The Untold Story of Jack Nicholson


| LAST UPDATE 11/10/2022

By Scarlett Adler

He's one of Hollywood's famous faces. But Jack Nicholson's life in front of the camera has been anything but ordinary. From his family secrets to his public romances, here's a closer look at the man behind the madness.

Hollywood Royalty

The signature shades, the arched brows, the killer smile: Jack Nicholson's reputation practically precedes him. And with good reason - it's almost hard to remember a time when the Hollywood legend wasn't stealing the show.

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But behind closed doors, there's a whole lot more than meets the eye. "People have an idea of me which is not the reality," Nicholson confessed. From his unconventional childhood to his unexpected big break, the actor's road to Hollywood has been met with lots of twists and turns... This is his story.

An Unconventional Childhood

On April 22, 1937, John Joseph Nicholson was born in Neptune, New Jersey, to John and Ethel May Nicholson. Or at least that's what his birth certificate read. Off-paper, the young boy's reality looked very different. "I was raised entirely by women," the actor reflected of growing up without a father.

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Nonetheless, young Jack had enough love to go around - and then some. "These were strong women," he recalled of being raised by Ethel May (above) and Aunt Loraine, who soon became like a 2nd mom. And then, of course, there was "Shorty:" Loraine's husband, a man Jack called "as good a father as anybody's ever going to get or need."

His Sister Moved Away

As the story goes, by the time young Jack turned 4 years old, his life took a sudden turn: His 21-year-old sister, June, had decided to pack her bags and head out West. She was determined to make a name for herself, more specifically as an Earl Carroll showgirl. At least that's what she was telling everyone.

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Herbert Dorfman/Contributor via Getty Images

What Jack didn't know, though, was that in chasing after her dreams, his older sister was also running away from a life-altering secret. But we're not there just yet. And in the years that followed, the young boy was busy unpacking other baggage in the Nicholson household.

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Humble Roots

Unfortunately, growing up without a dad left Jack's single mother picking up all the pieces. And while Ethel did her best to make things work, the stand-up beautician struggled to make ends meet. Sure enough, it wasn't long before her son joined in to lend a helping hand.

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Bettmann Contributor via Getty Images

Whether he was helping out mom at the salon or taking on the latest offer hurled his way, young Jack scraped together whatever he could. But he didn't let his humble beginnings get him down. In fact, where Jack lacked in means, he certainly made up for elsewhere.

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Always Causing a Scene

Jack Nicholson always made his presence known, something he himself will happily attest to. As for if that was always a good thing, well, that's a whole other story. "I was always against authority, hated being told anything by my teachers, by parents, by anyone," he recalled of his rebellious nature.

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Dave Benett via Getty Images

Safe to say, Nicholson's time behind the desk earned him quite the reputation. "I created a record by being in detention every day for a whole year," the actor - Manasquan High School's former "Class Clown" - reflected. From getting kicked out of class to making a scene in the process, it was never a dull moment.

“[They] Thought He Was the Greatest”

But while his teachers might not have been too fond of him, the trouble-making teen always had that same familiar charm. In fact, despite his bout with acne and "usual teenage worries," as he joked, it's hard to recall a time where Jack wasn't impressing the ladies.

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"[They ] thought he was the greatest," his aunt recalled to The Guardian of her nephew's time working the salon. "And so a lifetime of being surrounded by admiring women began as it meant to go on..." To the naked eye, Jack Nicholson had all the makings to be a star. Now, it was time to actually do something about it.

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Sights Set on Hollywood

Sure enough, by the time the young charmer turned 17, he decided to see just how "great" he truly was. With no idea what awaited him, the high-school grad packed his bags and said goodbye to Neptune as he set off in his sister's footsteps - literally. Little did he know, his time in California would end up very differently.

