The tragic real-life story of Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson — along with legendary A-list peers such as Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep — is a celebrity that doesn't need an introduction. His career has spanned decades, starring in iconic movies such as The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Chinatown. As writer Derek Sylvester once perfectly summarized (via Rolling Stone), Nicholson "could be as suavely droll as Cary Grant, as gee-shucks and gangling as James Stewart, as moody and introspective as Paul Muni...in other words, the most indispensable actor of modern American cinema."

And that's not all. Nicholson has had quite the colorful life in the tabs, too. Once known for his partying ways and tendency to nab Tinseltown tail, the Batman actor has been around. "Nobody nails down Nicholson," Real Housewives of New York City star and former fling Sonja Morgan cooed at Andy Cohen during an episode of Watch What Happens Live.

But with all that talent, Jack Nicholson's life hasn't just been a mashup of praise, soirees, and Bacchanalian indulgence. Instead, the actor has suffered numerous tragedies — yet has tried to maintain a positive outlook. "I don't want the fact that I see this endless din and gloom in the world to make me incapable of expressing something that's quite frankly wonderful," he told Rolling Stone in 1986. "I'm a very fortunate — statistically impossible to describe how fortunate — person to be where I am and do what I do." Let's discover more about Jack Nicholson's tragic real-life story.

Jack Nicholson has no idea who his real father is

Jack Nicholson had an unconventional upbringing. As Marc Eliot wrote in his unauthorized biography, Nicholson, the future star's birth certificate listed John and Ethel May Nicholson as his parents — but his father was out of the picture early on. "I was raised entirely by women," Nicholson revealed to Daily Mail in 2011. "[Ethel May] ran a beauty parlor and I spent most of my time there. She taught me manners and I learned how to be around women, what women liked. I am insanely well-mannered and polite, and because of that I have nothing but gratitude for my upbringing."

It's after Nicholson became a successful actor in the '70s, however, that he was dealt a shocking blow: he had no idea who his actual father was. As the 2012 biography, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years (originally published in 1975) by Robert Crane and Christopher Fryer, revealed, "a woman in New Jersey" mailed the authors with a letter claiming she was "married to Jack Nicholson's biological father." Adding that he "was a wonderful man," she urged the authors not to repeat what the press thus far had mentioned: "that he was a hard-drinking deadbeat."

While the book's writers decided against exposing this sudden truth, it was Time who eventually ran the story. As Crane and Fryer wrote, "it turned out Jack had not been aware of his true family designations." They ended up simply giving Nicholson the revealing letter.

He was dealt even more familial blows

If the shocking truth of Jack Nicholson finding out about his biological father wasn't enough, it wasn't all the actor discovered. In fact, as Robert Crane and Christopher Fryer, the authors behind the 2012 biography, Jack Nicholson: The Early Years (initially published in 1975) revealed, the woman who sent them the letter claiming she was married to Nicholson's father also delivered this piece of groundbreaking goss: the celeb was lied to about who his mother was, too. As it turned out, his sister, June, was actually his biological mother, while Ethel May was his grandmother. This also made his other sister, Lorraine, his aunt.

While Crane and Fryer decided not to include the sensational information in their biography, the Easy Rider star discovered the truth after Time magazine ran the story, instead. As Biography would later note, "Since June was 17 years old, unmarried and uncertain of the father's identity at the time of Nicholson's birth, her parents agreed to treat Nicholson as their own child and never reveal to him his true parentage."

So, how did Jack Nicholson take this mind-blowing piece of information? "Both grandmother and mother were deceased before this particular group of facts came to my attention," the actor explained to Rolling Stone in 1986. "I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret, if nothing else," adding that he was raised by "strong women."

The one that got away

Jack Nicholson's tumultuous 17-year relationship with girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, is one filled with heartbreak — mainly because of his incessant philandering ways that ultimately led the actress to leave him. The New York Post summarized Huston's autobiography, Watch Me, writing, "After hoping for almost two decades to marry and start a family with him, she learned that he would instead be having a child with a younger woman." Oof.

The starlet's book details numerous incidents of Nicholson being a jerk to his long-time love, even an experience in France where the actor left his girlfriend in the middle of the street to go on a bike ride with a random woman they had just run into. Miraculously, Huston stuck through it all until she heard about one of his affairs — which resulted in a child — causing her to deliver physical blows.

