ve seen him adopt comes closest to the true Nicholson. “I’m none of them and all of them,” he has said. “There’s a little bit of me, I suppose, in every part I play. As an actor you can’t help inserting yourself, especially if you love acting.”
Nicholson married an actress named Sandra Knight in 1962, and they had a daughter, Jennifer, before divorcing in 1968. He later had a 20-year relationship with actress Anjelica Huston that ended when Nicholson had an affair with a beautiful model named Rebecca Broussard. Nicholson and Broussard never married but have since had two children together.