When Jack Nicholson began making movies in the 1950s, he surely couldn’t have imagined the glittering career that lay before him. This is a star, after all, who’s garnered a staggering 12 Oscar nominations across five decades – including three wins in the high-profile acting categories. Nicholson’s films have also earned more than $2 billion at the global box office. Yet in 2010 the superstar suddenly stopped making pictures altogether. So what happened to force Nicholson into early retirement? And will we ever see him on screen again?
There is certainly still an audience hungry to see Nicholson at work. In 2002, for example, About Schmidt hit theaters and scored over $100 million in worldwide box-office receipts. Plus, the star’s gentle and understated portrayal of a Nebraska widower reflecting on mortality was rewarded with another Academy Award nod. So although Nicholson didn’t act in many films in the 2000s, his output was still of the highest quality.
In 2006’s The Departed, too, critics loved his turn as villainous Bostoner Frank Costello – and the movie ran away with four Oscars and a host of other awards. The star also received nominations for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. If Nicholson was still at the top of his game, then, what was it that scared him away from Hollywood?
He must have had a good reason – because Nicholson has led a very interesting life, right from the very beginning. The star was born in April 1937 in New Jersey. But his showgirl mom, June, was involved in a bigamous marriage with a man who, it turned out, very likely was not Nicholson’s father. And because his mother was only a teen at the time, the young Nicholson was raised by his grandma and led to believe that his mom was his older sister. Nicholson only found out the truth after they had both passed on.
Known as “Nick” in high school, the future superstar gained a reputation as the class clown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, too, his unruly behavior often landed him in trouble and made him a regular in detention. Then, in the late 1950s, Nicholson tried to avoid the draft by joining the Californian Air National Guard – but he did serve on active duty for a while.
But by that time, Nicholson had already started work in Hollywood. His first gig, in 1954, was in the offices of animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But his heart was set on being an actor. So after some training, Nicholson started to pick up bit parts, notably for trailblazing producer Roger Corman. And in 1958 The Cry Baby Killer put Nicholson on the big screen for the first time.
In 1962, while still working as a jobbing actor, Nicholson married for the first and only time. And during the six-year union of the star and Sandra Knight, the couple had a daughter called Jennifer. The actor is also believed to have had a child with Susan Anspach, his co-star in Five Easy Pieces. Then, in 1981, Nicholson had a daughter with actress Dane Winnie Hollman. The following decade brought two more kids with actress Rebecca Broussard as well. So could family commitments be behind the star’s reasons for retreating from the limelight?
Well, let’s return to Nicholson’s career to find out. In the 1960s, you see, the actor’s roles were drying up. And as a result, he focused on writing and directing. Nicholson had some success too: his script for The Trip became a 1967 film featuring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The star also helped write the Monkees’ film excursion, Head – apparently while tripping on acid. Whatever the truth of that, though, the film was a bomb and ended the Monkees’ time on the big screen.
Yet Nicholson walked away unscathed from Head and would soon catch his big break. His Oscar-nominated performance in 1969’s Easy Rider helped boost a sub-million-dollar film to a box-office smash – and lifted Nicholson to the level of a hero of the counterculture. And given that the film made his career, Nicholson was no doubt glad that first-choice actor Rip Torn fell out with Hopper and subsequently left the part open.
Another Academy Award nomination followed for Nicholson’s depiction of an oil worker in Five Easy Pieces. The 1970 film reinforced the actor’s “anti-hero” status, though, and he consequently urged his agent to go out and find him roles that would stretch his talent. According to author Dennis McDougal, the actor said, “I like to play people that haven’t existed yet – a ‘cusp character.’”
