NEW YORK -- The sky is porridge, a thick soup of grit and humidity that struggles up 27 stories and seeps through Jack Nicholson's open window. He lights up a Camel, drags, pauses and decides he hates the press even more than usual. The brain whirs, there's an audible click. He has decided to do his impersonation of the Big Bad Wolf, and Mr. Wolfie is in a grumpy mood.Jack Nicholson claims at least half of what's been written about him is off the wall. For him, an interview is an exercise in put-downs, self-deprecation and foul language. It's sadomasochism with Evian water. He leans forward, picks up the bottle and slugs it back in a manly fashion. He hates publicity, but it's a necessary evil, part of the game when you're launching a movie, especially a troubled one.

It took him five years or more and cost him his best friend, but Nicholson did it, he finished "The Two Jakes." "You're going to love it," said the Los Angeles Times of this convoluted sequel to "Chinatown." "A masterpiece," raved the Thumb Twins. Nicholson, who starred in, directed and rewrote buddy Robert Towne's script, is about the only other living soul in agreement. "Are people going to like a flawless, thoughtful, intelligent movie?" he asks, flashing the notorious grin, vivid as an acid flashback.

Nicholson reprises the role of detective Jake Gittes in this return to old Los Angeles. Set in 1948, 11 years after "Chinatown," "The Two Jakes" gives us a golf-playing, prosperous, porky Jake. "He's comfortable," allows the actor, who points out that he's now "a lot thinner than I was in the movie." Indeed Nicholson, whose Jake II looks like the Nutri-System poster child, is waisted, paunchless even.

His performance is heavy too, like a wide-load trailer taking hairpins through the San Gabriel Mountains. Gittes is having a midlife crisis in slo-motion, crying over spilled blood at the end of "Chinatown." He finds his current case, murder-adultery-orange grove abuse, is intricately related to the past. A voice-over was added to clarify the plot.

"The Two Jakes," Nicholson's third directorial effort, was a problematic production that was revised, re-shot, postponed again and again. Nicholson worries that "gibbering" about all that will hurt the movie's reception. (In fact the opening weekend grosses were puny.) "I wake up and here's this article and all they said is, 'Robert Towne blah blah blah,' " he says of his Tinseltown tiff with his erstwhile comrade. "And I think, 'Uuuhh Jack, you don't need to do interviews. They're just going to make you make a fool of yourself. ... Are you ever going to grow up and say, Look, shut up?"

Nicholson, at 53, remains a rascal, trying to shock the girls, impress the boys with his devilish manner and syncopated eyebrows. Like a kid who's just learned to curse, he is free with four-letter words. With a double-dog-dare-you look in his eyes, he watches for a cringe. Conversation is a duel.

A reference to censorship lights his fuse. "Remember, it was only 15 years ago that you couldn't say 'for unlawful carnal knowledge,' so the fact that you can say {bleep} and {bleep} now does not represent a large progression to me... . You know, the first {bleep} is much more important than the sixth {bleep} and {bleep} and... ."

Reassured that you can indeed say bleep in modern times, he fumes, "Well, okay, I don't want us to get into a conflict over definitions and context. In fact, let me tell you where censorship has actually gone so that you won't be just reflecting the conventional wisdom. What I always said is you could slice a {breast} in the movies but you couldn't kiss one. And that's the real issue, you know.

"I'm fearless. Even in an interview, I dare to be realistic. Heh, heh, heh."

The Jack of All Tirades has no patience with puritans. Profanity is not merely chest-beating but his way of exercising his civil liberties. He is what he is, the same as the parts that he plays -- the catalytic outsiders, the system-buckers, the rugged individualists. He's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" without the apple pie and the starry eyes. The world is his cuckoo's nest.

The topic of censorship continues to worry him. "You've got to know that individuality is under fire. I'm not even interested in any system that isn't specifically designed to expand personal liberty. I think everything is simply the dog police. It's as though human beings were to be kenneled and fed and leashed. They're not. And certainly if America is about anything it's about, you know, the Magna Carta."

Ah, the mind unleashed.

Nicholson lights up another Camel, drags, grins, looks really proud of himself. "You know," he tells a reporter confidentially, expounding on his theory on the battle between the sexes, "you have more in common with a female cat than you do a human man."

