He was born John Joseph Nicholson in New York, New York, although until 1974 he had thought his place of birth was his hometown, Neptune, New Jersey. A journalist's research uncovered what apparently had happened: the woman he had always thought of as his mother was actually his grandmother, who had arranged to raise him as her own child. She did this because he was actually the illegitimate offspring of her daughter, a woman whom Nicholson thought was his older sister.
Nicholson started his career as an actor, writer, and producer, working for and with Roger Corman. This included his screen debut in The Cry Baby Killer (1958), where he played a juvenile delinquent who panics after shooting two other teenagers, and Little Shop of Horrors.
His work with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on the LSD-fueled The Trip led to his real break. That film led to a small supporting role in Easy Rider (1969), for which he received his first Oscar nomination. A Best Actor nomination came the following year for his persona-defining role in Five Easy Pieces (1970), which includes his famous chicken salad dialogue about getting what you want.
Other early movies he is known for include Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), for which he received his first Oscar, and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Nicholson won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Terms of Endearment (1984).
The 1989 Batman, where Nicholson played the supervillain The Joker, was an international smash hit, and a lucrative percentage deal earned Nicholson about $50 million . For his role as Col. Nathan R. Jessep in A Few Good Men (1992), a dark movie about a murder in a military unit, he received yet another nomination by the Academy. He would win his next Oscar for his role as the neurotic lead in the romance As Good as it Gets (1997).
The 9/11 terrorist attacks led Nicholson to focus on comedies. In About Schmidt (2002), Nicholson portrayed a man who questions his own life after his retirement and the death of his wife. The deeply emotional, slow film stands in sharp contrast to many of his previous roles. In the comedy Anger Management, he plays an aggressive therapist alongside Adam Sandler. His most recent film is the 2003 Something's Gotta Give.