Before we explore why Jack Nicholson’s days as an active performer may be done, we need to look at how he got started as an actor in the 1950s. After appearing in Western TV shows, soap operas, and on stage, he made his film debut in 1958, playing the lead role in the low-budget teen movie “The Cry Baby Killer,” produced by B-movie impresario Roger Corman. Their relationship proved to be indispensable to Nicholson’s career.
In 1967, Corman tapped Nicholson to write the screenplay for his psychedelic film “The Trip,” starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. “His career wasn’t really doing that much at that time,” Corman said of Nicholson to Flavorwire. “I knew he had experience with LSD, so I hired him as a writer.”
Corman’s scrappy circle of actors and artists were key players in the burgeoning countercultural film movement, and Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson reunited for the hippie biker classic “Easy Rider” in 1969. (Corman was initially attached to produce, but he exited when Hopper couldn’t curb his foul mouth or wild temperament at business meetings.)
“Easy Rider” follows two hippie drifters, Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda), as they make their way via motorcycle from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Along the way, they encounter a free love commune, drugs, and suspicious townsfolk. They also meet Nicholson’s George Hanson, an alcoholic ACLU lawyer and self-described square. It’s George who articulates the film’s us-versus-them mentality. “They’re not scared of you,” he tells the roving bikers. “They’re scared of what you represent to ’em…What you represent to them is freedom.”
Soundtracked by artists like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and shot for roughly $350,000, “Easy Rider” emerged as an era-defining film, pushing Nicholson toward stardom and helping to usher in the peak years of New Hollywood. It also netted him his first Oscar nomination.