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Playing mere mortals

Nicholson and Freeman, both larger than life, make an odd couple, on-screen and off.

December 12, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

JACK doesn't do hugs. The iconic bad boy -- do we even need to mention his last name? -- isn't one for playing false palsy-walsy for the cameras, and on a recent afternoon, he was vaguely peeved that the photographer for The Times suggested that he sling his arm around Morgan Freeman for a portrait of public bonhomie.

It's clear why the photographer would like a shot like that. Nicholson and Freeman star in "The Bucket List," a film all about male bonding late in life that is set to open in theaters on Christmas Day. The two play disparate cancer patients who meet on the ward and decide to go off together to do everything on their bucket list -- the list of everything they ever dreamed of doing before they kick the bucket.

Just the premise suggests a kind of "Beaches" for men -- though in reality, the duo tries to make sure there's a healthy dash of vinegar inside the schmaltz. "My job, I felt, was to take the piss out of the project, to not get so flowery . . . ," says Nicholson. On a fall afternoon, Nicholson and Freeman were ensconced side by side on a couch in Jack's office, one of many buildings on his Mulholland compound, an unpretentious ranch house, decked out in earth tones, with square modern furniture. It's not quite a time capsule from the '70s, but almost.

For the last few decades (40 years for Nicholson, 20 for Freeman), the duo has embodied different strains of American manhood. From "Five Easy Pieces" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "As Good as It Gets," Nicholson has been the nation's resident anarchist -- rebellious, angry and sardonic. With his easy confidence, Freeman has come to represent a benign, wise paternal figure -- the voice of authority without its brutalizing edge. Simply put, Jack's alter ego has been the devil, while Freeman routinely plays God to a variety of screen mortals.

Freeman is elegant in slacks and a navy blazer; he appears kindly but elusive, as if the real Morgan Freeman is hovering above the scene, watching. In "The Bucket List," Nicholson hauls around a tub of girth like a dainty elephant who knows how to pirouette -- he makes his fat both funny and a poignant reminder of the ravages of time. In person, he's shed the weight and appears trim in khakis and a black shirt. Though comradely, the pair doesn't have the simpatico ease of Jack and Warren, or Clint and Morgan. Nicholson descends from the screen lineage of men who seduce women with their minds; Freeman from the iconic, classic Americana, of men who prefer doing to speaking.

They both turned 70 this year.

"The first time I felt young for my age," jokes Nicholson. "I think we all try to say we are not affected by this, but something about the number, I thought, 'Geez, I'm in pretty good form; I'm going pretty strong here.' "

"If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself!" says Freeman.

They both still have a kind of restlessness, but in Freeman's case, it's led him to pilot planes, steer yachts and own various businesses. Nicholson appears more the armchair traveler, ensconced in his home devouring books about science, politics, literature and hard-boiled fiction. Jack likes to talk, meander, digress and entertain.

"They couldn't be more different. That's what works in the movie," says Rob Reiner, who directed "The Bucket List" and has known Nicholson since the '70s. In the film, Nicholson plays an irascible hospital magnate with all the money in the world but no friends and a daughter who won't talk to him. Freeman tackles the role of a brainy garage mechanic who forswore his dreams in order to provide for his family. "Both of these guys play right out of themselves," says Reiner. "The character is an extension of themselves. Morgan is this calm, Zen-like person. Jack is all over the place, very passionate, larger than life. They have a way of rubbing off on each other. Morgan can take a lot of Jack's energy, and Jack can take a lot of Morgan's calmness."

Reiner adds that right before shooting Nicholson had been in the hospital for the first time in his life. "It was very upsetting to him and very scary," says Reiner, "and to be doing a part that touches on issues of mortality. He took from the experience in the hospital and brought it to the character."

"It was just a procedure, but it tired me out," says Nicholson. "There are a few lines in [the film] like, 'Can't you use the same blood?' that came right out of my stay. I had it fixed so that every two minutes [his character is getting his blood drawn.] Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood."

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