That Time Jack Nicholson Bought a Commune Run by an Ex-Clown

Jack Nicholson photographed by Ara Gallant. Cover designed and painted by Richard Bernstein.

That Time When is Interview’s weekly trip through the pop cultural space-time continuum, where we return to some of the most overlooked moments from issues past. In this edition, we revisit our December 1976 issue with cover star Jack Nicholson, Hollywood’s go-to wild man, and a stint on a commune nearly as wild as his films. 

Jack Nicholson is one of those Hollywood enigmas who we may think we know, but who’s to say that’s even really possible? Playing the Joker, Jack Torrance, and also Diane Keaton’s love interest? Sure. But becoming a landlord on not one, but two different communes? No one would’ve guessed. His 1976 interview with Andy Warhol arrived hot off the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), a film that established Nicholson as a connoisseur of deeply tortured characters. Although the interview takes place before the release of The Shining, the conversation offers a bit of a preview, with Nicholson giving lines like, “I wanted to get up there before the snow falls heavy because you can’t get anything done. Once the snow falls it’s murder to get your house fixed.”

Nicholson took Andy through his time on the communes, saying he was inspired by his friend Gabe Katz, who was the Art Director of the San Francisco Oracle. Katz heavily subscribed to the hippie lifestyle, often disappearing for months on acid trips to wander the California countryside. Nicholson was intrigued, and wanted to provide Katz a safe haven. The second time around, Nicholson found his way to a plot of land in New Mexico, and encountered a group of bandits that looked something like the Manson cult—albeit minus the murderous rampages, and plus…a former clown.

JACK NICHOLSON: [Gabe Katz] found this land while he was wandering that he described to me in great detail and I was at the point of view at the time of giving land back to the people. So I bought this piece of land for them for this commune.

ANDY WARHOL: You’re an owner of a commune? Really? Now?

NICHOLSON: No, let me finish this story. They lasted about six months. So I now start getting communiques that someone’s trying to push them off the land and then, after a few months of that, Gabe shows up and said somebody actually drove them off the land with guns up there. So I don’t do anything. I just sit there owning the land. Another few months go by and I get a very unusual letter—not too legibly written, no too great spelling—from a young guy who was a clown and is now on the property. I don’t know what they’re doing. It said “putting in fruit tree” and did I mind if they stayed?

The gun people have now disappeared […] I returned to the letter and about three days after I read it a girl rides up to my house in Beverly Hills on a horse and claims to have ridden all the way down from New Mexico on this horse because they hadn’t got a reply to this letter and was it alright if they stayed? I said, “Sure. Go ahead.” I still haven’t seen it. So the next thing that happens—this is the last thing I’ve heard—is I leased part of it through my business manager and now they have been pushed off literally by a Butch Cassidy group. They’re bandits living on this land and it’s a very high mountain and nobody will go up and get ‘em. So it’s now an outlaw’s hide-out. And I’ve never seen it.

WARHOL: It would make a great movie.

Warhol and Nicholson chatted for hours, going through two different tapes. Lunch turned into window shopping along Madison Avenue, and then returning to Nicholson’s suite at the Carlyle Hotel. It’s likely that the interview ended because Warhol ran out of tape to record it all. Forty-some years later, the long awaited sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, is set to arrive in theaters, and will continue the journey through the Overlook Hotel, though sadly without Nicholson. As for that New Mexico Butchy Cassidy cult movie, though, we’re still awaiting a phone call.