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Star-Gazing and AFI: It's a Fact, Jack : Movies: Who's who of Hollywood turn out to honor two-time Oscar winner Nicholson and his five-decade career. 'I'm touched and I'm fortunate,' he said.

March 05, 1994|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You ain't seen nothing yet!" said a visibly moved Jack Nicholson at the climax of the American Film Institute's "Life Achievement Award" tribute to his career Thursday night.

The remark drew an ovation from one of the more luminous crowds in recent Hollywood memory, many of whom have participated in the 57-year-old actor's five-decade film career that has already been highlighted with the best actor Oscar for 1975's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and the supporting actor Oscar for 1983's "Terms of Endearment."

A few moments earlier, Nicholson, known for his "cool" independence and wry humor, said: "I'm touched and I'm fortunate. And I'm lucky to be at large." It was a comment that filled the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton with nervous laughter because the last reference was to misdemeanor vandalism and assault charges brought against him earlier this week by the Los Angeles city attorney's office for allegedly smashing the windshield of a car with a golf club. Nicholson thought the driver of that vehicle had cut him off in traffic.

The actor arrived only seconds before the program began and was rushed into the hotel's back entrance to avoid the scores of cameras and press gathered in the lobby.

Nicholson's "at large" comment was the only direct reference to the misdemeanor charges. However, golf jokes were a recurring theme. Sean Penn, who is directing Nicholson in the currently shooting "The Crossing Guard," arrived on stage with a golf putter that sported a medieval weapon attached.

Penn said he didn't realize he would end up directing Nicholson in a role that he originally envisioned for a younger actor. So, in introducing preview clips of the movie, Penn apologized for a sedentary performance. What the audience saw, however, was Nicholson in a rage and fighting mad.

While the previous 21 AFI tributes have had their starry audiences, the honorees, such as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda and Alfred Hitchcock, were always film veterans past the peak of their careers. With Nicholson, still one of Hollywood's major players today, the turnout of celebrities was astonishing and a good indicator of what real "power" in Hollywood can mean.

It was a "hip" evening as well, with the audience donning sunglasses, one of Nicholson's trademarks, as the actor entered the ballroom. True to form, he was wearing sunglasses that he rarely took off during the show, taped by CBS for a one-hour special airing Thursday.

At the actor's table, alone, was a who's who of some of the famous woman in his career and life: Louise Fletcher, Cher, Kathleen Turner, Mary Steenburgen, Rebecca Broussard, Candice Bergen, Shirley MacLaine, Madeleine Stowe, Faye Dunaway, Shelley Duvall and Ellen Burstyn.

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The evening's well-wishers included Warren Beatty, who starred in and directed Nicholson in 1981's much Oscar-nominated "Reds," and Robert Evans, the producer of 1974's multi-Oscar nominated "Chinatown," in which Nicholson received his first star billing.

There were tributes by Dustin Hoffman, Hector Babenco, Michael Keaton and childhood friend from New Jersey, Danny DeVito. Also speaking were Mike Nichols, who directed Nicholson in 1971's controversial "Carnal Knowledge" and the upcoming "Wolf," and Michael Douglas, one of the producers of "Cuckoo's Nest."

MacLaine said Nicholson has been her acting hero since she saw the famous comedic scene in "Five Easy Pieces" in which Nicholson orders toast at a cafe that doesn't have it on the menu.

Clips were shown of Nicholson's performances, ranging from his screen debut at age 21 in Roger Corman's 1958 "The Cry Baby Killer" to his upcoming June movie, "Wolf," for which he is reportedly receiving $10 million to $12 million in salary.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper recalled that when they cast Nicholson in their breakthrough 1969 movie "Easy Rider," it was for one very good reason: He would work for scale. At that time the salary was $392 per week.

Even though his work can now command millions, Nicholson will still work for scale. He is reportedly taking only current scale wages of $485 per week for the Penn movie, which is being produced by Miramax Films.

Thurday night's Nicholson fan club included songwriters Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, actresses Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the now-retired center of Nicholson's beloved basketball team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Art Garfunkel, who appeared with Nicholson in "Carnal Knowledge," and Harry Dean Stanton, who was in "Missouri Breaks" with Nicholson, recalled one particular time when all three were driving to Dallas and singing Everly Brothers songs. In honor of that, Garfunkel and Stanton began to sing "All I Have to Do Is Dream." The wobbly rendition soon took on a life of its own and the entire audience joined in.

Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this report.

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