When it comes to women, he has three guidelines: "They're smarter, meaner and they don't play fair." He means that as a compliment. Nicholson grew up in Neptune, N.J., believing himself to be the son of a beautician, Ethel May Nicholson, and the sign painter, John, who abandoned them. Some 38 years passed before he learned that his older sister, June, the showgirl with whom he had so much in common, was really his mother. And this he learned as the result of a magazine article.

The truth was confirmed by his aunt, Lorraine, whose name he gave to his 4-month-old child, born to actress Rebecca Brousard. His affair with Brousard -- a spunky gal Friday in "The Jakes" -- reportedly brought the curtain down on his 17-year relationship with Anjelica Huston. "I feel very blessed," he says of his second daughter. His first, Jennifer, 26, was born to his actress-wife Sandra Knight in the early '60s.

Life is dear to Nicholson. He gets all fuzzy, smiles tenderly over his favorite line in "The Jakes," delivered by costar Harvey Keitel: "Remember, the children are watching. They're watching." There's a hush. "I don't mean to act it out for you," he apologizes.

Nicholson's appreciation for his life fights with his "ultra-liberal" politics. "I'm pro-choice, but against abortion because I'm an illegitimate child myself and it would be hypocritical to take any other position. I'd be dead, I wouldn't exist," he says. "And I have nothing but total admiration, gratitude and respect for the strength of the women who made the decision they made in my individual case. But as I say, I believe this is the choice of the woman. And, you know, I walk it like I talk it."

Beyond that, he believes that at some super-conscious level, guilt and self-loathing keep us from reproducing. "See, I don't mind the idea of abortion, you know, I mean I'm not a metaphysical person." Fast forward. "But being the man in the situation, I find that they're choosing between their ability to have lunch versus their ability to have a baby. And I fear that this is some self-hypnotic mantra. These are my fears. I always fear for all of us but not the future.

"Remember, we come from a species that lived under the water. To come out of the water, if you breathed in the water, represents death more certain than any kind of radiation. And we've already overcome that."

Which brings him to:

"If you've ever been involved in athletics, you see coaching gets people to just simply understand, 'You can do this.' It's one of the positive elements of the military. God, I hated being in the Air Force, but it saved the mimbly-pimbly momma's boys. I had to say, now this is very good that this guy's being told someday you're going to live with other people. You might want to know how to pick up your socks. You know what I mean?"

Incongruous against a floral-print sofa, Nicholson sports loud, checkered socks that could be used to declare the winner of the Indy 500. His loafers, appaloosa-hide and dandified, are a made-for-strutting fashion statement. Rivaling Imelda Marcos when it comes to footwear, he purportedly owns 74 more pairs, as well as 25 pairs of sunglasses. Today his eyes are naked under the boomerang eyebrows. And his skin, loose as a camel's lips, shows the wear of the 16 years that have passed since the premiere of "Chinatown."

Towne and Nicholson always planned to do a series of films based on Gittes and the screenwriter's memories of his family's real estate business. "As a non-native I always have looked at Los Angeles as the city of the future. It has, you know, more to do with building than decay... . I love Los Angeles. It's paradise in its way. Certainly I'm not a country boy. My model for living is I live in a two-bedroom apartment -- one bedroom's in L.A., one's in Aspen, and I don't have to pay the gardeners in between.

"And you know in today's world, over-identifying geographically with home is arcane. But of course, you mourn {the pollution}. I mean I fight all the time up where I live with developers, trying to keep things in my own back yard ecologically nice, but you can't stop other people from living where you live. That's not America. That's not democratic. It's not right. But you can try and intensify their sensitivity to the situation, and in that sense the movie is an appeal to that sensibility."

Unlike Gittes, who is given to hard-boiled homilies, Nicholson is anything but succinct. His conversation rambles, lurches and gets tangled as a yard dog wrapped in his own leash. He explains the symbolism in the earthquakes that shake "The Jakes" from time to time. "The earth is moving under your feet, the globe is hurtling through space. You can never be where you were, and yet where you were still is there where it was and that's what the movie is saying and the earthquake is this, you know, as I say the metaphoric feeling of the earth rumbling."

Nicholson, the high school sophomore, took up acting when he was kicked out of Manasquan High's sports program -- "and all the chicks that I liked where doing plays." A Jeff Corey-trained method actor, he calls his work autobiographical in that it comes from his gut.

