His eyebrows are still raised in perpetual skepticism, and his grin is as devilish as ever, but Jack Nicholson has a new purpose in life. Hollywood’s staunchest libertine, a three-time Academy Award winner, is now using his clout to break taboos about aging. His latest effort along those lines is The Bucket List, a buddy film in which two terminally ill patients—hospital tycoon Nicholson and mechanic Morgan Freeman—escape the hospital for one last big adventure. It’s an audacious concept and a big financial risk: only Nicholson could have convinced a Hollywood studio to bankroll a cancer comedy starring two 70-year-olds.
Since he roared onto the scene in 1969 in Easy Rider, Nicholson has appeared in more than 40 films and left an indelible mark on American culture. He has embodied the life force itself, and the conflict between the urges for freedom and connection.
As for his personal life, he still lives in his longtime pad high above Los Angeles on Mulholland Drive, nicknamed Bad Boy Drive back in the days when he and his nearby pals Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty threw legendary parties. Nicholson used to unapologetically declare his fondness for mind-altering substances and encouraged his reputation as an incurable ladies’ man. Now, Brando is gone, Beatty is a happy househusband, and Nicholson is a single gent who admits that, while he doesn’t lack for female companionship, he spends more time these days in solitude.
He arrives at our interview in a dark red cashmere sweater and sneakers, pulling scribbled notes on topics of discussion from his pocket. This is a guy who worries about humanity during bouts of insomnia at three in the morning. In a nonlinear conversation that ranges from Eleanor Roosevelt’s warnings against the worship of wealth, to Ulysses S. Grant, to the benefits of Viagra, he is philosophical, courtly, and cagey.
Q: The Bucket List is about two guys facing death—not your usual Hollywood subject matter.
A: The adventurous part, for me, was how do you make death funny? Because I don’t think it’s very funny myself! [Chuckles.] I’ve got more than your average amount of fear of the unknown.
Q: You’re 70 now. How do you feel?
A: Well, I’m an accentuate-the-positive person. And, you know, there are a lot of things that improve. Definitely aging has improved my character—there’s no doubt about that—simply because of the things you can’t do. [Laughs.]
Q: Which of those things do you miss?
A: My mother was a stand-up beautician, so we’re used to solving a lot of problems with endurance. I always felt that I could stand up longer than almost any actor that ever lived. Well, comes a point where you can’t.
Q: You do yoga—does that offset some of the effects of aging?
A: Well, I don’t do anything to offset anything. The only thing I can say I ever consciously did—I specifically didn’t say things like “Well, you’ll find out when you’re older.” I used to have a very strong belief that that was part of what I call the self-hypnotic negative mantra.
Q: Would you say you’re a person who looks forward, rather than backward?
A: My ethics basically are to live in the now, and that requires tremendous discipline. It’s as close to a religious sentiment as I have. Part of being in the now is you don’t know when you’re successful with that philosophy, because you are not self-conscious. When I’m teasing around, I say, “Look, I’m no deeper than this: my philosophy is more good times.”
Q: You used to say that years ago—and you’re still living by that?
A: Yes, I am. Sidney Poitier said something about aging to me that gave me the most positive vibe. He says, “Jack, you’re not going to believe it. When I turned 70, I got a burst of energy. I do not know where it came from.” Sure enough, he certainly was right, where I’m concerned. One of the things I noticed about turning 70 was I hadn’t felt young for my age since I was 50. When I was 70, I thought, “Geez, I’m doin’ great!” [Laughs.]
Q: Now you’re young for your age!
A: I felt that way. We got a lot of this into The Bucket List. It’s a pretty personal film, you know. A lot of the dialogue came from anecdotes of friends of mine.