Jack Nicholson – American Film Institute

Jack Nicholson

22nd AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

Jack Nicholson

From his film debut as a callow juvenile delinquent in THE CRY BABY KILLER to his brilliant and honored performances in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, CHINATOWN, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, HOFFA, and A FEW GOOD MEN, Nicholson has become one of the American cinema’s finest and most charismatic movie stars. “I fear pretension more than anything else as an artist,” he has said, and the statement is reflected in the honesty and believability of his work.

A rebel with an unquenchable spirit — both onscreen and off — Nicholson’s roles have spanned all genres. His performances offer an impressive variety of experience, yet his artistry is consistent. He has had the courage to tackle offbeat, often unsympathetic, roles; but he invests each of his characters with humanity and intelligence.

He was born in New Jersey and came to Hollywood as a teenager. Only twenty when he made his first film appearance, he struggled for a decade in the B-movie vineyards of monsters and bikers until his breakthrough role as a free-thinking Southern lawyer in EASY RIDER.

Then the floodgates opened and Nicholson came streaming through — as a frustrated oil rigger, a brawling sailor, a tenacious detective, a caustic playwright, an instinctive hit man, a philandering husband, an alcoholic street person, a domineering Marine, and a rugged labor leader. His memorable gallery of characters has earned him ten Oscar nominations, six for Best Actor (he won for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) and four for Best Supporting Actor (he won for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT).

He has also made his mark behind the camera, writing scripts (RIDE N THE WHIRLWIND, HEAD), producing (THE SHOOTING), and directing (DRIVE, HE SAID, GOIN’ SOUTH, THE TWO JAKES). As well, he has sought out the opportunity to work with such masterful filmmakers of his day as Michelangelo Antonioni, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Miloš Forman, Hector Babenco, and George Miller.

Although most of his work shares themes of alienation, loyalty, and deception, he has experimented with a broad range of styles: somber, exuberant, pessimistic, and hallucinogenic. Whether dominating with his mach imprimatur, dazzling with his ironic grin, snarling with sarcasm, or offering himself up as a vulnerable sacrifice to a society he can’t grasp, his presence is commanding Jack Nicholson possesses every quality we require of a movie star: personality, looks, charm. He is always uniquely “himself” — “Everything I do in the movies is autobiographical,” he says — yet the actor merges seamlessly with the personality of whatever role he plays.

He fulfills every requirement of the artist, too: a seemingly effortless command of technique; a willingness to place the demands of the dramatic truth over concern for his own vanity; and a devotion to the job at hand. “I just love the work,” he has said. “I don’t feel jaded about it; I love to act.”

That love translates to quality. Jack Nicholson’s achievement consists of some of the finest work in cinema. And happily, it’s reasonable to believe that the best may be still to come.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.