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Michel GINFRAY/Contributor via Getty Images

Of course, though, there was lots to be done before Jack would finally get what he came for: He needed a paying job. A place to call home. Professional acting experience. Lucky for the aspiring actor, Nicholson already had one piece of the puzzle solved…

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Navigating New Territory

"Since my only relative in the world was June, who was out here, I came out to look around," he explained. There was no denying it - navigating new territory was going to be difficult, that much he knew. But with his older sister around to show him the ropes, Jack had one less thing to worry about.

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Ron Galella/Contributor via Getty Images

And just like that, things started falling into place: the ambitious teen landed a job at MGM studios, working as an office boy in the animated cartoon department. "Once in, I just loved the job," he revealed. And it wasn't long before the eager assistant caught the eyes of his employers.

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His Big Break

What happened? "I started working in the MGM cartoon department to see movie stars, and I sort of drifted in," Jack recalled. After becoming an office boy at the Hollywood studio, it didn't take long for his reckless charm to impress producers - one man in particular, actually.

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Michael Ochs/Archives/Stringer via Getty Images

"Joe Pasternak asked me if I wanted to be an actor, and one thing led to another." Sure enough, after Joe landed Jack a spot in Jeff Corey's renowned acting classes, Nicolson soon caught his break in 1958's Cry Baby Killer. But he still had a ways to go...

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Stuck at a Standstill

Despite landing his very first acting role, it seemed as if he was going... nowhere. Or at least that's how Nicholson recalled it. "I was making a living, everyone who knew me said I was good, but everyone who knew me said I wouldn't make it because I hadn't made it so far," he confessed.

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And it stung, badly. "I think that's worse than being totally unknown." With his career seemingly at a standstill, the defeated actor was just about ready to throw in the towel and switch to directing. That was, until a bizarre twist of fate suddenly changed everything.

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A Star is Born

In 1969, as Nicholson took to the big screen for his latest role, nothing would ever be the same. "When I was sitting in the screening I realized that I was actually going to be a movie star," he recalled. And he was right: Easy Rider was an instant hit, earning millions at the box office - and Jack's very first Oscar nomination.

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From that point forward, it was only up. "I didn't have to audition anymore. That cleared things up for me," Nicholson recalled. But the truth was that the newfound star was just getting started. And both he - and Hollywood - had no idea what was coming...

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Becoming "Jack"

As his roster of movie roles continued to grow, so did his fame and fortune. Just 1 year later, Jack Nicholson was well on his way to becoming a household name. After starring in Five Easy Pieces, the actor earned himself yet another Academy Award nomination - this time for Best Leading Actor, and it spoke volumes.

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With several nominations and new fans under his belt, the award-winning actor was no longer that B-list star landing roles nobody remembered: He was officially "Jack." But as the public's fascination with the Hollywood star continued to grow, it would soon let on more than Jack himself could have ever imagined.

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“The Star With the Killer Smile”

What happened? In the summer of 1974, Jack Nicholson was approached by Time Magazine for another exclusive interview. It should have been a typical promotional story, a feature surrounding his upcoming film, Chinatown. Only the events that followed were anything but.

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Titled "The Star with the Killer Smile," the magazine's piece was intended to reveal a side of the actor nobody had ever seen before. Who was Jack, really? As Time writers set off to explore exactly that, they soon stumbled across something startling.

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“It Was a Pretty Dramatic Event”

"It was a pretty dramatic event," Nicholson recalled of the events that followed: Time's researchers had found some inconsistencies within the actor's personal life, something they thought a simple phone call could fix. But as they picked up the phone to confront Jack himself, they had no idea the secrets they were about to expose.

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Donaldson Collection/Contributor via Getty Images

For starters, a man claiming to be Jack's father was alive and well in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. How could that be? After all, Nicholson had told them his birth dad was believed to have been deceased at this point. Was there more to the story here? Sure enough, there was. Only nothing could prepare the writers for what came next.

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A Family Secret

"It turned out Jack had not been aware of his true family designations," authors Robert Crane and Christopher Fryer reflected. As the actor answered Time magazine's call that fateful day in August, he was met with a painful reality check: everything he had believed up until that point had been a (white) lie.

