‘Winning Time’s Jack Nicholson Cameo: The Oscar-winning actor is a well-known Lakers supporter. There are spoilers for Winning Time’s second season in the text below.
The True Story Behind Winning Times Jack Nicholson Cameo
The abrupt ending and cancellation of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty certainly came as a major shock to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the true story that the series was based on. Although history remembers that the Los Angeles sports team scored a major victory when they won the 1985 NBA championship match against the Boston Celtics, the final episode of the season (and as it turns out, the show) ended with the team’s shocking loss to the Massachusetts sports team at the final 1984 title match. The cancellation of Winning Time is a disappointing one; not only was the drama series one of HBO’s best, but Jeff Pearlman’s novel suggested that there were many more stories left on the table for the series to potentially adapt. As the Season 2 finale suggested, a certain Academy Award-winning actor got fairly riled up after watching his favorite sports team lose the pivotal match.
No One Loves the Lakers More Than Jack Nicholson
One of the best parts of Winning Time was the show’s fanciful (and occasionally eccentric) depiction of real historical figures. Based on the details from Pearlman’s novel, it doesn’t seem like much of Winning Time was fictitious; this was a time in sports history when larger-than-life personalities emerged both on and off the court. The second season’s final episode shows the Lakers at their most vulnerable; Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) is about to get married, Kareem Abdul-Jabar (Solomon Hughes) is questioned about his longevity, Pat Riley’s (Adrien Brody) coaching abilities are put to the test, and Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) is in the middle of a marital lawsuit. The team’s loss earns the outrage of the loyal Lakers fans, including Jack Nicholson.
Bullet in the Face actor Max Williams makes a brief appearance in “What Is and What Should Never Be” as a version of Nicholson; the infamous star cheers on the Lakers from his front-row seats at the game and goads the Celtics fans by spewing insults in their faces. It’s an amusing moment in an otherwise serious episode, but according to director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, the final cut that aired was only the tip of the iceberg. Richardson-Whitfield revealed that a scene was shot involving Nicholson mooning the Celtics fans, but was omitted based on concerns that it would feel too comical in the heat of the moment. She said that “knowing Jack, he could have said anything,” teasing that a potential third season could have given Williams even more ridiculous material to work with.
Although some of Winning Time’s real-life subjects have criticized the show’s “fast and loose” approach to the facts, Nicholson’s Lakers fandom is one of the most notable things about him (outside of winning three Oscars, of course). As an avid basketball fan and Los Angeles resident, Nicholson has been on the sidelines cheering on the Lakers from his front-row seats for decades. After earning seasonal tickets in the 1970s, Nicholson’s fiery temper became a permanent fixture of Lakers fan culture. He became known for calling out plays that he felt were illegal, and often sparred with the referees. Although Nicholson retired from acting after appearing in James L. Brooks’ 2010 comedy How Do You Know, he has recently appeared courtside cheering on the Lakers’ recent victories.
The potential of seeing more of Nicholson in his capacity as a Celtics fan in a third season of Winning Time would have been exciting and makes the show’s abrupt cancellation even more disappointing. While the series’ creators attempted to mollify the downbeat nature of the finale by teasing the future events of its characters in a closing title card, it felt narratively incongruent to end the show at such a climactic point in the series’ run. Winning Time had framed itself as a hero’s journey for Magic, Kareem, Riley, and Buss, and those who had invested in the lightly fictionalized version of these titanic sports legends were left with no proper conclusion to the story.
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Jack Nicholson Was at His Peak in the 1980s
Outside of his continued Lakers fandom, Nicholson hasn’t been heard from much recently, as the famously reclusive star retired from acting in 2010. Although he’s best known for the highly influential films he starred in during the 1960s and 1970s, Nicholson’s career was still at its peak during the era in which Winning Time takes place. The Lakers’ loss at the 1984 championship was amidst the same year Nicholson won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Brooks’ Terms of Endearment; it was his second Oscar victory after his Best Actor win for 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
1985 was a great year for Nicholson as both an actor and Lakers fan. In addition to watching the team win back their championship title from the Celtics, Nicholson scored another Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in John Huston’s crime comedy Prizzi’s Honor. The 1980s continued to be rewarding for him on both fronts; as the Lakers won additional championships in 1987, 1988, and 1989, Nicholson appeared in such classic films as Heartburn, The Witches Of Eastwick, Ironweed, and Tim Burton’s Batman. Magic’s retirement after the Lakers’ 1991 championship victory fell only one year after Nicholson directed The Two Jakes, a long-anticipated sequel to Chinatown that saw him returning to the role of Detective Jake Gittes.
It certainly would be difficult for an actor, even one as talented as Williams, to capture the iconic persona of Nicholson. One of the biggest concerns about a potential film adaptation of The Big Goodbye(the novel based on the making of Chinatown) was finding an actor to play a younger version of Nicholson. That being said, Henry Thomas was able to convincingly play a young Jack Torrance (Nicholson’s character from The Shining) in 2019’s Doctor Sleep, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. A third season of Winning Time with even more of Nicholson’s courtside shenanigans is an exciting idea that HBO has sadly passed on.
Both seasons of Winning Time are now available to stream on Max.
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