Before "Easy Rider" brought him acclaim in 1969, he earned a buck doing episodes of "Divorce Court," and a living as an actor, writer and producer in Roger Corman's B-movie factory. His directorial debut came with "Drive, He Said," a countercultural tale, in 1971, followed by "Goin' South" in 1978. A western romp, the latter was trounced as a Gabby Hayesian nose-candy spoof.

"I have always kinda been ticked off that they always start reviews of movies I directed by saying, 'Well of course all the performances are brilliant -- however,' as though this were the case in every movie that came down the block. I mean, you know, 'Goin' South' produced more million-dollar actors from obscurity than any movie in history. Mary Steenburgen, John Belushi, Chris Lloyd, Danny DeVito.

"I was doing 'The Shining' in England {at the time it came out} so I didn't get the full brunt of the criticism, but I resented that it was this kind of claptrap view... . And I think that wanting to grab that easy handle kept them from seeing what I extremely modestly say is a comic masterpiece. Remember, this is a singular complaint. If anything, I've been overly praised {by critics}."

He has high hopes for "The Jakes." "You know, this is action painting, this movie. It's not linear painting. It's a diptych," says Nicholson the art collector. Colleagues who have worked with the sometime director in the past have said that he was more assured, easier-going this time. "I matured somewhat, is the most self-congratulatory term I can come up with at the moment," he says wickedly.

According to the World Almanac, Who's Who and the rest of the world, Jack Nicholson was born April 28, 1937, in Neptune, N.J. "I was born in Manhattan," he says firmly. "You know the press." Grrr. Suddenly there's more beard stubble on the ruggedly fascinating face.

Surely he gets tired of hearing the same questions.

"Ah, that's okay," he says pleasantly. "Mrs. Vreeland cautioned me on this when I first started. She said never tell the truth in an interview, you'll get bored with your own life. One of the lines that was cut out of 'The Two Jakes' is, 'The wise man is never bored.' It was said in Chinese so it wasn't going to last into infinity, but it is something I believe, yeah. I've never been bored."

Then he never tells the truth?

"Well, there's a big difference between telling lies and telling the truth. A lot of ground in between.

"I don't tell many lies. I just don't tell that much."

Nicholson is supporting a Colorado ecologist for the Senate -- "Give Josie Keaton a plug," he urges -- but says, "Look, I don't want to really be labeled. I mean I'm for a strong police force, liberals are not. I'm for legalizing drugs, conservatives are not. That's why I'm not more systematically political, because I don't really fit. And I'm not interested in homogenizing. I do what I do. I know from my interchanges with the public, half of 'em think I'm a raving lunatic. And you know nothing could be further from the truth. I feel myself I'm ultra-rational."

He is relieved to hear that his driver has arrived with a sandwich. Tonight he's making his annual pilgrimage to the House That Ruth Built. A sportsman in his own right, he says, "I like basketball because it's played at night. I like 'Batman' because it was the only comic that took place at night. I liked the darkness as a kid, the wild, deranged complexity of the Joker."

He was attracted to the Gittes films because they were noir, but he didn't want to make a movie that could be classified. "Everyone is in some kind of ethical conflict, everyone in the picture. So this to me is a successful twist on the genre. It's dark and appears light. Darkness is shaking under the ground, the fuel of the pollution of the future. And that's the reason to refer to the past, learn from it. Those fossils were formerly living creatures. That what fossil fuel is, you know.

"I don't mean to be precious. We don't consider things at this depth {in the movie}. That's part of what I do for my livelihood and I don't do it all the time. I'm just as capable of being bizarre and flimsy and falling down and out of line as the next guy... . I don't just cruise through life, devil-may-care. In fact just the opposite. My friends say, 'Oh God, you just worry too much.' "

Another Camel in his mouth, the dim sun streaming in, he explains himself. "In interviews, we just talk dreams. You see what I'm saying. But normally since directors are control freaks, this to me is threatening but stimulating. I think it's good. Because after all is said and done you know I became an actor so I didn't have to be a salesman. I'm a natural salesman. From childhood people wanted to buy what old little Jackie's selling."

Old little Jackie. He's off to the Yankees game. "George Steinbrenner did overlook pitching for a mighty long time," he says of the morning's headlines. He walks the reporter to the door. A short man with more hair than you'd imagine. "Never say you're sorry, babe," he advises.