Playing mere mortals

Times Staff Writer

JACK doesn’t do hugs. The iconic bad boy -- do we even need to mention his last name? -- isn’t one for playing false palsy-walsy for the cameras, and on a recent afternoon, he was vaguely peeved that the photographer for The Times suggested that he sling his arm around Morgan Freeman for a portrait of public bonhomie.

It’s clear why the photographer would like a shot like that. Nicholson and Freeman star in “The Bucket List,” a film all about male bonding late in life that is set to open in theaters on Christmas Day. The two play disparate cancer patients who meet on the ward and decide to go off together to do everything on their bucket list -- the list of everything they ever dreamed of doing before they kick the bucket.

Just the premise suggests a kind of “Beaches” for men -- though in reality, the duo tries to make sure there’s a healthy dash of vinegar inside the schmaltz. “My job, I felt, was to take the piss out of the project, to not get so flowery . . . ,” says Nicholson. On a fall afternoon, Nicholson and Freeman were ensconced side by side on a couch in Jack’s office, one of many buildings on his Mulholland compound, an unpretentious ranch house, decked out in earth tones, with square modern furniture. It’s not quite a time capsule from the ‘70s, but almost.

For the last few decades (40 years for Nicholson, 20 for Freeman), the duo has embodied different strains of American manhood. From “Five Easy Pieces” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “As Good as It Gets,” Nicholson has been the nation’s resident anarchist -- rebellious, angry and sardonic. With his easy confidence, Freeman has come to represent a benign, wise paternal figure -- the voice of authority without its brutalizing edge. Simply put, Jack’s alter ego has been the devil, while Freeman routinely plays God to a variety of screen mortals.

Freeman is elegant in slacks and a navy blazer; he appears kindly but elusive, as if the real Morgan Freeman is hovering above the scene, watching. In “The Bucket List,” Nicholson hauls around a tub of girth like a dainty elephant who knows how to pirouette -- he makes his fat both funny and a poignant reminder of the ravages of time. In person, he’s shed the weight and appears trim in khakis and a black shirt. Though comradely, the pair doesn’t have the simpatico ease of Jack and Warren, or Clint and Morgan. Nicholson descends from the screen lineage of men who seduce women with their minds; Freeman from the iconic, classic Americana, of men who prefer doing to speaking.


They both turned 70 this year.

“The first time I felt young for my age,” jokes Nicholson. “I think we all try to say we are not affected by this, but something about the number, I thought, ‘Geez, I’m in pretty good form; I’m going pretty strong here.’ ”

“If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself!” says Freeman.

They both still have a kind of restlessness, but in Freeman’s case, it’s led him to pilot planes, steer yachts and own various businesses. Nicholson appears more the armchair traveler, ensconced in his home devouring books about science, politics, literature and hard-boiled fiction. Jack likes to talk, meander, digress and entertain.

“They couldn’t be more different. That’s what works in the movie,” says Rob Reiner, who directed “The Bucket List” and has known Nicholson since the ‘70s. In the film, Nicholson plays an irascible hospital magnate with all the money in the world but no friends and a daughter who won’t talk to him. Freeman tackles the role of a brainy garage mechanic who forswore his dreams in order to provide for his family. “Both of these guys play right out of themselves,” says Reiner. “The character is an extension of themselves. Morgan is this calm, Zen-like person. Jack is all over the place, very passionate, larger than life. They have a way of rubbing off on each other. Morgan can take a lot of Jack’s energy, and Jack can take a lot of Morgan’s calmness.”

Reiner adds that right before shooting Nicholson had been in the hospital for the first time in his life. “It was very upsetting to him and very scary,” says Reiner, “and to be doing a part that touches on issues of mortality. He took from the experience in the hospital and brought it to the character.”

“It was just a procedure, but it tired me out,” says Nicholson. “There are a few lines in [the film] like, ‘Can’t you use the same blood?’ that came right out of my stay. I had it fixed so that every two minutes [his character is getting his blood drawn.] Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood.”

Nicholson still smokes, but apparently less than he used to and not at all during this interview, out of deference to Freeman, a reformed smoker. “I can tell you this from 100% experience. No one has ever criticized me in any way about smoking that, while they were saying it, it didn’t inflame my desire to smoke,” says Nicholson. Add on top a life spent in the cinema, which has been like one long trigger in his brain. “Generationally, for us, in the movie business, whenever somebody was tense in the movie, you’d see him sweating against the wall or lighting up. It’s all conditioning, really.”

