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NICHOLSON ON THE MATTER OF HIS ‘HONOR’

Jack Nicholson glanced up from his newspaper just in time to see the camera.

“Uh-uh, not with these bags under my eyes,” he said, throwing the startled photographer a defiant grin as he marched across the suite he had taken at the Hotel Bel-Air for the day’s interview, grabbed his wrap-around dark glasses and clapped them on, leaving nothing but the tips of his circumflex eyebrows peeking over the top. “Everyone will recognize me in these, won’t they, Wass?” he said, turning for confirmation to Paul Wasserman, his longtime publicist.

“Well, after they read the caption,” Wasserman retorted.

Nicholson chuckled as Wasserman rolled his eyes. Obviously, the banter was standard procedure whenever the actor hits the road to promote a movie--in this case, “Prizzi’s Honor,” which opened last week.

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Director John Huston’s film version of the darkly comedic Richard Condon novel of the same name stars Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as star-crossed assassins at odds with the powerful Prizzi family. The accomplished cast also includes Anjelica Huston, daughter to John, girlfriend to Jack, who--in this case--plays a discarded lover determined to win him back.

Critics have praised the film, as well as a number of the performances, including Nicholson’s portrayal of the simple-minded, stiff upper-lipped (literally) Charley Partanna, who comes complete with a Brooklyn Mafioso’s accent. (Time’s Richard Schickel called it one of his boldest performances.) Initially, Nicholson planned no interviews--his shooting schedule on “Two Jakes” (the “Chinatown” sequel) would have interfered. But the volatile 11th-hour cancellation of the production (which would have been directed by Robert Towne and starred Nicholson and Robert Evans) had changed all that.

The sole consolation appeared to be the fact that the Lakers’ superfan could attend the playoffs--between interviews.

“It’s leisure (basketball). It’s not my life; my life is making films,” Nicholson said in his inimitable drawl. “I got enough (film) problems to keep me grounded out at the moment.” He flashed a grin, confessing, “But I do love basketball.” (He was a favorite camera target during every playoff game).

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He managed to combine the two in 1971 when he made his directorial debut with “Drive, He Said.” The resulting basketball sequence is considered by many aficionados to be one of finest ever filmed.

Then there was the time film and sport didn’t mesh during filming on “Chinatown”

While a borrowed TV set broadcast a 1973 Lakers’ game in his dressing room, Nicholson (actually, his nose) was needed on the set for a complicated camera shot.

“I suppose I might have put a little pressure on the situation, but Roman (director Polanski) had a little camera problem and he could get impatient,” he recalled. Nicholson was irritated when Polanski--evidently annoyed by the teasing--suddenly “wrapped” the scene--even though it wasn’t completed.

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“I reached up and ripped the lighting out and said, ‘You’re right, that is a wrap.’ Now they couldn’t set it up again.”

His slow grin grew wider and his eyebrows higher as he continued. “Roman ran into my dressing room, grabbed the television and smashed it on the floor.”

Nicholson said he responded by throwing off his wardrobe and storming out the stage door.

“Of course, it was a little embarrassing when I realized I had to come back because my dressing room was inside.”

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He added, “I finally drove off and so did Roman. Then we ran into each other at Gower and Sunset and got out of our cars and laughed like fools figuring that the crew was thinking, ‘It’s all over, they’re not speaking.’ ”

At this point--with photographers and cameras gone--Nicholson stashed his dark glasses, revealing eyes that had neither bags nor shadows (like most actors, he simply doesn’t like still photographs). At 48, the cynosure of the American counterculture appeared to be wearing his age well.

Despite a career that now spans three decades, 39 films, seven Academy Award nominations, two Oscars and countless other cinematic kudos, during a two-hour interview it became easy to forget that Nicholson was a Movie Star.

At times, with his Irish-Germanic middle-class sensibility and strong work ethic and his adamant left-wing patriotism, Nicholson seemed more like a blue-collar actor--a liberal Archie Bunker--albeit intelligent Archie Bunker.

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Many celebrities of similar stature seem remote and walled-in by their fame. Nicholson seemed real “old shoe,” whose lack of pretension and easygoing humor could make anyone feel comfortable around him.

Although interviewers over the years have likened Nicholson’s appearance to an unmade bed, on this afternoon he was the picture of eclectic fashion. His pink blazer, Kentucky bluegrass-green linen sports shirt and neatly pressed slacks were worn well, but his shoes were the true stand-outs. The ‘50s-style, double-buckled, black suede shoes featured a predominantly gray linen inset with black and white-flecked stitching (manufactured by no less than Celebrity Shoes).

