Jack Nicholson Has One Key Bit Of Advice For Aspiring Actors

We haven't heard from Jack Nicholson in a while, which is a shame because it feels like he might be the last of a kind. The three-time Oscar winner has defied categorization throughout his 60-plus-year career, shifting through various public images much like the varied characters he so deftly portrayed. As author Dennis McDougal described him in his book "Five Easy Decades," Nicholson is "a cipher who appears absolutely frank and open for all the world to see, yet remains soberly resolute, brooding, cagily reflective, and manipulative." In other words, a bit of a contradiction.

However, one thing that's plain is the actor's commitment to his craft. In 1986 when the New York Times' Ron Rosenbaum visited him at his Hollywood home, Nicholson was in the midst of a Strasbergian exercise, singing to "diagnose his instrument." This was something learned from what Rosenbaum termed his years spent, "Devotedly go[ing] from acting teacher to acting teacher seeking truth the way others of his generation would go from guru to guru or shrink to shrink." It's no surprise then, that a year earlier, when asked for his advice to young actors, Nicholson had a lot to say about the study of acting.

'You have to invest'

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1985, Nicholson was quick to extol the virtues of study:

”Studying like that is the main advice I would give. You have to invest. And then ultimately after you get your craft together, it becomes a matter of what do you have to say. And that comes from growing as a person and from observation."

For the "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" star, studying was crucial only insofar as it prepared you for your big break. As he put it, "Everybody gets their shot. So you better set yourself up so that you've only got to be lucky once." In Nicholson's case, he had worked throughout the 50s and '60s in low-budget horror films before getting his big chance in 1969's Easy Rider. At the time, he felt fully prepared to take on the role of George Hanson due to his years spent studying the craft: ”I was more than ready [...] By that time I was considering not acting anymore. So when I took the part, yes indeed I was ready.”

It surely helped that Nicholson had more than a decade of experience in the industry, even if it was with cheaply made horror fare. But there's no doubt he studying helped, too. Kubrick said the actor had an unactable quality, namely intelligence, and in that sense, Nicholson was always going to be interested in the theoretical side of his craft. But it's a testament to his talent that despite his academic interest, he never came across as too cerebral. In fact, he often seemed like a much more spontaneous actor, happy to follow his instincts where they took him. That's why, even 50 years after "Easy Rider," the "cipher" that is Jack Nicholson remains unsolved.