Show Business: Success Is Habit-Forming

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Until Easy Rider, Nicholson seemed destined to drift endlessly in and out of second-rate horror, motorcycle and drug movies with his friends Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Easy Rider could have been, of course, just another in the cycle cycle. Fortunately for Nicholson, Rip Torn, originally cast as the Southern lawyer, bowed out and Nicholson's friends from Head, Producer Bert Schneider and Director Bob Rafelson, suggested Jack for the role. "I went immediately to work on the dialect. Drew a lot on L.B.J." For the campfire scene, his favorite, he says: "I smoked about 155 joints. Keeping it all in mind stoned, and playing the scene straight and then becoming stoned—it was fantastic."

Following Rider, Nicholson carefully avoided typecasting—so carefully that he played a barely noticeable role as a rich hippie with Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, a part he took "for the bread." He admits: "All I am in the movie is bad." He has since directed his first film, Drive, He Said. He regained his footing as an actor in Five Easy Pieces, in which he played a gifted pianist-turned-supergypsy oil rigger. About his role, Nicholson expounds: "I have a very strong political propagandist feeling about my work. If you can change the way people feel and think, then you're a long way toward solving their problems. Pieces undermines traditional middle-class behavior."

Throwing Steaks. Once (in 1961) he was married, and has a seven-year-old daughter. Now he has a capsule description of his life: "I read, swim, go out, have love affairs." The old Nicholson "used to rant a lot of politics" and had a temper that went off like a Roman candle. A waitress in Hollywood once brought him a well-done steak and proceeded to claim that it was rare. Nicholson protested, spluttered, and then —splat!—the steak hit the restaurant ceiling. "I don't throw steaks around the dining room any more," says Nicholson. His outbursts nowadays have a purpose. Recently, while filming in Vancouver, Nicholson was out walking and stopped at a country club for a glass of water. The bartender refused because Nicholson was not a member. "Are you trying to tell me," Nicholson shouted, "that as a human being you're refusing to give me a glass of water?" Later he said of the tirade: "I did it so that if he ever thinks about it again, he will feel a little pain —maybe it will change him."

Nicholson's self-indulgences these days are pretty much under control. While on the set in Canada, he says, "we all took a vow to stay off pot. I'm the only one who's stuck to it. I'd been smoking it every day for 15 years and I'd been wondering if it was habit-forming. Well, it's not." Nowadays, the only habit he has to worry about is success.

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