Jack Nicholson Wanted Mars Attacks! To Be A One-Man Show

In a 1996 interview with ArtsBeatLa, Tim Burton said that, after directing "Ed Wood" in 1994, he wanted to make a B-movie of his own. "Ed Wood," a biopic about the legendary Z-grade filmmaker, covered the title character's life from just before his breakout feature "Glen or Glenda?" in 1953 through the premiere of "Plan 9 from Outer Space" in 1959 (although the film skips over a few events, like Wood's TV pilots and the making of his 1954 film "Jail Bait"). In recreating some of the most notorious "bad movies" of all time, Burton became intensely interested in both their mechanics and their iconography. And he was soon researching what sort of schlock he could get away with making on his own. 

Burton was initially interested in making a cheekier, schlockier version of "Jurassic Park" called "Dinosaurs Attack!," based on a series of Topps trading cards picturing gory scenes of human bodies being torn apart by terrible thunder lizards. In researching "Dinosaurs Attack!," however, Burton would discover an earlier series of Topps trading cards called "Mars Attacks!," an alien invasion-based trading card series so violent and sexy that it was pulled from shelves after its initial release in 1963. Burton would end up making those into a film instead. 

Playwright Jonathan Gems wrote the screenplay for the "Mars Attacks!," and filled it with dozens of over-the-top characters who mostly serve as cannon fodder for a race of big-brained violent adolescents from the Red Planet. This gave Burton a chance to pepper his fun/dumb B-movie with whatever celebrities he could convince to participate, and he began asking just about every famous person he had access to if they wanted to be in the film. 

Burton mailed a copy of the script to Jack Nicholson (they worked together on "Batman" in 1989, as you might recall), and Nicholson was ecstatic.

Art and the President

While Burton had previously worked with cult figures like Pee-Wee Herman, his two "Batman" films were his only experience with an A-list cast. He admitted the idea was appealing: 

"I really wanted to try something different. The only time I had ventured into bringing together several high-profile stars was for the Batman movies and here I wanted to repeat this experience on an even bigger scale. There are more than twenty lead roles in 'Mars Attacks!' so it was quite a challenge for me to put together this cast."

First, Burton cast his then-girlfriend, model Lisa Marie, as a Martian assassin. (Marie, who also portrayed Vampira in "Ed Wood," worked with a movement coach to perform her character's ethereal, undulating walk.) Then Burton heard back from Nicholson, who definitely wanted to participate. Indeed, Nicholson was so pleased with the script, he couldn't pick just one part he wanted to play. As Burton recalled: 

"I remember that at first Jack wanted to create a multi-role tour de force performance. When I asked him which part he wanted to play, he replied, 'How 'bout ALL of them?' This is how we developed the two characters for Jack: the one of the President and the one of this decadent Las Vegas mogul trying to set up a new hotel franchise with a Martian theme. There is no better actor to go up against the Martians than Jack. I was very lucky. I enjoy seeing someone who is really strong at what they do and who just goes for it. Jack is willing to do anything, no matter how crazy it seems. He's the greatest and to see him in two parts is amazing."

Eschewing the "inspiring" presidential character played by Bill Pullman in "Independence Day" — released only five months before "Mars Attacks!" — Nicholson played a more sardonic leader who would eventually come to his wits' end trying to stop the unstoppable Martian menace. (Yeah, he dies.) For balance, Nicholson also played Art Land, a greasy, money-grubbing real estate hustler who is trying to open a space-themed hotel in Las Vegas. This was likely a spoof of The Stratosphere Hotel (now called — eye roll – The Strat), a real Las Vegas hotel that opened in April of 1996. 

I think he was serious

Nicholson's wisecrack about wanting to play every role was likely something he was prepared to do; Gems' screenplay was so wonderfully silly that Jack really wanted to occupy every role. And while his idea to play every character wasn't seriously entertained, it did lead to at least a dual role. 

"Mars Attacks!," while meant to be a trifling B-movie, ended up being an expensive production. The main contributor to the price tag was the film's enormous — and enormously famous — cast, which also included Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, Pam Grier, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Natalie Portman, Lukas Haas, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Jones, Christina Applegate, and Joe Don Baker. Additionally, the film features extensive special effects, including fleets of CGI flying saucers and armies of ray-gun-toting aliens. Burton's original plan was to realize the Martians in stop-motion animation, and impressive screen tests were compiled. But the process proved to be too costly and labor-intensive. With that in mind, the effects that would have been needed to put several Jack Nicholsons together in the same room would have been out of the question.

The budget of "Mars Attacks!" topped off at $70 million (about $125 million in 2022), and the film was not a runaway success in the United States (although it did make its money back internationally). Whether or not Nicholson's plan to play every character would have helped it break records can only remain a matter of speculation. As it stands, we got two funny performances from Nicholson in one film, and that's a treat unto itself.