:JACK Nicholson's face is on fire

That's what it's like, he walks into the room and it's instant ignition, the eye brows dropping like burnt logs in the middle, flaring up at the ends, and then the inferno of The Smile, which erupts in three stages: the corners catching, the upper lip curling back, and then the white heat of one of the classic Nicholson faces. It's the you-know-that-I-know-we're-both-crazy smile, blazing under the glow of eyes that are yellow.

This is the face that lit up "Five Easy Pieces," "The Last Detail," "Chinatown," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Shining," "Reds," 36 movies since 1958, 17 of them since he stopped turning out biker and horror flicks and got famous in 1969 with "Easy Rider." Big heat.

A voice comes out of the fire. He seems to be saying the word "right" a lot, or "yeah," or "y'know," but it's mostly the sound of the voice that counts -- the fatigued Jersey drawl, beyond cynicism, the schwa-toned vowels in the tradition of his great lines: "Are ya making this up as ya go along?" as he says to Diane Keaton in "Reds," a performance that has won him an Oscar nomination this year. Or, to Marlon Brando in "The Missouri Breaks": "Know what woke ya up, Robert Lee? You've just had yer throat cut . . ."

The face, the voice: Nicholson makes a good, jarring entrance, here in the cool precision of a 33rd-floor hotel suite with a picture window overlooking Central Park, the Hudson and his home state of New Jersey.

Then he puts on the sunglasses, aviator tear-drop lenses, black as telephones and so small they look sinister. He does this very slowly. They get the fire under control.

It turns out there's a face to be studied behind the glare: a couple of big horizon lines over his brows, the hair thinning. After 44 years of spontaneous combustion, the face doesn't look a day under 44.

He does not sit down.

"I haven't worked all year," he is saying. His new movie, "The Border," is just out, and "Reds" came along last fall, and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" opened last spring, and now he's taking it easy, doesn't even have any idea what he'll do when he does it.

"I started off the year last year skiing and my daughter graduated from high school in Hawaii, I went over there and then I got back and went to Wimbledon, I'd been there a couple of years before but I was working every day so I didn't get to see it. And I spent the summer in the south of France, and came back and went to Colorado and skiing at the end of the year, that's about it."

And still he sounds tired. And looks tired. He slouches on the couch in a posture reminiscent of failing private detectives and, just possibly, people from New Jersey -- Neptune, to be precise, down by Asbury Park, psychic hardscrabble, the country Bruce Springsteen celebrates: "It's a town full of losers, we're pulling out of here to win."

Nicholson grew up the son of an alcoholic window dresser who left just after he was born. His mother supported him and his two older sisters by putting a beauty parlor in a bedroom. He was a cut-up in school, by all accounts. Manager of the basketball team. Trashed a rival team's electrical scoreboard equipment after a game because he thought they were playing dirty, then got a part-time job to pay for it. Left New Jersey after scoring in the top 2 percent on his college boards, and went to Los Angeles where one of his older sisters was a dancer with a chorus-line troupe called the Earl Carroll Showgirls. And never went back.

But his heart is in New Jersey. He loves it. Loves it.

"I was telling my friend Lou Adler about doing a Jersey music documentary -- Sinatra, Basie, people don't realize how many people are from Jersey. One night we were watching Harold . . . who's the dance choreographer, you know, no, Jerome Robbins. I mean they had four fine arts nominees for the Kennedy award (Kennedy Center Honors) and two of 'em from Jersey and the other one wasn't an American, so out of three Americans, two of 'em were from Jersey, Count Basie and Jerome Robbins. People don't realize this, what I started to say is, because, it's another thing about L.A. and Jersey affinity, because they're both places that give themselves bad P.R. because they don't want people around. It's true. They do have that affinity with Los Angelenos, who are the only people who talk about smog all the time."

This positing of a Jersey-L.A. axis may be unique. Still, he even dresses the part, the melancholic/laid-back aspects of both: the unshaped drape of a brown suit, cut late '40s style; red and green checked shirt; brown lace-up toe cap shoes with maroon socks; all of it gathered around the tiny, perfect Garden State touch: a gold tie clasp worn with no tie. Beautiful. One of the people, a man you could deal with.

"You from Jersey? Yeah, I went in there for Dollar Bill," he says, meaning he campaigned for basketball player Bill Bradley in his successful run for the Senate in 1980.