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Leonardo Cendamo/Contributor via Getty Images

"A guy calls me on the phone and says that my father is still alive, and that Ethel May wasn't really my mother... that June was my mother," an emotional Nicholson recalled. He couldn't believe it. Had a team of magazine writers unearthed a secret buried deep within his family?

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He Was Rattled

Jack was startled, unsure of what to do next. With a mind full of questions, he asked the Time editors to put the story on hold for now. He needed answers - desperately. But with his deceased mother and sister no longer around to help, where would he turn?

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Donaldson Collection/Contributor via Getty Images

"Shorty, this is the most [messed up] thing I ever heard," Nicholson suddenly blurted, as he dialed up his uncle for some much-needed clarity. But would his remaining family be able to help? Did they even know anything about these wild claims? Unfortunately, they didn't. For now, at least...

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The Truth Came Out

"I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret if nothing else," Jack recalled. Sure enough, after several painful conversations, his aunt and uncle finally came clean about everything: His birth mother, his conception - and the decades-long ruse it called for.

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While they didn't know much about his birth dad, they explained what they did know: Jack's sister, June, was actually his mother. She had gotten pregnant in 1936 by her boyfriend - allegedly Don Furcillo-Rose, who was a married man at the time. But that wasn't the only concern that had surrounded the secret pregnancy.

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The 37-Year-Old Ruse

As Jack himself recalled, the odds were seemingly stacked against him from the very start: "as an illegitimate child born in 1937, during the Depression, to a broken lower-middle-class family," things weren't going to be easy. And given June's tender age of 17 and dreams of stardom, it wasn't long before Ethel May decided to step in.

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"Ethel May told everybody she was Jack's mother," Patrick McGilligan, author of Jack: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, explained. "She filed a birth certificate in 1954, when Jack was of driving age and needed identification papers before heading to California." And just like that, a 37-year-old secret was born.

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“If Anything… I Felt Grateful”

For Jack, finding out the truth about his existence 37 years late brought an overwhelming wave of emotions. But at the end of the day, the actor had nothing but love for his late sister mother, and grandmother. "It's done great things for me," the actor confessed.

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"As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me. If anything... I felt grateful." As the actor saw it, his family had made a lifelong pact - a sacrifice - all for the sake of himself. And while he'd no longer be able to say thank you to them personally, he felt eternally indebted for their immeasurable love.

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More Love Where That Came From

But his late relatives weren't the only ones who stole his heart. In fact, Nicholson's time in Hollywood went on to earn him a rep for being quite the charmer. As the playboy himself put it, "There were points in my life where I felt oddly irresistible to women."

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And from the outside looking in? Perhaps he wasn't wrong. From Kate Moss to Lara Flynn Boyle, the womanizer was linked to several famous women over the years. Including, of course, his former wife of 6 years, Sandra Knight, whom he married in 1962 and had a daughter with.

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The “Hardest Moment of [His] Life”

But in 1990, the actor's love life was met with the ultimate heartbreak - something he's since called "the hardest moment of [his] life:" His split from long-time girlfriend, actress Anjelica Huston. The two had begun dating in 1973, but after several years and red-carpets together, the couple ended with a very messy split.

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What happened? As the actor eventually revealed, he had been unfaithful. And after Huston found out he'd welcomed a secret love child with actress Rebecca Broussard, there was no coming back. "I was annihilated emotionally by the separation... That was probably the toughest period of my life."

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His Life Achievements

Of course, though, the actor had also welcomed several highs during his time on the big screen. Not only was he one of few to have ever won 3 Academy Awards, but he also welcomed 6 Golden Globes and 12 Academy Award nominations - making him the most-nominated male actor in the Academy's history.

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From The Shining to The Departed to every blockbuster in between, Nicholson was a full-fledged icon. And so, in 1994, he was crowned with the ultimate title: the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, perhaps the greatest honor for a career in film. "I'm very proud to be here," the emotional actor reflected at the time.