Huston didn't run into her former flame for many years until they were both cast in 1995's The Crossing Guard. As she revealed in her book, Nicholson approached her on the final day of shooting and declared, "You and me, Toots — we're like Love in the Time of Cholera" — referring to Gabriel García Márquez's iconic love story of the same name.

Years later, it looks like Jack Nicholson regrets his cheating ways. Recalling his past to Closer (via Daily Mail), the actor revealed the experience at the time left him "annihilated emotionally," adding, "I'm childish and I did make a mistake."

High-profile tragedies seem to follow Jack Nicholson in his life

Tragedy doesn't just follow Jack Nicholson's own life, it also seems to crop up in the lives of people near him, too. As it turns out, the actor was a friend of Roman Polanski's, the director whom he worked with on the Oscar-winning 1974 movie, Chinatown. What was going on behind closed doors, however, wasn't so professional. According to Biography, Nicholson's "home was once known as the location of seemingly endless soirées."

In fact, it's in Jack Nicholson's abode in 1977, that Polanski raped 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, resulting in the infamous case that sent the director fleeing the country. While The Shining star wasn't at home at the time, it was his girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, who came across the disturbing incident.

If that's not enough, a year prior to the Polanski debacle, Nicholson was also neighbor to French pop singer, Claudine Longet, and her Olympic skiing husband, Vladimir "Spider" Sabich, in Aspen, Colorado. As reported by GQ, Andy Williams' ex-wife made headlines that year after she allegedly "discharged a single bullet from close range, killing her partner" in their home. As Marc Eliot, author of the unauthorized biography, Nicholson revealed (via CNN), the star attended the 1977 trial. "He always sat in the first row of spectators, usually next to [Andy] Williams, mystified by the lovely face of a woman driven to kill."

The Charles Manson connection

The '60s and '70s in Hollywood were a different time — and Jack Nicholson was definitely a part of the "It" scene. As Rolling Stone wrote of the star in 2007, Nicholson has "[dropped] acid" with Marlon Brando, and even partied with the Beatles and Bob Dylan. As the outlet so succinctly put it, Nicholson is "the coolest man alive." Pretty awesome, huh?

But, with that fame also came some disturbing connections. Friends with Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson also sparked a rapport with Sharon Tate, wife to the Rosemary's Baby director, and a Hollywood icon in her own right. Tragically, Tate's life was cut short at 26 when she was brutally murdered by Charles Manson's "family" of followers. As Marc Eliot wrote in his unauthorized biography, Nicholson, "Jack managed to secure passes to watch the [trial] proceedings in person. He was fascinated by Manson's persona and the crazy way he looked during the proceedings," adding that the actor was there "almost every day."

That being said, it wasn't all mesmerizing tabloid fodder for Nicholson: the outcome of the Manson murders left the Chinatown star feeling paranoid as "everybody in Hollywood knew everything Jack did," resulting in the celeb sleeping "with a hammer under his pillow."

Is Jack Nicholson suffering from memory loss?

There was a time where Jack Nicholson was a regular on the silver screen. A 12-time Academy Award nominee, the actor is one of the most celebrated stars alive. There's a reason for it too, as the star simply loves his craft. "I happen to be anachronistically in love with the movies," Nicholson gushed to Rolling Stone in 1986. "I got in this to be an artistic, expressive person."

However, in 2013, heartbreaking allegations came to light when a source told Radar Online why the celeb ducked out of the Tinseltown limelight. "There is a simple reason behind his decision – it's memory loss. Quite frankly, at 76, Jack has memory issues and can no longer remember the lines being asked of him." While his fans promptly mourned the end of his career, the actor shot down those rumors through former NBC anchor Maria Shriver, who reported to E! News that "Nicholson retiring from acting due to memory loss or dementia [is] 100 percent false." What's more, Nicholson himself joked to The Sun of the allegations, saying, "I have a mathematician's brain."

If Jack Nicholson is still sharp as a tack, then how come he hasn't been in any movies since 2010? As it turns out, in 2017, the star was set to star in a remake of the German Oscar-nominated film Toni Erdmann — yet backed out of the project set to take him out of "retirement" in 2018, as revealed by The Wrap.

Are his on-camera personas affecting his personal life?