Nicholson adds, “Look, nobody should smoke. It is not so much that you fear that moment when somebody comes in and says, ‘That’s it. You’re dead. You smoked too much.’ Well, that’s not the real fear. The real fear is going through now the process and thinking, ‘I’m dying of stupidity.’ This is the self-recrimination about it.”

Mortality hovers over Nicholson, as it does over “The Bucket List” despite its jolly sequences of the spry pair diving from airplanes, racing cars, climbing the Himalayas -- all courtesy of computer graphics. Freeman, however, seems more relaxed about facing the gaping maw. If given the option of living to 120, he’d take it in a flash, “because I’m going to be viable. Otherwise, no, I won’t live that long. You can’t. Life is only about the strong.”

Indeed, the pair differ on many of the big questions in life. Freeman believes in God, though not as embodied by himself in a film like “Evan Almighty” or “a white man up in the sky who looks down on us. . . . What I believe about God is there is that part of all of us, that is the only thing you can call it. You can call it anything you want to, actually. . . . So God suffices.”

Nicholson questions everything. “I have always been like a grain of sand in the oyster.”

“I’m not anti-religious in any way, but I like ‘The End of Faith’ [by Sam Harris] because they just took Galileo off the heretics list. There are certain areas where I’m not going to challenge anyone’s sense of mystery, but I don’t want reason to be held back by someone’s idea of fundamentalism, and that happens. . . . You can’t go on behaving as though the world is flat.”

This said, he adds: “Everybody is superstitious. Just like Morgan said. I used to run [nearby], and one of the odd byproducts of it was I found myself what I would call praying and, just as he said, I didn’t pray straight out. My focus was up in the air. So we all have these innate things which I don’t think we should be too fast to classify. . . . I’m not going to waste my time pretending I know what isn’t either.”

Perhaps befitting their status as major American movie stars, both have a passel of children by different women. Nicholson’s youngest two are teenagers, and he’s still enmeshed in the hard job of child rearing. In the film, Nicholson’s character is painfully estranged from his daughter, and the uncertain peregrinations of fatherhood struck a chord with the actor.

“Because of living a checkered life, I have a lot of different . . . views about it,” says Nicholson. “Really, what you’d better know is, you’re in the laps of the gods about it all. I don’t think anybody would be unhappy having either of us as a parent, really. I may be flattering myself.”

As for what he tells his children about his storied past, he says, “I did it both ways. With my oldest daughter [43-year-old Jennifer], I was totally open about everything I did. And that had a very good result in some ways, and in some ways maybe not. Certain things, because I have been to more school meetings or whatever, I tried to be somewhat mendacious and so forth and so on, because that’s what I also erroneously thought might be best, but it does not matter. They find out everything you do anyway. They busted me millions of times. They laughed in my face. I love them for it!”

Freeman’s four children range in age from 36 to 48. “As a parent, I think I am possibly very checkered in that respect. Two of my kids were born while I was moving fast. Two of them, I was married and raised. And there is a vast difference in the two sets. A lot of what we do as parents has a lot to do with what we went through as children ourselves. I was raised primarily by women. My mother, I would classify my mother as libertarian. She had few, if any, secrets from me, which made me grow up thinking I am her favorite. We were very close. So to have the same thing, my children, the point is to try not to have secrets. This is the way we are.”

Both men insist they still have things on their own personal “bucket lists,” though they remain vague on what they are.

For Freeman, he wanted to work with Nicholson before he died. And that included hugging.

After the last shot, Freeman told Nicholson, “This has been a dream come true,” recalls Reiner. Before the last shot, “Jack had said, ‘We’re not hugging.’ But Morgan is a hugger. After the last shot, Morgan gave him a great bear hug.”

Nicholson, says Freeman, “is still working on kissing the most beautiful girl in the world.”

“That’s right, I still am working on it,” riffs the man who is known as a Lothario.

In reality, though, his “Bucket List” sounds tinged in regret.

“I’m not an adventurer and a traveler like my friend is. . . . I am kind of a home person that way, and I traveled a lot earlier on in my life, but still there’s plenty of places I want to go to. There are endless things you want to do, books you wanted to read, corners you wanted to clean, this you wanted to get right, that thing you wanted to put right with, it is endless.”