Jack Nicholson Photograph by Martin Schoeller
Benjamin Svetkey
December 27, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

There’s a big bowl filled with ripped-up money sitting on Jack Nicholson’s coffee table. Mostly it’s shredded $1 bills, but dig around and you’ll find a couple of torn 10s and 20s and even a crumpled piece of an old 50. ”I have a long story about that,” Nicholson offers, arching one eyebrow so high it practically qualifies as a hairstyle. ”But I only tell it to people who rip up their money and put it in.”

At 65, Nicholson has lots of stories, long and short, and mostly free of charge. From his sprawling art-filled estate perched above L.A. on Mulholland Drive — where his wacky sitcom neighbor happens to be Marlon Brando — he’s witnessed some three decades of Hollywood history. Of course, he’s also been known to pop down the hill from time to time to make some of his own — and it looks like he’s about to do so again with the new dark comedy” About Schmidt.” His uncharacteristically muted turn as a retired insurance actuary who races through the Midwest in a Winnebago to prevent his daughter (Hope Davis) from marrying a nudnick waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney) is once again generating that old familiar buzz that usually precedes a Nicholson Academy Award nomination. Should that happen, he will become the only leading man ever to be nominated 12 times.

Entertainment Weekly sat down with the $15 million-a-picture star to talk about his transformation into Warren Schmidt (”Unlike anybody I’ve ever played before”), his passions, mellowing with age — and why why he likes to watch people tear up their money.

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