Hunter S. Thompson appeared outside Jack Nicholson’s home on the night of Nicholson’s birthday. He set off a high-powered spotlight and gunfire and played a tape of animal cries through an amplifier to awaken him. Thompson then left a freshly-cut elk’s heart on Nicholson’s door as a joke.
With his acting career heading nowhere, Nicholson seemed resigned to a career behind the camera as a writer/director. His first real taste of writing success was the screenplay for the 1967 film The Trip (directed by Corman), which starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Nicholson also co-wrote, with Bob Rafelson, the movie Head, which starred The Monkees. In addition, he also arranged the movie’s soundtrack. However, after a spot opened up in Fonda and Hopper’s Easy Rider, it led to his first big acting break. Nicholson played hard-drinking lawyer George Hanson, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. The part of Hanson was a lucky break for Nicholson—the role had in fact been written for actor Rip Torn, who was a close friend of screen writer Terry Southern, but Torn withdrew from the project after a bitter argument with the film’s director and co-star Dennis Hopper, during which the two men almost came to blows. In interview, Nicholson later acknowledged the importance of being cast in Easy Rider: “All I could see in the early films, before Easy Rider, was this desperate young actor trying to vault out of the screen and create a movie career.”
A Best Actor nomination came the following year for his persona-defining role in Five Easy Pieces (1970). Also that year, he appeared in the movie adaptation of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, although most of his performance was left on the cutting room floor. He was the first choice to play the role of Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist, but the role was turned over to Jason Miller.
Other Nicholson roles included Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), for which he was awarded Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Roman Polanski noir thriller, Chinatown (1974). Nicholson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for both films. Nicholson was friends with the director long before the death of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson Family, and supported him in the days following the deaths. After Tate’s death, Nicholson began sleeping with a hammer under his pillow, and took breaks from work to attend the Manson trial. It was at Nicholson’s home where the rape case for which Polanski was arrested occurred. Nicholson would go on to star in The Who’s Tommy (1975), directed by Ken Russell, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975).
Nicholson (right) and Dennis Hopper at the 62nd Academy Awards, March 26, 1990
Nicholson earned his first Best Actor Oscar for portraying Randle P. McMurphy in the movie adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Miloš Forman in 1975. His Oscar was matched when Louise Fletcher received the Best Actress Award for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched. After this, he began to take more unusual roles. He took a small role in The Last Tycoon, opposite Robert De Niro. He took a less sympathetic role in Arthur Penn’s western The Missouri Breaks, specifically to work with Marlon Brando. He followed this by making his second directorial effort with the western comedy Goin’ South. His first movie as a director was a 1971 quirky release called Drive, He Said.
Although he garnered no Academy Award for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980), it remains one of his more significant roles. His second Oscar, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, came for his role of retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment (1983), directed by James L. Brooks. Nicholson continued to work prolifically in the 1980s, starring in such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Reds (1981), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Broadcast News (1987), and Ironweed (1987). Three Oscar nominations also followed (Reds, Prizzi’s Honor, and Ironweed).
Nicholson introduced several acts at Live Aid at the JFK Stadium in July 1985. He turned down the role of John Book in Witness. The 1989 Batman movie, wherein Nicholson played the psychotic murderer and villain, The Joker, was an international smash hit, and a lucrative percentage deal earned Nicholson $60 million cumulatively. For his role as hot-headed Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992), a movie about a murder in a U.S. Marine Corps unit, Nicholson received yet another Academy nomination.
Jack Nicholson with Vladimir Putin in 2001
In 1996, Nicholson collaborated once more with Batman director Tim Burton on Mars Attacks!, pulling double duty as two contrasting characters, President James Dale and Las Vegas property developer Art Land. At first studio executives at Warner Bros. disliked the idea of killing off Nicholson’s character, so Burton created two characters and killed them both off. Not all of Nicholson’s performances have been well received. He was nominated for Razzie Awards as worst actor for Man Trouble (1992) and Hoffa (1992). However, Nicholson’s performance in Hoffa also earned him a Golden Globe nomination. 
Nicholson went on to win his next Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Melvin Udall, a mean-spirited, compulsive obsessive neurotic author in As Good as It Gets (1997), again directed by Brooks. His Oscar was matched with the Academy Award for Best Actress for Helen Hunt as a Manhattan waitress drawn into a love/hate friendship with Udall, a frequent diner in the restaurant in which she worked. In 2001, Nicholson was the first actor to receive the Stanislavsky Award at the 23rd Moscow International Film Festival for “conquering the heights of acting and faithfulness