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Hollywood Heavyweight

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His interest in physical fitness aside, Jack Nicholson has gotten by in Hollywood with one overwhelmingly sexy attribute: a killer smile. Never before have his eyebrows arched so satanically or his grin cracked so maniacally as in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial and audacious adaptation of the Stephen King best-seller. And there, for Jack, is the rub. To create horror out of his familiar charm is no small career risk. The Shining is the hottest chiller of the summer, but will Nicholson, at 43, find his days as a romantic lead axed in their prime? The response close to home is mixed.

“A lot of my girlfriends won’t go to see the picture ’cause they don’t want to be scared,” admits Jack. Ever since he emerged dazzlingly from B-movie ranks as the raffish small-town lawyer of 1969’s Easy Rider, Nicholson has been the most magnetically unpretty ladies’ man in film. Whether raunchy (Goin’ South, The Last Detail), smooth (Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown) or wacko (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which he won an Oscar), he had never literally tried ladykilling until The Shining. The departure won’t hurt, insists director Kubrick, who compares Nicholson to none less than Jimmy Cagney and Spencer Tracy and calls him “one of the truly great actors Hollywood has produced.”

He reigns from his aerie carved high into a hillside, with all of L.A. breathtakingly at his feet. “I pick spots,” beams Jack of his home of 10 years, reachable only by a well-secured road shared by neighbor Marlon Brando. The living room and dining room open onto a wide deck, whose centerpiece is a large swimming pool. A black open-air Jacuzzi bath that took three years to gouge into the rock commands another overlook. “The Jacuzzi was my original symbol of achievement, status and luxury,” says Nicholson, who steps from the tub every evening at twilight to dry in balmy breezes.

The rooms are lined with art—Rodin, Magritte, Tiepolo. The den boasts a wall-size TV screen. “I don’t like it in my living room,” he says. “I’m still holding out for a world in which people talk.” Looking out the window of the small master bedroom upstairs, Jack deadpans: “I built a balcony on here as an escape route. You can jump into the pool.” Down the corridor is the one feminine enclave in the rustically masculine surroundings: girlfriend Anjelica Huston’s bedroom, with a pair of sculpted golden wings (a gift from Jack) suspended in the corner.

“I certainly would say she’s the love of my life,” declares Nicholson of Anjelica, 29, the actress daughter of esteemed director-actor John Huston. Nicholson concedes that “we’ve striven for a straightforward, honest, yet mature relationship.” He does not deny that during their seven years together “she has had to do the hardest work in that area because I’m the one who is so easily gossiped about.” What does that mean? Nicholson explains candidly: “I live with Anjelica, and there are other women in my life who are simply friends of mine. Most of the credit for our wonderfully successful relationship has to do with her flexibility.”

The honesty is characteristic. Anjelica, who strayed for a highly publicized 1976 fling with Ryan O’Neal, shares it. “I wouldn’t describe Jack as a jealous man,” she says. “Possessive more than jealous. Jealousy involves insecurity. My father,” she adds, “is mad about him.” It was Anjelica who helped nurse Nicholson through the grueling 10-month London filming of The Shining for perfectionist Kubrick, who even made 70-year-old co-star Scatman Crothers do 40 takes of being hit with an ax (finally Nicholson suggested wrapping the scene). “He would lurch into the house around 10 p.m., exhausted,” Anjelica remembers. “The one time we went out we were an hour and a half late to meet Princess Margaret.”

For now, neither Jack nor Anjelica is rushing toward marriage. “I ask her to get married all the time,” says Nicholson. “Sometimes she turns me down, sometimes she says yes. We don’t get around to it.” Which leads to Jack’s one regret: “I’ve always wanted more children. That’s one area of my life that I haven’t done as well as I wanted to by my original standards.”

He would never be a sheltering father, as his only child, Jennifer, now 16, can testify. His daughter from a six-year marriage to former actress Sandra Knight that ended in 1968, Jennifer lives with her mother in Hawaii but vacations with Dad and is interested in acting. “I don’t know what she’s going to do,” Jack says. “I’m like every other parent—trying to see she gets as broad-based an education as possible. I think she trusts me,” Nicholson continues. “I never adjusted my life for her presence. If she comes here in the middle of a party, the party goes on.”