He was also lighter--about 25 pounds worth, he said--since his paunchy presence in “Terms of Endearment.”

The subject he seemed most uncomfortable discussing was the aborted “Two Jakes.”

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“Right now we’re in June, so even if we re-hook up, it can’t go on until the end of July,” he explained, clearly unhappy--if not angry--with the turn of events, which he declined to discuss specifically.

“I did everything I could that was of a positive nature and I don’t want to. . . . I mean, these are two of my oldest friends in the business and--all right--it’ll be horrible if our efforts come to nothing. But if it also has any lingering effect it would really be bad.”

He strode across the room and poured himself another cup of tea before emphatically adding, “Hey, I blame us, period. . . . That’s the way I am. We had all the decisions to make and we put ourselves where we are today, which is that we’re floundering getting the damn thing off.

“It’s a clash between an ultimate (the studio) and a temperamental production company. You can’t blame anybody when it takes you and your joint venture over a year to get a contract signed; you can’t blame anybody but yourselves.”

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But “Two Jakes” wasn’t why Nicholson was at the Bel-Air. “I’m not interested in exploiting personal publicity at the moment,” he maintained. “I want to get ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ into the interview as much as I can.”

Nicholson said that he agreed to the project largely because of director Huston. “He’s been my idol since childhood and we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the last 15 years,” he explained. “I’m kind of a Johnny-come-lately in Johnny’s life . . . like--this guy was a legend when I was in grammar school.

“The way he relates to actors and the way he watches a scene. . . . I learned more from him than I have from anybody I’ve worked with in a long time.”

He credited fellow actors (and native Brooklynites) Robert Loggia and Tomasino Baratta for helping him hone his dialect. “I didn’t want to work this far out without somebody to check with every once in a while to make sure I wasn’t completely out in the weeds there. . . .”

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Grin.

At the mention of the word directing , Nicholson reached for one of the few cigarettes he smoked during the interview. “I get nervous when that subject comes up,” he admitted, still smarting from the critical lashing he suffered as the director-actor on “Goin’ South,” the quirky Western in which Mary Steenburgen made her film debut.

Nicholson’s nasal twang in the 1978 release drew suggestions that it was more drug-related than dialect--a charge that made him scoff. “No serious artist is going to throw away a directing shot for an inside joke.”

Then, with a guilty smile, he explained, “Actually, I was trying to do a kind of a Clark Gable spin on the character.”

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He said that the only thing preventing him from directing any films at present was that no one had asked him.

“You see, my age group of actor grew up at the nadir of pushiness,” he explained. “It just wasn’t hip to be pushy. I mean, I wouldn’t even tell people I was an actor--I told them I did nothing. It was the Beat Generation--it was hip to do nothing.

“It’s kind of hung over in a way. I’m also not very pushy to be used as a director because I think people should be allowed to make those decisions in the business forum.”

Nicholson described himself as “very radical as a director. To me, cinema is a visual poetic form. I have a lousy narrative sense and feel like I’m more of a poetic director. I can understand that that is a dodgy type for someone who’s invested a lot of money.

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“Look at the movies I’ve wanted to direct--'Lie Down in Darkness,’ which is basically a stream-of-consciousness novel; ‘Moontrap,’ which was a Western about volitional life--(i.e.) does someone have the right to give up their life? And ‘Henderson the Rain King.’ . . .”

He chuckled. “Well, I could pull that movie off if I could figure out Pygmies--it’s hard to fake Pygmies in any way.”

Nicholson’s current distaste with the rash of youth-oriented releases (“little herpes monster movies,” he terms them) has been well-publicized. He said he thought it would take three or four more years before movies he’d like to direct will appear again.

“Movies are always a little behind. The government is just a little further behind all of that. But the music business is at the forefront and right now it’s moving into more esoteric form--there’s more of a jazz influence. Then maybe I can do ‘Murder of Napoleon.’ My take on the story is, here’s this guy who conquered the world twice, yet every living human being in his life betrayed him. So . . . what’s the point of going on?”

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In the meantime, the actor said, he’d been giving some thought to moving to Europe “mainly because of the aesthetic climate. I’d like to have the distance from the whole insane corporate level of movie making. I might get a chance at doing something slightly more idiosyncratic in Europe.”

Would he live in Italy?

“Nah, the South of France. I love Italy. Italy has my favorite ambiance--with all that pink (architectural) stuff--but socially I think it’s a tougher climate.”

With a grin and a snap of his eyebrows, he drawled, “Besides, with the food, I’d be a dead man.”

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