The Star with the Killer Smile

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In high school, Mud's boy was younger and brighter than just about anyone else. "His smile was terrific," recalls Anderson. "He made plenty of friends who spanned several classes. Jack wasn't one of the heroes, but he made them his friends." He managed the varsity basketball team his freshman year. On one occasion he thought that the opposing team was playing dirty. After the game, Nicholson went back into the gym and trashed the electrical equipment on the rival's Scoreboard. He confessed his crime, got suspended from school, and took a part-time job to pay for the damage. That was Nicholson's first moment of notoriety.

He scored high on his college entrance exams ("Top 2%, nationally," he still remembers). He thought briefly of going to the University of Delaware, but despite his academic potential, he says, "I just hated school." His sister June had wound up in Los Angeles, and Jack decided to spend a little time out there with her. After just a few weeks, he decided to stay.

He landed a $30-a-week job as a mail clerk at MGM, and kept his ambition in fighting trim by calling all the executives by their first names. "Hiya, Joe," he grinned at Producer Joe Pasternak, who stopped for a moment, then threw out the classic line: "Hey, kid —how'd ya like to be in pictures?" Pasternak gave Nicholson a script, and told him where to show up for the screen test. Nicholson looked the script over but did not realize that he was supposed to memorize his lines. The test was a disaster, and Nicholson was back on the mail run. "Hiya, Joe," he greeted Pasternak in the hall a few days after. The producer stopped for a moment, mulling something over. Then he spoke: "Hey—how'd ya like to be in pictures?"

This little object lesson in stomped hopes and lapsed memories must have appealed to Nicholson's sense of irony, and worked as well on his aggressive sense of pride. He enrolled in a beginner's acting course run by Actor Jeff Corey. Other pupils included James Coburn, Sally Kellerman, Producer Roger Corman, Writers Carol Eastman and Robert Towne. Nicholson and Towne (who was later to write the screenplays of The Last Detail and Chinatown) hit it off immediately and shared a small apartment on the hungry fringes of Hollywood. Both of them had crushes on every actress in the class, Towne remembers. "But we never had a chance —they weren't interested in nobodies."

At least one was—Sally Kellerman, 30 pounds overweight then and always unhappy in love. "I would sit on Jack's lap and pour out my heart to him," she says. For sustenance they would go to the supermarket for some "sweeties and souries"—ice cream and potato chips—and gorge between traumas. "Jack was the funniest man in the world," Kellerman recalls, "and always available when I needed him—a true friend."

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