And the agent certainly found Nicholson some interesting roles. In 1971 the star took the lead in dramedy Carnal Knowledge. Director Mike Nichols believed that Nicholson was one of the few people who could take on the part, and his faith was rewarded as the actor earned a Golden Globe nomination. And a couple of years later, Nicholson’s turn in The Last Detail also scored critical acclaim – and nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
Nicholson’s performance as hardboiled private eye Jake Gittes in 1974’s Chinatown saw the star earn himself yet another Oscar nod. Yes, Nicholson was one to watch. In his book 27 movies from the Dark Side: Ebert’s Essentials, author Roger Ebert argued that the actor is “a man attractive to audiences because he suggests both comfort and danger… From Gittes forward, Nicholson created the persona of a man who had seen it all and was still capable of being wickedly amused.”
In 1975 Nicholson finally brought home an Academy Award for Best Actor – for playing a patient in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And the character’s blend of caring for others and not giving a hoot for authority appealed strongly to audiences across the globe, eventually bringing in $163 million at the box office. A lot of the character came from Nicholson’s invention, too, as director Miloš Forman often prompted him to improvise.
In Marie Brenner’s review in the Texas Monthly in 1976, she acclaimed the actor’s turn as “far above the general run of Hollywood performances.” She said, “Nicholson is everywhere; his energy propels the ward of loonies and makes of them an ensemble, a chorus of people caught in a bummer with nowhere else to go – but still fighting for some frail sense of themselves.”
Nicholson’s list of interesting parts continued to grow as he took the lead in The Passenger in 1975. Then, the following year, he made a dream come true when he appeared with personal hero Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks. Apparently, Nicholson had watched Brando in On the Waterfront more than three dozen times.
And the 1980s opened with another iconic role for Nicholson: playing the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The director even trusted the actor’s talent enough to allow him to improvise, and it led to the invention of the memorable line: “Here’s Johnny!” Still, Kubrick’s infamous attention to detail led to repeating takes over and over – in one case as many as three dozen times.
A low-key Nicholson role came in The Border, where he followed director Tony Richardson’s advice that “less is more.” And another understated performance followed as the star won a second Oscar – this time for Best Supporting Actor in 1984’s Terms of Endearment. Biographer Patrick McGilligan hailed this as one of the actor’s most complicated characters, too.
The rest of the decade proved a golden period for Nicholson, as he starred in hit after hit. Oscar nods also came for Ironweed, Reds and Prizzi’s Honor. And he rounded out the decade with a performance that he was personally extremely proud of: Joker, in 1989’s Batman. The movie was a huge hit, too – not least for Nicholson. He’d secured points in the film’s box office, you see, potentially netting him as much as $90 million.
In 1992 Nicholson was nominated for an Academy Award yet again for his role in A Few Good Men. And reviewers didn’t hold back in their praise for the star’s turn as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in the movie. One critic even called Nicholson’s turn “spellbinding” and suggested that his character “blazed and roared.”
Nicholson’s role in 1992’s Hoffa divided opinion, though. In fact, he managed to win a nomination for the worst actor Razzie and for a Best Actor Golden Globe. His spot in Man Trouble in the same year also gained him some brickbats. Still, Nicholson popped up again as two characters in Tim Burton’s 1996 romp Mars Attacks!
And the following year Nicholson returned to the Oscars to pick up an award for Best Actor for his part in As Good As It Gets. The critics weren’t alone in loving the movie, either, as it proved a massive box-office success – confirming that Nicholson was still at the top of the acting game. But, unbeknown to the public, this role would mark the beginning of the end of the star’s output.
Around the end of the 1990s, though, Lara Flynn Boyle became the latest in a string of ladies who had fallen for “the man no woman could resist.” But Nicholson and Boyle split in 2004, and the once-legendary womanizer – it’s claimed that he’s bedded 2,000 women – became solitary. And apparently, by the late 2010s, Nicholson was a lonely figure.
The 1990s also highlighted a controversial occurrence in the actor’s career. In 1994, you see, a motorist accused Nicholson of vandalizing his car with a golf club. The event was alleged to have taken place after the star had felt he’d been cut off while in traffic. Nicholson later referred to the moment as “a shameful incident in [his] life.”
