Jack Nicholson is quite possibly the greatest actor in the history of film. He has been nominated for 12 Academy awards (the most all-time), and he has won 3 times (tied for the most). But, what most people don’t realize is that Nicholson bounced around Hollywood for ten years before he ever got his big break. In those early years, executives said he was too ugly to be a star and his Jersey accent was too thick. In fact, during those times, Nicholson had resigned himself to pursuing a path as a writer, director, and bit actor in movies.
Despite the criticism from executives, Nicholson was as cool as cool gets around Hollywood. In the Nicholson biography Five Easy Decades, actor Robert Walker Jr. says, “You just loved to hang out with him. [He was] so charming, and there was such a wonderful edge to his personality.” Living in Hollywood during the early 60s, Nicholson may have written and took bit parts in movies, but his primary job was making connections socially. Everybody wanted him around, and they wanted him at their parties. Because of this, Nicholson became tight friends with actors like Larry Hagman and Bruce Dern, as well as Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
As a popular social figure, Nicholson was notorious for cruising around town in his favorite car. Actor Robert Walker recalls, “I remember he drove this little Karmann Ghia convertible with a torn top.” In another interview, actor Harry Gittes says, “He’d pull up at a red light, smile at a bunch of girls and with one smile, he had ‘em. It not only worked; it never not worked.” Jack loved the Karmann Ghia and the car fit his bohemian style perfectly. In fact, Nicholson loved the car so much that he kept it as his primary ride for nearly a decade. It took him from job to job and audition to audition. It was even present when Jack got his big break.
In late 1966, the brakes on Jack’s Karmann Ghia were starting to grind and his movie career was stalling out, as well. According to Five Easy Decades:
“The brakes were so bad, he was getting worried for [his wife’s] safety,” said actor John Hackett. I said, “Well, fix them,” and he said, “I don’t have the money to fix them.” I said, “Do it yourself” and he said, “I don’t know how to do-it-yourself.” So, Hackett agreed to help. While he was under the car, the phone rang and Jack went inside. He came out chortling
Jack had received a call from higher ups green lighting his movie, The Trip (the film that is considered to be Nicholson’s major breakthrough in Hollywood). In the midst of the counter culture revolution, The Trip– written by Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda- went on to be a box office smash. In a review from Jeffrey Anderson, “Of course, Nicholson, Fonda and Hopper went on to make Easy Rider and blow the movie industry apart, but The Trip came first and is much better.”
As Anderson says, this film directly led to Nicholson being cast by Fonda in Easy Rider, which would garner him his first Academy Award nomination and catapult him as
a star. Throughout it all, Nicholson always had one good luck charm by his side: his Karmann Ghia convertible.