Nicholson takes an interest in politics. He's got a green ribbon tied to the handle of a beat-up and very full briefcase in the hotel room -- the ribbon is for both the murdered children in Atlanta, and the late Irish Republican Army hunger striker, Bobby Sands. You could imagine him working for a city machine, a behind-the-scenes type who knows the score, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown.

"I'd be a lawyer if I wasn't an actor."

What kind of lawyer?

His eyes are invisible behind the sunglasses, but you can see him thinking about it, savoring it. "I would've started out idealistically, doing criminal law," he says. The drawl sounds like he's just out of bed, still stretching. "And wound up handling about one very wealthy client."

Soundless laugh. This is Jersey thinking, all right.

"Well, realists, ya know," he says.

Or as he says about the characters he plays: "It's being a wrong-way player, the way I work, ya know. I have done a lot of characters who basically do unpopular things and it managed to work so I go on working."

He's always worked, never had to pump gas in between parts. He started with a $30-a-week job as messenger in the cartoon department at MGM. He enrolled in Jeff Corey's acting course, along with James Coburn, Sally Kellerman, producer Roger Corman, and Robert Towne who went on to write "The Last Detail" and "Chinatown."

Soon he was getting small parts, TV stuff, such as "Divorce Court." He had a little-theater part in "Tea and Sympathy," with Michael Landon. Everybody else moved up to stardom. Nicholson moved to a 1957 lead in a Roger Corman movie called "Cry Baby Killer." It was a six-day wonder that turned him into a regular in a long string of biker and horror flicks, and won him no fame whatever.

Nicholson once told a seminar of the Center for Advanced Film Studies: "Roger really carried me for about four years. He was the only guy that I ever got a job from. Costume stuff, which I do as badly as possibly can be done; gangster pictures which are a little closer to reality. In those days there were a lot of insane murderers being done which I've always been partial to."

Ten years, 19 movies, a marriage, one daughter (Jennifer) and a divorce later, he'd done it all, including writing, producing and going to Europe to buttonhole film executives to sell his movies. But It Hadn't Happened.

It Happened in 1969, when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda couldn't get Rip Torn to play the alcoholic small-town lawyer in "Easy Rider," and Nicholson stole not just another biker movie but the biggest movie of the year and an Oscar nomination, the first of five -- he'd win for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He made It Happen with that with that trademark combination of naivete' and despair, eagerness and certain doom. In movie after movie since, he's been a character who wills himself to optimism, while knowing, deep down, that it won't work out, it never does, this being the condition of life.

"It is the condition of life," he says now from this world-class slouch on the couch, lighting Marlboros he never seems to smoke. "And this is why I sort of rebel against being described in any pessimistic terms. Because I always try and play everybody I play, I try from the inside point of view for them to be after a positive goal for themselves, it's sort of another part of the code of work for me. That's what I admire about everybody, is, you know, trying, you know, you're not sure if you're right or wrong, at least go for what you think is right."

The phone rings. His secretary wanders in. She says: "Kareem Abdul Jabbar."

The sunglasses come off, he rocks out of the slouch, he's over to the antique desk in an instant. He is one of the all-time Los Angeles Lakers fanatics.

"Cream, how are ya? Not much, I'm in here, doin' a little business. What's happenin' with you? Come in for the ball game? I'm gonna be there. Yeah. In my native state, babe. Brendan Byrne Arena."

He moves in a world of celebrities, "known" people, as he calls them. His women friends have included Michele Phillips and John Huston's daughter Anjelica, though he says he doesn't have much personal life anymore. He campaigned for George McGovern, he's a pal to fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, to Mick Jagger, to Warren Beatty. His neighbor, on Mulholland Drive is Marlon Brando. It was his house where director Roman Polanski was accused of having drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. And he's an outspoken smoker of marijuana, being quoted last spring in People magazine as saying: "I love to get high, I'd say, about four days a week. I think that's about average for an American."

Doesn't smoking dope cut down on motivation for getting to work?

Nicholson's face goes up in flames again, the smile and the frown at the same time, temptation and reassurance building to a very big laugh: "Ya gotta get over that!"

Consorting with the famous has left him with a peculiar phobia. "When I first started being a known person I always thought, I'm gonna be standing next to someone very important and get shot, by mistake." The eyebrows wrinkle up, he shoots his jaw as if to say: Right?

Right. He laughs, very hard, a little too hard in that Nicholson way. "Ya know what I mean?"

Wasn't there a mayor of Chicago who got killed by a man shooting at Franklin Roosevelt?

