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.
Q: Morgan Freeman said that you were constantly tweaking the script.
A: Yes. There’s a line in the movie where the hospital tycoon says, “I’ve never been sick before!” Which I found amusing and was in fact true of me. Just before this movie, I had an infection in my saliva gland and I was in the hospital in bed. I’d never been in bed for six to eight weeks. Talk about the loss of recuperative powers as we get older. I was worried: “Am I ready to get on my feet and do a movie?”
Q: So you were able to bring that experience right into the character.
A: I thought I was going to be the ideal patient. Not! I didn’t like the tubes, and I didn’t like this and that. One line in the movie that’s personal for me is “More people die from visitors than diseases.” There is some truth in that.
Q: Because as a patient you feel responsible for the feelings of everyone who comes to see you?
A: It is exhausting! Not only don’t you have the energy, but you don’t care.
Q: Speaking of responsibility, because you are an icon, people wonder, “How is Jack going to get old? Is he going to show courage and humor about it?”
A: I surprise myself positively a lot of times, but I don’t count on my own courage in advance. I’m not a role model as a person. I can sort of do it for my children [teenagers Lorraine and Ray are the youngest of his five kids], but I’m not particularly great at that part, either.
Q: In what ways has getting older altered your behavior out in the world?
A: I can’t hit on a girl in public like I used to. I never thought words like undignified would come into my own reflections on myself, but—I can’t do it anymore.
Q: Because of public perception?
A: I feel uncomfortable. I don’t think anybody cares what I do in these areas, but it feels a little bit off to me.
Q: Would you date a woman of AARP age?
A: Well, yes—I’d do everything to a woman of AARP age, and have. In fact, every year I like to cover a very broad spectrum. But you know? I’ve been single for quite a long time. I’ve been invested in my teenage children.
Q: What kind of father are you?
A: Well, it’s a divided parenthood, with their wonderful mother and myself. We’ve always gotten along. I want to be inspirational, or some kind of good influence on them without overburdening them. It’s their time of life to find out who they are. I always read to them, from childhood on; I think that’s a father’s responsibility. I took them to things I knew they might not love—opera, ballet. They like going to the ball games with me. And they are very comfortable around show business; they are good set rats. They walked in on my death scene in The Departed. I said, “If I can get these two kids really worried, I’m doin’ my job!”
Q: Didn’t you just take one of your kids to look at colleges back east?
A: I took the college tour with the fabulous Lorraine. With families, you don’t always get to be one-on-one. [And sometimes] there’s this wall of “What happened today, darling? Anything interesting?” I’ve asked more unanswered questions to these two particular children. Then you think, “Hey, I did not want to hang out with my parents when I was a teenager.” You have to get over that as a parent. What I don’t want to pass along is my irrational fears. They can be perfect kids, they can try to do everything right—and you’re in the lap of the gods. This is the eternal vulnerability that you have with your children.
Q: What sort of a boy is your son Ray?
A: Ray is fab. He gave up a summer trip to the south of France, to get himself in condition because he very much wanted to make the varsity football team. Which he did; he’s the youngest guy on the varsity. But in the last practice he broke his collarbone. And even with this, he got up every day at six, went to practice. Ray might not tell you exactly what he’s up to, but once he’s got his mind set on something, he’s gonna stick to it and take care of business, no matter what me or anybody else says.
Q: You have said that you are proud of having resisted the Vietnam War. Are you also against the war in Iraq?
A: I was against [invading Iraq] because it’s preemptive, and we’ve never done it that way. You can’t imagine that every person in those countries doesn’t look at Americans as invaders and occupiers.
Q: You’re still burrowed in up at your old place on Mulholland Drive.
A: I live in the first house that I ever bought. I probably should have changed my living situation a million times, but I’m comfortable where I am. By the time it’s eleven and finally [the housekeeper] is gone, dinner is over, and so forth, now I can walk around, scratch my ass. Go down and look at the moon.
Q: Are there any specific roles or real-life figures you’d still like to play?
A: It doesn’t work that way—that’s what I like about my job. I’m looking for a good piece of material and good people.
Q: If not specific roles, what ideas or themes interest you?
A: I’m only going to do comedy. That’s pretty much what I’ve done since 9/11—bring on the clowns. Comedians are the most honest people in films because here’s the deal: either it’s funny or it ain’t.
Q: That’s really living in the moment—if you don’t get that laugh, you’re dead.
A: It’s a more demanding form. I don’t want to do anything stolid; if I was doing capital punishment, I’d have to get laughs in there.
Q: Any other taboos you’d like to break?
A: I’m trying to not eliminate sexuality from over-50 literature. People don’t want to know that Dad or Grandma is over there kootching it up a little bit. These things should be put in balance.
Q: AARP has done a lot of research on 50-plus sexual attitudes and behavior, and older people are plenty active and interested. And there’s Viagra.
A: Viagra. My initial feeling about it was that this could save marriage. Obviously “Till death do us part” is in there because someone knew you don’t go through any relationship exactly the same way every day, day after day.
Q: Do you prefer being single?
A: I like that I can come and go as I like. When I want to leave a party, I leave. But there are nights when anybody who lives alone says “Oh, I don’t want to be lonely” or has all the fears that people have. That’s another way of saying I’m wide open.
Q: Would you like to fall in love again?
A: Who would not want to? I don’t know how it is with women, but I know this about men: men behave worse when there are not women in their lives. In fact, one of the things I get from my contemporaries, in an intimate talk, is that almost all of them say, “I just want that one last big romance.” I don’t do a lot of original screenwriting anymore, but if I were, I’d find a way to make this the dramatic narrative of a movie, because it’s one of those silent yearnings of my own age group.
[So,] yes, I’d love it. I never minded being a fool for love. It’s nice to have a place where it’s good to be foolish. [Laughs.] Ask any old friend of mine, they’ll say, “Jack, he’s pretty smart, but in this area the man is beyond the pale. Don’t ask him anything about love. Or if you ask him, don’t listen to him.”
West Coast editor Nancy Griffin profiled Bucket List costar Morgan Freeman for the November & December 2007 issue.