Over his storied career, Jack Nicholson has only played one detective, Jake Gittes, who made his debut in 1974’s Chinatown. “I just liked it because it was a departure from most films,” Jack said. “It was a detective with no gun.”

Chinatown, an ambitious neo-noir thriller starring Jack, Faye Dunaway and John Huston, would be among that year’s top 20 highest-grossing movies and earn 10 Academy Award nominations. “It’s a very carefully made film,” says Sam Wasson, author of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. “It presents a perfect American nightmare.”

Like Oil and Water

The making of this film about lies, corruption, conspiracies and greed also proved extremely challenging. Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne argued passionately about Chinatown’s bleak ending. It got so heated that the film’s writer stormed off the set. “I’m glad Roman’s point of view prevailed,” said Jack. “That was the ‘no happy endings period.’”

The director’s relationship with Faye was also tense. Gossips claimed that when Polanski denied Faye a bathroom break, she urinated in a cup and threw it at him! However, the actress denied the story. “There was only one major blowup,” insisted Faye, who won the role of Evelyn Mulwray over Jane Fonda and Julie Christie. “I get angry when people push people around.”

The blowout occurred when Polanski took direct action on an errant strand of Faye’s hair. “There was one scene where her hair was catching the light in a strange way,” Wasson says. “Roman just took the liberty of plucking out the strand and she exploded.”

Despite their close friendship, Polanski also clashed with Jack when the actor was late to the set because he was watching his beloved L.A. Lakers play in overtime. “I grabbed a mop and ran inside Jack’s trailer to smash the TV,” Polanski recalled. “But I didn’t have enough room, and the damn thing wouldn’t break, so I grabbed the TV and tossed it out the trailer.”

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway on set of 'Chinatown'
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Jack’s then-girlfriend Angelica Huston — whose real-life father, John, played Chinatown’s villain Noah Cross — visited the set twice. “Out of nowhere, my father, eyeing [Jack] malevolently, said, ‘I hear you are sleeping with my daughter’— long pause — ‘Mr. Gittes.’ I went bright red and then I realized: They were rehearsing,” she recalled. “Everyone burst out laughing.”

As with John, Jack’s working relationship with Faye was built on trust. When a scene where Jake hits Evelyn wasn’t working with a fake slap, “I finally said, ‘Jack, you are just gonna have to hit me,’” Faye recalled. “He really did.”

Towne, the screenwriter, who would be the only one to win an Oscar for Chinatown, envisioned it as the first film in a trilogy, but after the 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, didn’t live up to expectations, the plan for a third film was abandoned. “Chinatown is a state of mind,” says Wasson. “Thinking you’ve got it figured out and realizing you’re dead — that’s Chinatown.”