Nicholson bears in, the mouth gathering to offer the real lowdown.

"Anton Cermak," he whispers. (He keeps doing that -- firing up his face and then muttering the words low enough that you have to listen even harder, pay more attention to him, the psychic distance always closing, as if he's going to start tapping your chest with his forefinger any second.) "Anton Cermak. So you know how deep the fantasy goes."

The price of fame: "I am waking up tired every morning," he says from the slouch. "I've been tired so long it's a joke. That's why I love skiing. I wake up in the morning and I'm tired. And I get up. Then I ski all day and for some reason, I'm not tired. The next morning, I'm tired again. But I know I'm going skiing, see, that's what works me through. I work through. I make the effort while I'm tired to get out there and get in in there and click 'em on, show 'em the ticket, sit down. Once I sit down in the chairlift to the top of the mountain . . . it's all right. And that way it's like the western I wrote "Ride the Whirlwind," 1967 , it's Sisyphean, the myth of Sisyphus in which a man is sentenced to an eternity of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back again , the trip up and down the hill. I literally took the idea of a guy in Texas pushing the cattle north, and then no burden, drop the cows off and come back for more. And I guess skiing is another one."

And in his movies, he always seems to be working against something, a very resistible force going up against an immovable object: Jake Gittes against infinite corruption in "Chinatown," Billy Buddusky against the Navy in "The Last Detail," Eugene O'Neill against political romanticism in "Reds." He seems so tired, fed up, with no choices but to keep on keeping on. "Yeah!" he says, when he's told he looks tired on the screen. He laughs, that dry amazed, wise-guy bark, that smile that erupts in his movies to signal the fact that the grind, the rat race, the futility just might end this very second, pal. It's the smile of the eternal optimist, in spite of himself.

"Yeah, it's hard work," he says.

He loves acting, that's one reason he took the year off because it didn't feel so good anymore. It's easy to see how he could have gotten run down. He started in the '50s when existentialism was the medium, he says. "My generation, you know, '50s graduates and so forth, you just write one poem all your life and burn it and the existential extension of that is not write at all, be an actor, therefore nobody gives you the Nobel Prize, you know what I mean?"

Now, in the '80s, "The Border" may be his last action movie. "I may be getting too old to do action movies. They're tougher than sports or anything else because of the repetition. If you say, you know, if you, what'll I do in this movie, jump off the front of an automobile or something, I mean, I could jump, you know, I'm a physical person. It doesn't sound -- you do it 20 times, one time you don't land right, it's just something that you don't do, you know what I mean?"

He's worked hard, and almost always for somebody else. As an actor he has preferred to let the directors run his movies, no battling for control. As a lawyer, he says, he would have ended up working for one wealthy man. As a celebrity he worries about getting shot while standing next to somone more famous than he is. As a boy he grew up without a father. The outsider. And Sisyphus. But instead of working with the rock, he's working for it -- that's the myth done up American style, Jersey style, a little of that schlemiel fatalism people make fun of, not so much dreams of triumph and vindication as dreams of just having a good job. Maybe you wake up tired, but you always get out of bed, that's what you take pride in.

He was a lifeguard, once, in Bradley Beach, N.J. Not up on the lifeguard stand, being a bronze god, but out in the boat, rowing standing up, by himself. "I like it better, you're not as responsible. Your job is to kind of patrol, and when an emergency happens you're the one who does something about it, but you're not repsonsible for missing an emergency. You're not the guy who's up here, who says okay, what we do now, when an emergency breaks out. The guy up there will be directing you."

Just a working man -- isn't that what people see up on the screen? The guy who fights city hall, bucks the Navy, spits into the wind even though he knows, deep down, that it won't, it can't succeed. Except what choice does he have?

"Bradley Beach," he says. The Face flickers and ignites. "Never had a drowning in Bradley Beach since they started municipal lifeguards in 1911. Nobody's ever drowned in Bradley Beach."

He watches to see if the importance of this is sinking in. The eyebrows flare, the lids drop. He nods, this guy who knows just how good he is, how many movies he's made, and how tired it's gotten him. "It's a good record." Pictures 1 through 10, Nicholson's roles. Riding on the back of Peter Fonda's cycle in "Easy Rider." "The Shining," "The Last Detail," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Border," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Five Easy Pieces," "Chinatown," "The Missouri Breaks" and "Reds." Picture 11, Jack Nicholson, by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post