Nicholson talks shop at Ivy League

Film festival panel brings vets together

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Jack Nicholson made a rare panel appearance Saturday, joining Robert Evans, Brad Grey and moderator Peter Bart for a group meditation on showbiz past and present.

The keynote event of the weekend’s Ivy League Film Festival was held at Brown U., the school attended by Nicholson’s daughter and Grey’s kids and where Evans once taught film.

The two-hour panel yielded few stop-the-presses moments, but it proved to be manna for Hollywood buffs, with choice nuggets and anecdotes that charmed the mostly undergraduate audience.

Bart, VP and editorial director of Variety and a former film exec who teamed with Evans at Paramount, questioned panelists in between clips spanning five decades. Footage ranged from Nicholson’s early role in Roger Corman’s black-and-white “Little Shop of Horrors” to the upcoming “Transformers” sequel.

Nicholson reflected on “Batman,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,” “Easy Rider” and other films, but one of his most vivid stories came from “The Departed.” Director Martin Scorsese, when shooting the pivotal scene when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is confronted by Nicholson’s tyrannical mob boss (“I got a rat in my outfit”), invited the actors to sleep on it and try more takes the next day.

“I was up all night,” Nicholson smiled. He invented the bit of business where he spits brandy out on the paper placemat and sets it on fire. (“I forgot it was water!” the star said, noting how the flame dies after singeing the mat.)

Also, before shooting began, he summoned the prop man and arranged to have a handgun hidden under his thigh. The idea was to pull it on his co-star without warning.

“Leo’s never had a greater moment onscreen,” Nicholson crowed.

Bart stayed with “Departed,” asking Grey about Academy rules barring him from receiving an Oscar statuette onstage when “The Departed,” which he started producing before joining Paramount as chief exec, won best picture.

“It was heartbreaking,” Grey said.

“How do you think I feel?” Nicholson quipped. “I wasn’t even nominated!”

At another moment, Grey admitted he’s not completely smitten by 3-D, even while noting the stout B.O. returns for titles such as “Monsters vs. Aliens.” “The glasses are too awkward,” he said. “No one would want to wear them on a date.”

Evans recalled his initial pursuit of Nicholson, whom he had noticed in some low-budget Corman films in the late-1960s. “I want to know who that guy smiling is. Find the smile,” he recalled telling his staff at Par.

Nicholson came in for a meeting and pitched a project he was working on with Dennis Hopper.

“I said, ‘I don’t care about that motorcycle picture. I want you to star with Streisand!’ ” The Hopper pic, of course, became “Easy Rider,” but Nicholson did sign on opposite Barbra Streisand for “On a Clear Day,” pocketing $12,500 for three weeks of shooting.

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