US film actor and occasional screenwriter and director, noted for his versatility and flamboyance.
Born in Neptune, New Jersey, Nicholson was deserted by his alcoholic stepfather and brought up in a household of women. After a brief spell with MGM's cartoon department, he joined an actors' group and learnt his trade by appearing in numerous minor stage productions and television soap operas. Nicholson's chance came in 1958 with the lead in the film Cry Baby Killer; however, for the next decade Nicholson had to be content to work in low-budget films.
His breakthrough came with Peter Fonda's hippy movie Easy Rider (1969), in which his portrayal of an alcoholic civil-rights lawyer brought Nicholson his first Oscar nomination. He won further nominations for his starring role in Five Easy Pieces (1970), for The Last Detail (1973), which he also directed, and for Chinatown (1974). His first Oscar, for best actor, was awarded for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and his second, for best supporting actor, for Terms of Endearment (1983). He gained further nominations for his roles in Reds (1981), Prizzi's Honor (1985), and Ironweed (1987).
Nicholson's manic temperament and colourful private life have probably helped to inform his bravura performance of ‘outsider’ parts, such as the Joker in Batman (1989), which is estimated to have earned him $60 million. A Few Good Men (1992) brought a seventh nomination, for best supporting actor. Nicholson won his third Oscar (for best actor) for As Good as it Gets (1997), whose female lead, Helen Hunt, won the best actress Oscar. In 1994 he became the twenty-second and youngest recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award.
Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).