Jack Nicholson doesn't do hugs. The iconic bad boy isn't one for playing false palsy-walsy, even with Morgan Freeman. Nicholson and Freeman star in "The Bucket List," a film about male bonding late in life that is set to open in theaters Jan. 11.
HOLLYWOOD — 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 a Los Angeles Times photographer 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 about male bonding late in life that is set to open in theaters Jan. 11. 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 — although, in reality, the duo tries to make sure there’s a healthy dash of vinegar inside the schmaltz.
On a fall afternoon, Nicholson and Freeman were ensconced side by side on a couch in Jack’s office. For the past few decades (40 years for Nicholson, 20 for Freeman), the two have embodied different strains of American manhood.
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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.
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.’ “
They both still have a kind of restlessness, but in Freeman’s case it has 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.
“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 is a brainy mechanic who gave up his dreams to provide for his family.
“Both of these guys play right out of themselves,” Reiner says. “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,” Reiner says, “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,” Nicholson says. “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.”
Mortality hovers over Nicholson, as it does over “The Bucket List” despite its jolly sequences of the spry pair diving from airplanes, racing cars, climbing the Himalayas — all courtesy of computer graphics. Freeman, however, seems more relaxed about facing the gaping maw. If given the option of living to 120, he’d take it in a flash, “because I’m going to be viable. Otherwise, no, I won’t live that long. You can’t. Life is only about the strong.”
Indeed, the pair differ on many of the big questions in life. Freeman believes in God, although not as embodied by himself in “Evan Almighty” or “a white man up in the sky who looks down on us. … What I believe about God is there is that part of all of us, that is the only thing you can call it. You can call it anything you want to, actually. … So God suffices.”
Nicholson questions everything. “I have always been like a grain of sand in the oyster.”
“I’m not anti-religious in any way, but I like ‘The End of Faith’ [by Sam Harris] because they just took Galileo off the heretics list. There are certain areas where I’m not going to challenge anyone’s sense of mystery, but I don’t want reason to be held back by someone’s idea of fundamentalism, and that happens. … You can’t go on behaving as though the world is flat.”
Both insist they still have things on their “bucket lists,” although they remain vague on what they are.
For Freeman, he wanted to work with Nicholson before he died. And that included hugging.
After the last shot, Freeman told Nicholson, “This has been a dream come true,” recalls Reiner. Before the last shot, “Jack had said, ‘We’re not hugging.’ But Morgan is a hugger. After the last shot, Morgan gave him a great bear hug.”