With the passing of my favorites Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchem, George C. Scott, Katherine Hepburn and Robert Shaw, for my money Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep stand alone as the most compelling living actors, with a fond tip of the hat to Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman, Bruce Dern, Laura Dern, Denzel Washington, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. Apologies to Al Pacino fans, just too much yelling for me.
Nicholson never disappoints, as in this beautiful little scene from The Departed.
Nicholson playing the street smart, murderous Irish hoodlum Whitey Bulger is confronted by Martin Sheen a Boston police detective who’s been pursuing Bulger for years.
Sheen: “I’m gonna get you, Bulger!”
Nicholson: “If ya coulda, ya woulda.”
Put otherwise: Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.
And then there’s Nicholson’s wonderful bit from Five Easy Pieces, for which I have special affinity because of the following interaction.
It’s the evening of May 20, 1986 at Madison Square Garden. I’ve just watched Mike Tyson beat Mitch Green before a packed house. I’m exiting on the down escalator with my pal William Elin, who remembers every line from every movie he’s ever seen and liked, and has just spotted Nicholson on the down escalator just below us and within earshot. He yells out:
“Jack, Five Easy Pieces. ‘What’ll it be?'”
Nicholson hesitated a few seconds then laughed and decided to play along. With hundreds of fans now gone silent and listening to the live exchange, Jack responds:
“I’d like a plain omelet. No potatoes.Tomatoes instead.
A cup of coffee and wheat toast.”
Elin (as the waitress): “No substitutions.”
N: “What do you mean? You don’t have any tomatoes?”
E: “Only what’s on the menu. You can have number two, a plain omelet.
It comes with fries and rolls.”
N: “I know, but it’s not what I want.”
E: “Make up your mind.
N: “Wait I have made up my mind. I’d like a plain omelet.
No potatoes on the plate. A cup of coffee and a side order
of wheat toast.”
E: “I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. I’ll give you an English muffin
or a coffee roll.”
N: “No side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don’t you?”
E: “Would you like to talk to the manager?”
N: “You’ve got bread and a toaster of some kind?”
E: “I don’t make the rules.”
N: “I’ll make it as easy for you as I can. I’d like a plain omelet and
a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce,
and a cup of coffee.”
E: “A number two. A chicken sal san. Hold the butter, the lettuce
and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?”
N: “Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast…
give me a check for a chicken salad sandwich… and you haven’t broken
E; “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?”
N: “I want you to hold it between your knees.”
Elin smiled proudly and bowed towards Jack, who returned the favor while yelling back:
“Perfect, pal. Just perfect. Every goddam word.”
Hundreds of fans burst into spontaneous applause. Jack waited for Elin to get off the escalator and gave him an earnest hug. Very nice. Very nice, indeed.
“We don’t have plain toast, so what’ll be with the omelet?”
Jack hesitates a few seconds then laughs and decides to play along. With hundreds of fans now gone silent and listening, Jack responds:
“Ok. I’d like an omelet, plain and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.”
Elin delivers the waitresses next line on cue:
“A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Jack: “yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich sandwich, and you haven’t broken any rules.
Elin: “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?”
Jack: “I want you to hold it between your knees.”