He lived above his family's beauty parlor in Neptune, with his mother, Ethel May, and his sister, June. Nicholson's grandfather, whom young Jack presumed to be his father, left when he was an infant. Not until he was 38 did he find out that June was actually his mother and Ethel May his grandmother.
But he suffered none for this. Nicholson had a surrogate father-hero in Shorty Smith, one of Neptune's first all-state high school athletes, and honored Smith with a spot on his bedroom wall, along with photos of Yankee reliever Joe Page, North Carolina tailback Charlie ( Choo Choo) Justice, Columbia's Bill Swiacki making the catch to help beat Army 21-20 and Marilyn Monroe. A man's got to have his passions. "The 1950s were a great time to be a kid," Nicholson says today. "We had rock 'n' roll, and you didn't have to be grateful."
He wore a DA, blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket—a greaser down to the tips of his chukka boots. "It's crazy," says Gil Kenney, Nicholson's ex-teammate at Manasquan High School and now the Chief of Police in Brielle, N.J. "We never thought Jack would go anywhere. He was a clown, wasn't serious about anything."
That wasn't exactly true. Nicholson was dead serious about pool, hoops and horses. Whatever money he had as a teenager he would turn into a little more at the track. Then he would make a few dollars down at Kaplan's Pool Hall, where he was the "third best player in the joint, but it was good enough." And when he wasn't doing that, he and Dutch were playing the Game. They learned it out on Bangs Avenue in Asbury Park, N.J., where the basketball elite, many of them black, perfected the ultimate move out. "I grew up around black kids," Nicholson said. "Blacks didn't mean anything to me. It was just us, playin' ball."
He was reasonably athletic, the better part of his success depending upon courage. As a lifeguard, he once got his picture in the paper for rowing a boat out in hurricane surf and saving five people. "What they didn't see," he once said about the rescue, "was me puking my guts out afterwards on the shore." He played freshman basketball (guard) and football (same). Nondescript in football, he was the sixth man in basketball, the second-team point guard who "comes in off the bench, steadies the team," Nicholson likes to remember. "You know, quarterbacks it—another coach on the floor. Gets maybe 10, 11 points, and the rest of the time, just dish, Babe." That's the role he has always liked in the game, sixth man, Michael Cooper at 5'9". "I get the feeling that no matter where I'd have played—fifth grade, industrial leagues or the NBA—I'd be doing the same thing: 10, 11 points, shoot the ball maybe 5 or 6 times, otherwise, just dish."
He gave up on high school athletics after his sophomore year or, rather, it gave up on him. A loyalist, he avenged the beating of a teammate by sneaking into the enemies' locker room and attacking it with a Louisville Slugger. He was banned from Manasquan sports after that.
Funny, had he been less adroit at breaking and entering that day, we may have never known one of the most remarkable acting talents this country has ever produced.
"After that, Jack got into other things," says Dutch, a.k.a. Bernard Nichols, an assistant principal at South Pike High School in Magnolia, Miss., where he has been the girls' basketball coach for 24 years. "All of a sudden he was in every school play."
After finishing high school in New Jersey in 1954, Nicholson traveled west to Hollywood and took a job in the cartoon department at M-G-M Studios, then slowly nudged his way into the actors' pool. He labored in B movies and played the occasional cuckold in episodes of Divorce Court until finally, in 1969, Rip Torn backed out just before the filming of Easy Rider was to begin. Nicholson got the part and has been a leering presence in our consciousness ever since.
Yet he retained the best of the athletic ethic. Nobody is more prepared as an actor than Nicholson. Before Prizzi's, he spent days in Brooklyn bars mastering the gestures and dialect of the natives. When he noticed that Italian men don't like to move their upper lip, he stuffed Kleenex in his to immobilize it. He is a Hollywood rarity in that he is a team player. Actress Mary (Goin' South) Steenburgen has said that Nicholson "takes great delight in other actors' doing well." Says Nicholson, "I pick movies like guys pick teams. I don't want to be on a loser."