The actor subsequently faced charges of vandalism and assault, though the case went away after Nicholson agreed to a settlement. In 2007 the star blamed his busy schedule and hectic personal life for the incident. He explained to Golf Digest, “I was on my way to the course, and in the midst of this madness I somehow knew what I was doing because I reached into my trunk and specifically selected a club I never used on the course: my 2-iron.”
Nevertheless, the 2000s saw little diminution of Nicholson’s star power – although he did start to slow down in terms of the number of his appearances. For instance, after About Schmidt came a couple of comedy roles. And then in 2006 he popped up in a monster success again, as Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The actor followed that up with another comedy called The Bucket List.
In 2010, though, Nicholson made what is – at the time of writing – his last film appearance. And it all looked promising for How Do You Know. The cast was stellar, and director James L. Brooks had enjoyed countless successes – including helming Nicholson to Oscars with Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets. But what looked good on paper didn’t look so great on screen.
In fact, critics hated How Do You Know. The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin described it as “hopelessly muddled,” while Roger Ebert moaned, “I expected this movie to be better.” Ebert also suggested that the script had let Nicholson down, saying that his character had been written as a “creep.” Fans seemingly agreed, and moviegoers stayed away from the box office.
The film brought in less than $50 million – despite the eye-watering production costs of $120 million. So it may be that Nicholson decided after this kind of failure he was no longer the draw at the box office that he had been. And, if that is true, he wouldn’t be the first actor to come to the same conclusion.
After all, Gene Hackman has not been seen on screen again after 2004’s Welcome to Mooseport – which ended up being a commercial and critical flop. And Sean Connery decided that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was an apt swansong in 2003. Because although critics didn’t love that flick, it did make a lot of money – about $175 million, in fact.
Yet as the 2010s wore on, and Nicholson continued to stay away from the silver screen, nobody was certain that he’d actually given movies up. After all, hiatuses are nothing new for the 83-year-old star. He had a four-year break before The Pledge and three before The Departed, for instance. And he certainly seemed no worse for the rest.
But in the fall of 2013 Radar Online reported that a Hollywood source said the superstar had indeed retired. The reason given was a bombshell, too. According to the article, the insider said, “There is a simple reason behind his decision: it’s memory loss. Quite frankly… [Nicholson] has memory issues and can no longer remember the lines being asked of him. His memory isn’t what it used to be.”
Around that time, it was also reported that Nicholson had passed on a role that he’d been tipped to take on. He’d been wanted for 2013’s Nebraska – whose central role seemed ideally suited to the acting legend. Nicholson didn’t show any interest, though, and the role went to Bruce Dern – who gained an Oscar nomination for his performance.
Yet Nicholson is still a presence around town. According to Radar Online, the source said, “[He] has no intention of retiring from the limelight. He’s not retiring from public life, at all.” And the insider suggested that he had a reason for not announcing a retirement, saying, “He just doesn’t want a tribute. He’s happy to tacitly join the retirees club, like Sean Connery.”
But people close to Nicholson soon struck back. They claimed that talk of retirement, let alone dementia, was completely untrue. In fact, NBC’s Maria Shriver told website E! News in September 2013 that the star had no plans to retire. And another person near to the star claimed that Nicholson was still reading scripts, intending to continue his career.
And the man himself gave an interview to U.K. newspaper The Sun in which he dismissed concerns about his mental acuity. Amid quotes from existentialist philosopher Albert Camus and facts about the drug war, Nicholson noted, “I have a mathematician’s brain. It looks at everything mathematically, including relationships. It’s all statistics and laws of probability.”
Yet Nicholson explained that he didn’t feel the same drive that he once had. He said, “I [learned] how to function within ‘out there.’ Then you get older, you change. I mean, I’m not a loner, I’m not a recluse, but I don’t need all that any more. I don’t enjoy it, simple as that. I’m not going to work until the day I die, that’s not why I started this. I mean, I’m not driven.”
