The Tragedy Of Jack Nicholson Explained

The litany of awards, the good-time playboy persona, the iconic characters on screen, the adulation of millions (and millions) of fans around the world — Jack Nicholson embodies every facet of what it means to be a movie star. When the cameras turn away and the lights go off, though, an ordinary human being, who achieved extraordinary feats, remains — with his own set of tragedies and turmoil that influenced his life.

Many actors prefer to keep their hardships private, in an effort to protect their brand and the personality they present to the world. For the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" actor, however, he hasn't been afraid of peeling back the curtain to allow others in and to see the truth about all he has experienced in his time on earth. From how he discovered his sister was his mother to the uncertainty around the identity of his real father, he chooses to be refreshingly honest about events that rocked his life and the resulting effects they have had on him.

So, with that said, let's take a look back at Nicholson's life to find out more about this legendary actor.

He found out his sister was really his mother

Born on April 22, 1937, in Neptune, New Jersey, Jack Nicholson grew up under the care of John and Ethel May Nicholson, though John was reportedly absent for the most part. John and Ethel May also had two daughters, Lorraine and June, whom Nicholson believed to be his older sisters while growing up. After June died, Nicholson learned the truth about how she was really his mother — not his sister. Since he was born to an unwed mother in the 1930s, a decision was made between Nicholson's grandparents and mother to keep the secret and not reveal his true parentage to him.

Nicholson only found out the facts after a reporter researched the actor's life and uncovered the detail, as he explained to Rolling Stone. "I was making 'The Fortune,' and someone called me on the phone — I think it was turned over by the investigative reporting for the Time cover story they did on me," he said. "Ultimately, I got official verification from Lorraine. I was stunned."

Nicholson explained how he and June always got on well, and he would even spend summers at her home in Stony Brook, Long Island, that she shared with her husband. However, he doesn't resent her for keeping the truth from him, since he believes she made a difficult choice. "My only emotion is gratitude, literally, for my life," Nicholson told Rolling Stone.

The mystery of Jack Nicholson's father

After Jack Nicholson discovered his sister was actually his mother, another mystery lingered: Who is his real father? The story goes that June Nicholson left home at the age of 16 to pursue a career as a theater performer in New York. Not too long after she secured a gig as an Earl Carroll dancer, she became pregnant and returned home to have the baby. There were rumors that June's manager, Eddie King, was Nicholson's father, while Donald Furcillo-Rose also claimed to be the dad. However, Nicholson said that only June and his grandmother Ethel May knew the truth, and they never revealed it to him before they died.

For Nicholson, the identity of his father didn't matter at that point in his life. In fact, he considered his sister Lorraine's husband, George "Shorty" Smith, to have been a father figure to him growing up. "I had Shorty," he told Rolling Stone. "That, believe me, is as good a father as anybody's ever going to get or need. I can be as hard on my family or friends as anybody — I'm fairly objective — but there's nobody much that's impressed me as much as Shorty."

He struggled to find work

Despite the Oscar wins and unforgettable roles in cinema classics such as "Chinatown," "The Shining," and "As Good as It Gets," what Jack Nicholson did before he became a famous actor might surprise many fans. Out of high school, he received the chance to work in the animation department at MGM; however, he never fully committed to a career in cartoons because he wanted to become an actor. Still, he tried to keep this job while dipping his feet into the acting business. As luck would have it, the animation department closed and left him without the security of a job.

Nicholson explained to Film Comment how he would land an acting gig, then be without work for a year early on. "I got a couple or three jobs a year, mostly with Roger Corman, and one or two TV shows," he said. "My problem in those days was that I didn't get many interviews. I always got a very good percentage of the jobs I went up for, but the opportunities were few and far between."

Needing to make ends meet, Nicholson also added writing to his repertoire and started to consider directing. His fortunes changed forever when Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" turned him into a star overnight. However, this only happened when Nicholson was 32 years old.

9/11 deeply affected him

There are numerous harrowing stories of celebrities who almost died during 9/11. While Jack Nicholson wasn't one of these individuals, the tragic event affected him — just like it did many Americans and other people around the globe. Resultantly, he decided to do something to make a difference to society. Nicholson explained to the Irish Independent how he attended a memorial and fundraiser organized by George Clooney and spoke to Adam Sandler and director James L. Brooks about his intention to go into comedy and how best to do it. Nicholson had worked with Brooks on 1997's "As Good as It Gets," while he would later star with Sandler in 2003's "Anger Management."

In a separate interview with Total Film, Nicholson expanded on his reasoning and why he felt it was the right career choice at the time. "The way I reacted to 9/11 was I decided I didn't want to do any movies that are sad or critical," he said. "I decided I didn't want to make my living depressing people or making them go home sick, so I just decided I wanted to do comedy for a while and study it for a while. It doesn't mean everybody should do that, but that was my reaction."

Jack Nicholson believes his womanizing persona has seen him end up alone

Jack Nicholson's persona as a womanizer has followed him around throughout his career. For years, headlines lit up with stories about his latest romance or fling, as he became known as "Jack the Jumper" in the press. However, in his later years, this reputation has left him alone and longing for someone to spend the twilight of his life with, as he revealed to the Daily Mail in 2011. "I would love that one last romance," he said. "But I'm not very realistic about it happening. What I can't deny is my yearning."

Nicholson added that his prior reputation as a philanderer meant that women no longer believed him or trusted his intentions, no matter what he said or did. In addition, a source close to Nicholson expressed to Closer Weekly that the actor is "afraid of dying alone."

Regardless of how he has been presented in the media, his ex-wife Sandra Knight, whom he was married to from 1962 to 1968, said that the public persona the world sees is not who he really is as a person. She praised him for being a good father as well as a kind human being.

Want to learn more about this legendary actor? Read why you rarely hear about Jack Nicholson nowadays.