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He is doggedly competitive. "I want to win more Oscars than Disney," he once said, only half-kiddingly, and he always votes for himself. And, most of all, like a true point guard, he never lets himself get painted into a corner. "You try to stay enigmatic," he says. "That's my job: to be other people."
Which is why doing stories like this makes him squirm.
"I don't want to be more than just a fan," he is saying over a mouthful of hamburger at his house in L.A. It's noon and he has just gotten up. There is a New York Daily News on the table (flipped over to the Sports section) next to a Salvador Dali original ashtray, in an Art Deco living room stuffed frame to frame with art and sporting paraphernalia. Only in Nicholson's house can a Matisse hang in odd harmony next to an autographed Cecil Beaton photo of Sugar Ray Robinson. On a counter is a shot of Nicholson mugging with Muhammad Ali. There is an entire wall of cassette tapes, an elaborate stereo, TV and two VCRs. Annie Martin, his secretary, answers the phone, and Kathleen Marshall, his housekeeper, bakes him tarts. "Byoootiful tarts, Babe."
"You gotta remember my line of work. Sports is the only place I can go and not know how it's going to end."
And he jealously loves them. He "bleeds for Johnny [McEnroe]" and always makes the U.S. Tennis Open. He's taking up golf, though he has an inherent problem with it because people tend to get him confused with Jack Nicklaus. After Nicklaus won the Masters last spring, Nicholson was moaning. "Ooooh, that was grim news for me, Babe," he says. "I knew there were 1,000 letters on the way from ladies in Scotland wanting to know, 'How do you hit the eight-iron?' "
Unlike McMurphy, he's no "goddam miracle of modern science," but he keeps in formidable shape considering his age and his hobbies (he once said he smokes marijuana four times a week). He runs a treadmill, works out on Nautilus, swims and skis over his head.
He loves to bet. An addicted fight fan, he flew from London to New York with a friend to see the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 (he saw them all) and bet the first-class plane fare on Frazier, who won. He also had Louisville at long odds to win the NCAA basketball championship, though "what I bet is the equivalent of you betting a dime," he says.
He's a disciple of the New York Yankees, though he calls George Steinbrenner "a nightmare," and the San Francisco 49ers, though he rarely attends a pro football game anymore, partly on account of a McMurphyesque melee he once got involved in at the L.A. Coliseum. At one point in the action. Nicholson grabbed a woman by the ankles in order to get to the husband behind her. "I finally pull her over the seat, get ahold of him, get the one real good one on him and then the police come," Nicholson recalls happily.
Since then, Nicholson has limited his McMurphy to the NBA. Lucky it.
"I've seen a lot of fans in my day," Boston Celtic general manager Red Auerbach says, "and to me there's a difference between being an ass and being a fan. When a guy goes up and moons to the crowd, well...."