In fact, even when at his height, Nicholson had always been choosy over which roles he’d accept. He knocked back parts in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Godfather, for instance. It’s also claimed that he said no to many other roles, including the 2013 sports film 42 and 2014’s The Judge.
In 2017 friend Peter Fonda told Page Six that he thought Nicholson “is basically retired” – although he did say that the star might return for something appealing. And for a while that looked like being a remake of Toni Erdmann – a 2016 German comedy that had taken the U.S. by storm and found its way into critics’ hearts.
Original director Maren Ade gave the idea a big thumbs up, saying, “Jack Nicholson is one of the best actors that has ever been alive… I actually think I will enjoy sitting and watching a remake of Toni Erdmann.” However, even that high praise was not enough to keep Nicholson interested in the project, and he pulled out.
So why did Nicholson stop starring in movies? Well, perhaps he just doesn’t feel that there is anything left for him to prove. After all, he’s a legend with three Oscars under his belt, from a dozen nominated performances, and countless other awards in his trophy cabinet. And it may be that he has simply decided that enough is enough – leaving a legacy of great films and wonderful starring roles.
And what about Sean Connery? As we mentioned, the legendary Scottish actor hasn’t appeared on movie screens since 2003, when he starred in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But why would somebody so famous retreat from the industry which made him a star? And what exactly was it that made him stay away from the big screen?
Connery is best known for being the first actor to portray James Bond, of course. And his contribution to that franchise can hardly be overstated. Indeed, Ian Fleming, the author of the original Bond novels, liked Connery’s performance so much that he decided to make Bond half Scottish in You Only Live Twice, the twelfth book of the series.
But Connery was never just Bond, either. In fact, he played Indiana Jones’ father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Robin Hood in Robin and Marian, a dragon in Dragonheart as well as plenty more. Yet despite the fact that the actor was still winning awards and good reviews in his later years, he made the decision to walk away from it all.
Interestingly, back when Connery was just starting out as an actor, he very nearly didn’t accept role of James Bond; he didn’t want to be tied down to a whole film series, you see. If he’d have said no, of course, his life may have been very different – but he said yes in the end.
Once Connery had taken the role, though, he didn’t really seem to enjoy it. Indeed, he badmouthed the character to the press and to his inner circle. And in the 1992 biography Sean Connery: Neither Shaken Nor Stirred, Michael Caine said, “If you were his friend in these early days, you didn’t raise the subject of Bond.”
In fact, Caine explained that Connery simply hated being associated with just one role – no matter how popular it was. The actor continued, “He was, and is, a much better actor than just playing James Bond, but he became synonymous with Bond. He’d be walking down the street, and people would say, ‘Look, there’s James Bond.’ That was particularly upsetting to him.”
And it was while Connery was still playing Bond that he did the infamous 1965 interview with Playboy. In it, he again brought up that he didn’t enjoy being associated with the character. He said, “There are a lot of things I did before Bond – like playing the classics on stage – that don’t seem to get publicized. So you see, this Bond image is a problem in a way and a bit of a bore, but one has just got to live with it.”
Then, when asked how long he planned to remain in the movie industry, Connery gave a vague answer. He said, “I have no idea how I’ll feel or what I’ll be like or what I’ll be doing even five years from now. I’m eternally concerned with the present. I’ve been working my a** into the ground for 21 years, and I’m just coming up for air now.”
Connery added, “I find there are two sorts of people in the world: those who live under a shell and just wait for their pensions, and those who move around and keep their eyes open. I have always moved around and kept my eyes open – and [have] been prepared to raise my middle finger at the world.”
But, you see, those answers are not what made Connery’s Playboy interview so notorious. Instead, it was the actor’s response to the question, “How do you feel about roughing up a woman, as Bond sometimes has to do?” And Connery’s response shocked many. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” he said. “Although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.”
Yet the interview may have been forgotten about over time if Connery had ended it there – but he didn’t. The star said, “If a woman is a b**ch, or hysterical, or bloody minded continually, then I’d do it. I think a man has to be slightly advanced, ahead of the woman. I really do – by virtue of the way a man is built, if nothing else.”
