Born John Joseph Nicholson, on April 22.1937, in Neptune, New Jersey. After graduating from high school in New Jersey at age 17, Nicholson moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job as an office boy at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio. He made his film debut in the 1958 thriller The Cry Baby Killer, produced by cult filmmaker Roger Corman.
Over the next decade, Nicholson would appear in a string of low-budget B-movies, ranging from horror films (1960's The Little Shop of Horrors, 1963's The Raven, and 1963's The Terror, all dircted by Corman) to Westerns (1966's The Shooting). He also began a short-lived screenwriting career, penning the scripts for the political thriller Thunder Island (1963) as well as two of his starring features, including Ride the Whirlwind (1966) and Flight to Fury. In 1968, he co-wrote and co-produced (with Bob Rafelson) Head ,a comedic fantasy romp starring the boyish pop band The Monkees.
Nicholson also write the screenplay for Corman's 1967 film The Trip, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Two years later, he replaced Rip Torn in the cult hit Easy Rider (1969), written by co-stars Fonda and Hopper, who also directed the film. His portryal of a burnt-out lawyer marked Nicholson's breakthrough performance and earned him an Academy Award nominated for Best Supporting Actor. In 1970s, Nicholson cemented his status as an acclaimed up-and-comer with his Oscar-nominated starring turn in Five Easy Pieces, written and directed by Rafelson.
During the 1970s, Nicholson attained A-list status in Hollywood, making a number of very different films and continuing to elude definition with an array of complex performances. In 1971, he appeared opposite Candice Bergen in the Mike Nichols-directed drama Carnal Knowledge; he also starred in Rafelson's crime drama The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and earned his second Best Actor Oscar nod for The Last Detail (1973). His star rose even higher in 1974 with his starring role as Los Angeles private detective Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski's acclaimed film noir Chinatown, written by Robert Towne and co-starring Faye Dunaway and John Huston. The film netted Nicholson his third nomination for Best Actor and elevated him from an acclaimed cult favorite to one of America's most well-known actors.
By that time, Nicholson had begun a romantic relationship with Huston's daughter, Anjelica, an actress and the third generation of a famous Hollywood family. They soon become one of the most prominent couples in Hollywood, endlessly scrutinized by the media and seen as the perfect blend of class, talent, and cool.
Nicholson finally took home Oscar gold in 1975 for his portrayal of mental patient Randle McMurphy in Milos Forman's acclaimed drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The film marked the high point of Nicholson's career during the 1970s. He went on to make several poorly received films in the latter half of the decade, including the 1976 western, The Missouri Breaks, co-starring Marlon Brando, and a film adaptation of F.Scott Fitzgerald's final novel, The Last Tycoon (1976), starring Robert De Niro.
Nicholson kicked off the 1980s with a manic, sometimes terrifying performance as a novelist driven insane in Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Stephen King's novel, The Shining. Aside from such critcal disappointments as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987), co-starring Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer, Nicholson won enormous acclaim throughout the next 10 years. He earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Reds (1981), starring Warren Beatty (who also wrote and directed the film) and Diane Keaton. In 1983, Nicholson took home his second Academy Award, this time for Best Supporting Actor, for his portrayal of the womanizing ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. He garned two more Oscar nods for Best Actor for Prizzi's Honor (1985) and Ironweed, co-starring Meryl Streep. Other films included Heartburn, also with Streep, and Broadcast News, starring Albert Brooks, William Hurt, and Holly Hunter.
In 1989, a gleefully wicked Nicholson appeared as The Joker in Tim Burton's bockbuster hit Batman, co-starring Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger. Nicholson's merchandising deal for the movie reportedly helped net him close $50 million. The next year, Nicholson had considerably less success with The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown that he produced, directed, and starring in alongside Harvey Keitel and Meg Tilly.
After working for a total of only two weeks on the set of A Few Good Men (1992), Nicholson scored an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as the menacing Marine Colonel Nathan Jessup. His buzz far eclipsed that of the film's heavy-hitting stars, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. That same year, Nicholson starred as teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa, directed by Danny DeVito. He later reteamed with Michelle Pfeiffer in the triller Wold (1994) and starred with Anjelica Huston in Sean Penn's little-seen directorial debut, The Crossing Guard (1995).
After reprising his role as Breedlove in The Evening Star (1996), the lamentable sequel to Terms of Endearment, Nicholson went on to make two equally disappointing films, include Mars Attacks! (1996) and Blood and Wine (1997), written and directed by Bafelson and co-starring Jennifer Lopez and Michael Caine.
The 1997 comedy-drama As Good As It Gets marked a major resurgence for Nicholson, whose performances many critics thought had begun to seem like a caricature of his earlier roles. The film, written and directed by James L.Brooks (Terms of Endearment), starred Nicholson as the obsessive-compulsive novelist Melvin Udall, an immensely unlikable man who is forced to come to terms with his own faults while falling in love with a long-suffering waitress and single mother, played by Helen Hunt. Both Nicholson and Hunt won Academy Awards for their performances, bringing the total number of Nicholson's Oscars to three-with 11 nominations.
In 2000, Nicholson starred in The Pledge, his second collaboration with actor-director Penn. Two years later, Nicholson became an Oscar contender one again for his tour-de-force role in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt. He earned a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a man forced to deal with an ambigous future as he faces retirement. In 2003, he starred opposite Adam Sandler in the hit comedy Anger Management.
Aside from his impressive acting career, Nicholson has also made headlines for the goings-on in his personal life. In 1974, after researching a cover story on the actor for Time, a reporter informed Nicholson that the the woman he had thought was his mother (the late Ethel May Nicholson) was actually his grandmother. His mother, June Nicholson, was the person he had known as his older sister; she had died of cervical cancer in early 1960s, at the age of 43.
Nicholson has also repeatedly made news on account of lawsuits filed against him. In 1996, he was sued for breach of contract by former lover Susan Anspach (his costar in Five Easy Pieces), with whom he allegedly had son, Caleb. Automobile accidents in 1994 and 1999 both resulted in legal action against Nicholson; after the 1994 incident, he was charged with misdemeanor and assault after using a golf club to smash the windshield of car whose driver he believed had cut him off.
Along with fellow Hollywood powerhouse (and now happily married father) Warren Beatty, Nicholson has long been known for his wild antics and active romantic life. His tumultous 17-year relationship with Huston ended in 1989, when she learned he had fathered a child with Rebecca Broussard, a former waitress who appeared in The Two Jakes. Nicholson and Broussard's on-again-off-again romance lasted until the late 1990s and produced two children, Lorraine and Raymond. Nicholson has another daughter, Jennifer, from his four-year-long marriage to the actress Sandra Knight during the 1960s. In 1999, Nicholson began dating Lara Flynn Boyle, an actress best known to audiences from her role on the popular television show The Practice.
Nicholson lives on a estate in Los Angeles.