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He is not above asserting himself to a director, however. There is a crucial sequence in Five Easy Pieces in which Bobby Dupea must break down in front of his paralyzed father. Nicholson did not want to do it, and Director Rafelson wrangled all night with him. "Jack said Dupea was crying out of self-pity something Jack strongly opposed in himself and in others," Rafelson remembers. "I argued that Dupea was crying out of an agony of displeasure over the life he was leading, and that this displeasure had to be revealed. Finally, I said, 'Jack, this is all bullshit. You don't want to do it because you can't.' " The next morning, Rafelson cleared the set and Nicholson did the scene in one take.
The scene does not fully work because Nicholson still has himself in check. There seems to be a point both for actor and character beyond which a sudden self-awareness cannot trespass, a hard and untouchable reserve. Nicholson, however, is proud of the scene, and comments, "I've been asked dozens of times whether I was really thinking of my own father and his tragedy during that scene. The answer is, of course I was." Perhaps what Nicholson reveals as the root of the scene is also, in an in advertent Irony, what was wrong with it.
Jack's father, John, whose forebears came from County Cork, was a part-time window dresser, a sometime sign painter. He was also an alcoholic who had moved out of the house in Neptune, N.J., shortly after his only son was born in 1937.
He drifted in and out after that, dwelling somewhere just on the edge of Nicholson's consciousness, like a phantom who could tell a secret, if you could only catch him.
Jack's mother, Ethel May, raised in New Jersey, opened up a beauty shop in the bedroom of their Neptune home to support Jack and his two much-older sisters. The business thrived, and the family moved to a bigger place. His sister June left home when Nicholson was four to be an Earl Carroll showgirl in Miami. Jack, bright and funny in school, skipped a grade. He made his unofficial show-biz debut at ten on the stage of Roosevelt Grammar School singing Managua Nicaragua.
"It was really a very comfortable middle-class existence," Nicholson says, adding that though he was stubborn and scrappy, his mother gave him room to romp. "You're on your own," she told him. "All I expect is that if you get into trouble, you'll tell me about it." Nicholson early inaugurated his lifetime habit of giving people nicknames. His sister Lorraine was "Rain," her husband George "Shorty." Nicholson referred to his father, however, as "Jack." He called his mother "Mud." He was reticent about his home life. Recalls George Anderson, a high school pal, now a salesman: "I knew his father was an alcoholic, but the only time Jack mentioned it was one day when he said, 'I saw my father yesterday. The poor old guy, I feel sorry for him because he can't help it.' "