Connery then went on to compare his attitude to Bond’s. He added, “I wouldn’t call myself sadistic. I think one of the appeals that Bond has for women, however, is that he is decisive, cruel even. By their nature women aren’t decisive – ‘Shall I wear this? Shall I wear that?” – and along comes a man who is absolutely sure of everything, and he’s a godsend.”
Connery’s comments in that Playboy interview followed the star around for the rest of his career. And although he was still very successful after Bond, allegations of domestic violence sprung up around him. Yes, in 2000 biographer Geoffrey Wansell claimed that, in 1965, Connery beat up his then-wife, Diane Cilento, when he saw her flirting with a waiter.
In fact, in 2005 Cilento made claims of domestic abuse against Connery. She released an autobiography that year, you see, where she alleged that her husband had hurt her both mentally and physically. The actress-cum-writer wrote, “There was physical contact, but it’s important to see it in context. You’ve got to remember he was probably twice my weight.” For his part, Connery always denied the claims.
Nevertheless, from the 1960s to the early 2000s Connery was still a huge star. He did his last Bond movie, Never Say Never Again, in 1983 and then moved on to other work. In 1988, for instance, he took home a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in The Untouchables. And one year later, he was voted People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
But despite his success, Connery always seemed to dislike the promotional side of being an actor. In fact, in 1971 – around the time that the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever was due to be released in cinemas – he told The Guardian, “Usually I hate interviews because I end up boring myself listening to me talking all the time.”
Interestingly, too, getting into arguments on set, or threatening to walk wasn’t uncommon for Connery at the height of his fame. While filming 1986’s Highlander, you see, he reportedly almost left the set after nearly being hit with a sword. But that was nothing compared to his alleged behavior while working on cult classic Zardoz.
According to director John Boorman, Connery was not very cooperative behind the scenes of the 1974 movie, which was only his second venture after finishing up with James Bond. Speaking to Vulture 40 years later, Boorman told a story about Connery having to redo a scene in which he was wearing heavy makeup.
Boorman said, “Sean hated makeup, hated anything touching his skin.” But for this one particular scene, he needed to be in makeup and was seemingly “very grumpy” about it. The director described how unfortunately, at the end of the day, “the assistant camera-loader opened the camera and exposed the film. So we had to do the process again.”
Connery couldn’t contain his anger, Boorman said, and was allegedly violent. He continued, “Sean wouldn’t believe me; he thought I was teasing him. When I convinced him that we needed to do [the scene] for the third time, he went after this camera-loader and nearly killed him. It took three grips to restrain him.”
As for the poor camera-loader, Boorman said that thanks to his brush with Connery, he’d had to change jobs. The director added, “This had become such a famous story in the film business that this guy couldn’t get a job or anything. So he changed his name and is working as a commercial cameraman now.”
Zardoz, meanwhile, didn’t do well with critics, and neither did some of Connery’s later films. Though he had a lot of hits, such as Robin and Marian, he also had flops – with Meteor and Five Days One Summer being just a couple of these. But come 1989 Connery played one of the non-Bond roles that he’s still best known for: Indiana Jones’ father, Henry Sr., in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
That year, Connery spoke to the Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine about his career. He said, “I’m not quite as branded or destroyed by the association with Bond as I once was. There’s no question it was getting in the way of my decisions to do anything else. The strange thing was how long it hung around, but it doesn’t bug me as much as it used to.”
Connery, then, was Steven Spielberg’s first choice for who should play Indiana Jones’ father. But once again Connery was reluctant to take on a character. He told the magazine, “I was rather disappointed [when I first read the script]. When I voiced my reservations about it, [Spielberg] was, I think, a bit surprised.”
But of course Connery did do the movie – and he enjoyed it, too. The actor told Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine, “I think the essence of the fun for me is the pleasure. The greatest pleasure is when the whole team is working and then what you’re all trying to do works. When a film set is harmonious and everybody has the same similar intention and goal, it’s terrific.”
