The Star with the Killer Smile

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Lining up a free throw against the Lakers, Walt Frazier is weighing the basketball in his hands, letting things simmer just a minute. He is about to let go and he hears a voice, loud and gleeful, come right out of the stands clear across to him: "Hey, man—you're the fourth-best guard in the league right now, and you ain 't movin' up 'till somebody dies!" Frazier blows the shot right there.

The deep-dish whammy comes from a Lakers fanatic, bravura bench jockey and this year's monster movie star, Jack Nicholson. He is letting off a little steam by putting on the kind of pressure he gets and cultivates almost every day. Nicholson is a past master at the Hollywood psych, a vocational tool for professional survival he employs with a street fighter's energy and a gamesman's cunning. On this occasion, he is just taking it out for a little airing on behalf of Hollywood's favorite team.

For maximum effectiveness, the psych requires a jugular instinct for a rival's weakness—his most intimate ambition, an insubstantial boast or a small, fresh scar—and a sure knowledge that except on certain social or sporting occasions, the only boy on the home team is yourself. Jack Nicholson has been rattling and roughing up the competition since he started acting out in Hollywood in the late '50s—at first with very little luck. Then came a gradual success that right now is soaring.

But besides infighting, Nicholson has through the years mastered the craft of acting with such thoroughness and skill that each role seems founded on some spontaneous intuition. It is his talent and pleasure never to let all the preparation and all the work he does for each role show. Nicholson shares that knack for apparently effortless deception with the very best screen actors. As Humphrey Bogart once said of Spencer Tracy, "He is so good because you don't see the mechanism working."

In the kinetic performance in Easy Rider, the shrewd observation of the frantic womanizer in Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge and the unflappable incarnation of J.J. Gittes, the private eye on the make in Chinatown, Nicholson has built up one of the most impressive actor's portfolios in Hollywood. His are the kind of credentials the town likes best. The recent movies Nicholson stars in are generally well received, and he himself invariably is. His presence in a starring role seems to guarantee both prestige and a profit. That makes Nicholson the man most in demand, the dearest form of collateral when it comes to banking a picture.

Mike Nichols, who has just started directing Nicholson again in a comedy called Fortune, says flatly that Nicholson is destined to become "one of the giant film stars of all time." Tony Richardson, who hopes to snag him for a new film, gushes that "we are entering the era of Jack Nicholson." It is not necessary to have a vested interest, however, to see that Nicholson right now is on top. A look at Chinatown's weekly top-ten placing on Variety charts is one kind of proof, Jack's current $750,000 asking price (plus a good hunk of the picture's profits) is another.

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