In Jack’s case, that can be some blowout. His circle includes such close friends and social heavies as Beatty and his steady, Diane Keaton, plus record mogul Lou Adler, actor Harry Dean Stanton, director Bob Rafelson, writers Carol Eastman and Robert Towne, and his business manager, Harry Gittes (whose name Jack coyly used in Chinatown). “I do entertain a lot, but run a pretty tough policy. I’ve never had a party of mine crashed,” Nicholson reports. “To be successful, a party has to have a completely private atmosphere.”

At functions these days he usually avoids alcohol except for champagne (“It keeps my mouth fresh”), but his taste for other stimuli, specifically cannabis, has mellowed only slightly. “I still love to get high, I’d say, about four days a week. I think that’s about average for an American,” Nicholson winks. “Last year on a raft trip I had a little flavor of the season—peach mescaline—but it was not like the hallucinatory state of the ’60s. This was just kind of sunny. I don’t advocate anything for anybody,” Jack quickly adds. “But I choose always to be candid because I don’t like the closet atmosphere of drugging. In other words, it ain’t no big thing. You can wreck yourself with it, but Christ, you can wreck yourself with anything.” What’s his attitude as a parent? “My daughter knows all the drugs I do. She’s seen me do ’em. She doesn’t do any drugs. She’s a vegetarian!”

Nicholson’s high life has been touched by real scandal just once, and he was out of town at the time. Director Roman Polanski, his close friend and Chinatown colleague, was arrested and charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old model in Nicholson’s home. “Roman’s already spent more time in correctional institutions than anyone else of the 120 or so people convicted of his crime in California last year,” observes Jack (somewhat ingenuously, since Polanski served only 42 days, and the average sentence is 39 months). “He’s still an exile, so I think he’s been punished enough.” Nicholson is equally outspoken about charges that Anjelica “informed” on Polanski. “She was called down because she was here, and her testimony only corroborated Roman’s,” says Jack. “Roman continues to be a friend of hers.” The whole situation lights Nicholson’s quick fuse. “My temper used to be worse, though,” he notes. “It’s sort of in control now.”

Scrappy and stubborn even as a boy, Nicholson remembers a “comfortable, middle-class” upbringing in Neptune, N.J. His father, an alcoholic sometime window dresser, moved out shortly after his only son’s birth. Jack’s mother, Ethel May, supported him and his two older sisters by installing a beauty parlor in a bedroom of their home. After high school, despite excellent college board scores, he opted for L.A. to visit his showgirl sister June. That led to a $30-a-week mail clerk job with MGM and enrollment in actor Jeff Corey’s drama classes, with fellow beginners James Coburn, Sally Keller-man and producer Roger Corman. Almost 15 years later came Easy Rider. Nicholson’s current fee is in the million-dollar range—plus a fat percentage.

After filming The Shining, Nicholson read 6,000 pages on playwright Eugene O’Neill, the character he plays in Reds, Beatty’s epic about author John (Ten Days That Shook the World) Reed. Nicholson also recently finished director Rafelson’s remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with co-star Jessica (King Kong) Lange. “I think it’s a stunner, lustful and hot,” says Jack of the more faithful version of James Cain’s 1934 novel that could carry an X rating. Next, he’ll be in El Paso for director Tony Richardson’s The Border, a film about illegal immigration co-starring Valerie Perrine. Any projects after that? “No, in terms of work; yes, in terms of life,” Nicholson laughs.

He means to give himself a sabbatical, perhaps a whole year of reading and “meddling” with his “pacifiers” (guitars) and hanging out. Monday nights are reserved for Skataway, the roller rink run by his friend Helena Kallianiotes (the schizy hitchhiker in Five Easy Pieces), who has lived in a house on his property for five years. Jack, a regular on producer Robert Evans’ tennis court, also swims, plays basketball and skis “as much as I can.” That usually means trips to his two-bedroom “farmhouse” in Aspen—”no phones, no TV, yet I’m not so far out of it.” If he contemplates middle age at all during his 12-month layoff, it will be fearlessly. “I got my first pair of reading glasses this year,” smilin’ Jack says without vanity. “Time marches on. My life has always gotten better as I’ve gotten older.”