In the same interview, Connery yet again considered the future of his career, adding that at this point in time, he still enjoyed acting. The star said, “As long as I still have that there I’m perfectly happy working. The day I wouldn’t have that enthusiasm or that sort of appetite, then I will look in another direction,”
And in the end, Connery did appear to lose his passion for acting. The filming of his last movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, was by all accounts a disaster. Connery had in fact turned down roles in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, so he apparently didn’t want to miss out another huge hit. However, this plan certainly didn’t go smoothly.
Yet Connery was an executive producer on the film, so he was allowed to make changes to his character, Allan Quartermain. In the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel by Alan Moore, for instance, Quartermain was an opium addict – but Connery refused to have that aspect included in the movie.
What’s more, Connery and director Stephen Norrington reportedly fought for creative control of the film. And at one point an alleged fight over a prop gun led to Norrington closing down the set for the day and almost coming to physical blows with the actor. Rumors then spread that Connery, not Norrington, was editing the film – although that turned out to be a lie.
In the end, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a critical flop upon its 2003 release. It received the very low score of 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website. Yes, famed film critic Roger Ebert said the film was full of “inexplicable motivations” and “general lunacy.”
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen essentially marked the end of Connery’s acting career. And in June 2006, while being awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he announced that he was retired. People had been holding out hope that he might appear in a fourth Indiana Jones movie, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Elsewhere, in 2008 Connery gave a very blunt interview with GQ in which he slammed the whole movie industry. The star said he was “fed up of dealing with f***ing idiots” – and there was more. The actor added, “For years there has been a widening gap between people who can make films and people who can’t. Too many people are afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ They get in and out quick and too many don’t know what they are doing.”
In the same interview, Connery said it had been “a hard decision” to not do another Indiana Jones movie with Spielberg. He explained, “There wasn’t really a good story to tell about the father this time around.” But he added, “It was great to see [Harrison Ford] in action again, and the movie had some wonderful effects. I don’t think [Spielberg] can make a bad film.”
Connery also spoke about the newest actor to play Bond, Daniel Craig. This came after the interviewer suggested that Craig’s Bond was considered to be “something of a return to the glory days of the Connery era.” Then the actor replied, “That’s quite flattering because the last film was terrific, and [Craig] did an absolutely marvellous job.”
In 2008 Connery also released an autobiography, Being a Scot, but it was sadly a flop. Ironically, Roger Moore, the actor who succeeded Connery in the role of James Bond – and whose performance Connery had criticized in the media – outsold the retired star with his book, My Word Is My Bond.
And Michael Caine, one of Connery’s best friends, told The Telegraph in 2011 that he assumed the actor would never return to movies. The former said, “I phoned him the other day, but we never see each other because he doesn’t move around a lot now. He won’t make another film now. I just asked him. He said, ‘No, I’ll never do it.’”
However, Connery actually did star in another film in 2012. It was titled Sir Billi, or Guardian of the Highlands, and it was Scotland’s first CGI movie animation. Connery provided the voice of the title character, a skateboarding veterinarian who sets out to save Scotland’s last beaver.
However, Sir Billi also didn’t do well – to put it mildly. It actually ended up being released in only three cinemas across Britain. Variety declared that the film “lacks the looks or charm of even the most rudimentary CG offerings being made today, as if not only the animation but also the plot and characters were spat out by off-the-shelf software.”
Connery does still pop up in the news these days, but in relation to politics, rather than acting. You see, when the U.K. was undergoing a referendum in 2014, the actor campaigned for Scottish independence. The media was quick to point out, however, that Connery didn’t actually live in Scotland anymore.
But will Connery ever return to acting? He did announce, while the fourth Indiana Jones was in production in 2007, that he was tempted to play Henry Jones once more but that “retirement is just too much damned fun.” And to be fair, he never seemed to give the impression that acting was all that enjoyable.