Not many people are witness to two murder trials, but lo and behold, Jack Nicholson leads an unconventional life. That being said, has being present to such grim, real-life stories led the star to take on more macabre roles in his career, and has he, in turn, been affected personally? Nicholson famously portrayed the crazed Jack Torrance in The Shining. In fact, a clip of the actor getting into character before his iconic "Here's Johnny" scene has surfaced online. In the truly chilling video, you see Nicholson crazily jumping up and down and muttering, "C'mon you f**k! C'mon death! Die! Ax murderer! Kill!"

Years later, the celeb stepped into the Joker's shoes for 1989's Batman, and while he has never spoken out about the difficulties of taking on such a dark role, Jack Nicholson told MTV he was "furious" to find out heath Ledger snagged the part for 2008's The Dark Knight, adding that he was "not inclined to watch it."

At the end of the day, all we have is this little eerie piece of information The Departed star shared with reporters: when asked if he thought Ledger's untimely death had anything to do with playing the Joker, Nicholson replied (via Daily News) "Well, I warned him."

Jack Nicholson may have a bit of an angry streak

Although he appears jovial in the few interviews he gives, Jack Nicholson may also have a bit of a temper. As Rolling Stone's Fred Schruers wrote of the star, "When he's talking about things that make him angry [he] can be a mite scary: he begins to clip his words off, curl his lips back over his teeth and close sentences with 'pal.'" Gulp. If you thought that's unsettling, in 1994, the Los Angeles Times published a story that the actor was charged "with misdemeanor vandalism and assault for allegedly smashing the windshield of a car with a golf club because he believed the driver cut him off in traffic." Subtle, yeah?

Nicholson is also known to get extremely heated during sports events, especially while he's watching his favorite sports team: the Los Angeles Lakers. According to BBC News, while at a 2003 game, Nicholson stepped onto the court to yell at the ref, reportedly shouting things like, "I pay a lot of money for this seat" and "This is the NBA, you can't tell me to sit down."

Golf clubs and Lakers aside, Jack Nicholson's angry streak is something his ex, Anjelica Huston, can attest to, as well. Writing an essay for Vanity Fair, the actress claimed that although her former flame "had a real zest for life," he also "had a temper," adding, "He is emotional ... He takes things harder than you'd imagine."

He's become a recluse

In recent years — especially since his unofficial retirement from Hollywood — it seems Jack Nicholson has become a bit of a recluse. In fact, it's something that "his longtime party pal" Harry Dean Stanton can agree with, as well. Speaking with Radar Online, the Paris, Texas actor revealed that "his old friend has become 'pretty reclusive' after a life of Los Angeles Lakers basketball games, [and] drug-fueled boozy parties," adding, that Nicholson "[prefers] a dreary routine of afternoon naps, drinking milk and sedate new hobbies like painting."

Closer (via The Telegraph) discovered such similarities in 2015 when given an exclusive interview with the star, finding out that Nicholson's days consist of "sleeping until 1 pm and then having a glass of milk to soothe his stomach." In fact, he's even bought a property next to his home so "he wouldn't have to deal with neighbors."

All things considered, there may have been moments in Jack Nicholson's crazy past that could have hinted to the star enjoying his privacy. As Marc Eliot wrote in Nicholson: A Biography, Stanton would sometimes have to "literally pull Jack out of his room" because "while the action was hot and heavy in the other rooms, Jack would prefer to stay by himself, in his bedroom."

Jack Nicholson thinks he's going to die alone and lonely

With this raucous heyday of a past behind him, it looks like Jack Nicholson just wants one final thing: love.

In a rare interview with Closer (via The Telegraph) in 2015, the legendary actor heartbreakingly revealed, "I am single and lonely and likely to die alone," adding that it's because of his reputation as "Jack the Jumper" in the past that has led women not to trust him anymore. "I would love that one last romance but I'm not very realistic about it happening. What I can't deny is my yearning."

While all the chickens may have flown Jack Nicholson's coop, he still has his family. As Duke Nicholson, Jack's grandson and Us actor told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019, "[Jack] is doing great. He's 100 percent," adding that while the pair "don't talk about acting much," they instead "watch sports together." Considering the Chinatown star is already in his 80s, perhaps this is the sort of end to a long and fulfilling life that really does suit him just fine.