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His Net Worth

As we all know, Jack starred in over 60 films during his time in Hollywood, and it's paid off - literally. After endless years starring in blockbuster films and nabbing awards in doing so, Nicholson has secured quite the pretty penny. But just how much has he earned over the years?

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According to CelebrityNetWorth, the award-winning actor has secured an estimated $400 million. And he's got the expensive taste to match. From his $100+ million real estate collection to his $150+ million art collection, Nicholson has seemingly done it all.

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Where is He Today?

But what about since then? The actor hasn't starred in a film since 2010's How Do You Know - a romantic comedy deemed a box office flop by critics. Had the seemingly unbreakable actor finally reached his breaking point? Or perhaps was there more to his hiatus?

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Whatever the case may have been, people wanted answers. And it wasn't long before tabloids began filling in the missing blanks themselves. From rumors of memory loss to reports of health complications, it wasn't long before the rumors were set ablaze.

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His Grandson Spoke Out

That was, until 2019 - the moment his very own family made a rare appearance to set the record straight themselves. As his grandson, Duke, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to address the speculation once and for all, he explained that the public had gotten it all wrong.

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"He’s doing great. He’s 100 percent," Nicholson's grandson assured. While the news came as a great wave of relief for loyal fans, Duke's first-ever interview did a lot more than ease the general public's nerves. It also welcomed a completely new realization.

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Jack's Living Legacy

Not only did Duke look like a spitting image of his grandfather, but he also had the charm to match. And that's not where the striking similarities ended. The charming grandson has already begun to follow in Jack's footsteps as an actor, something he never initially planned on.

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"It wasn't a big moment, like, 'I want to be an actor,'" Duke explained. "It was just... gradual." Call it fate or good genes, but the prodigy's already made quite the name for himself. From his film debut in 2019's Us to his appearance on Lana Del Rey's album cover for Norman F***ing Rockwell, we'd keep an eye out for this one.

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Living a Quiet Life

But while his grandson might be picking up where he left off, perhaps that's exactly what Jack had intended on. After all, the actor never planned on leading such a longstanding career in the limelight. "I'm not going to work until the day I die, that's not why I started this," he once revealed.

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"You get older, you change," Nicholson continued. "I mean, I'm not a loner, I'm not a recluse, but I don't need all that anymore. I don't enjoy it, simple as that." Has Mr. Nicholson already accomplished everything he once set out to do? Were prior whispers of his retirement true, after all?

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He Almost Returned to the Screen

While we'll have to wait and see, we actually almost saw him return to the big screen a few years back. As Variety had reported at the time, the seemingly retired star had signed on to star in the 2018 remake of German Oscar-nominated film Toni Erdmann. As for what went wrong?

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As several reports had alleged at the time, the actor soon dropped out after creative differences with the studio. And while Nicholson's involvement would have taken him out of an almost 10-year hiatus, perhaps it's for the best. Or at least that's how some of his closest friends saw it...

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Too Good For His Own Good?

With endless awards under his belt, it's clear Mr. Nicholson is a master at his own craft. But has he become too good for his own good? "In terms of the work that's out there, what are they going to give him, The Bucket List? That's an insult," Anjelica Huston explained to Vulture of her former flame's renowned status.

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"You don't want to see Jack do that. I don't want to see Jack doing [that]," the actress confessed. Instead? "I like to see Jack in full rebellious feather... that's how I love him best on film. I loved him in Terms of Endearment... this incredibly romantic no-goodnik."

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“Life Has Taught Me…”

From another kid with a dream of making it big to an international icon, Jack Nicholson's journey from Neptune to Hollywood has taken him on one whirlwind of a ride. But despite the family bombshells, famous romances, and every other bump in between, the actor's got nothing but smiles.

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"Life has taught me that there have been a lot of things that I didn't know," Nicholson revealed. "But if I start giving that more weight because of the half-digested view of an analytical life, it's working against you... Accentuate the positive, that's what I say. It's a trick, but it works."

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