'A Few Good Men' 25th flashback: Rob Reiner shares true story behind Jack Nicholson's 'You can't handle the truth' moment

Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in <em>A Few Good Men</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Columbia/Courtesy of Everett Collection)
Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

From “These go to 11” to “I’ll have what she’s having,” Rob Reiner‘s movies are always a reliable source of instantly quotable movie lines. If you had to pick the five most famous words in his filmography, though, they would probably be: “You can’t handle the truth.” Jack Nicholson uttered that immortal sentence — penned by Aaron Sorkin — in the Oscar-nominated courtroom drama A Few Good Men, which premiered in theaters 25 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1992. Playing esteemed military officer Col. Nathan Jessup, Nicholson threw those words back in the face of prosecuting U.S. Navy lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) for having the temerity to badger Jessup about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of one of the Marines on his military base. Written in vintage high-volley Sorkin fashion, the sequence still crackles with electricity a quarter-century later. Small wonder that it has since been spoofed in everything from The Simpsons to sales-rep training videos.

As much pleasure as we take in dropping a good “you can’t handle the truth” reference every now and then, that’s nothing compared with how much Nicholson enjoyed saying that particular line on set. In a recent conversation with Reiner, the director remembers his star, who received the 10th of his 12 Oscar nominations for A Few Good Men, happily performing the scene over and over again entirely of his own volition. “Before we started shooting, I asked Jack if he wanted me to shoot his angles first or Cruise’s reaction shots first so that he’d be off-camera,” Reiner explains, adding that Nicholson initially requested the off-camera option so that he’d have time to rehearse his delivery.

As it turned out, though, the actor couldn’t resist delivering a camera-ready performance on every off-camera take. “Every time we did the scene, Jack did it perfectly,” Reiner says, laughing. “After a couple of takes, I said, ‘Jack, maybe you want to save a little bit for when we’ve got the camera on you.’ And he replied, ‘Rob, you don’t understand — I love to act.'” If Reiner was concerned that Nicholson wasn’t saving the best stuff for last, The Shining star proved otherwise when it was finally his turn in the spotlight. “When the camera came around to him, he did the exact same performance that he gave off-camera. And it was great every time.”

Jack Nicholson and Rob Reiner on the set of <em>A Few Good Men</em>&nbsp;in 1992 (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Jack Nicholson and Rob Reiner on the set of A Few Good Men in 1992 (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Reiner saw another side of Nicholson — the screenwriter side — when the duo reunited 15 years after A Few Good Men for 2007’s The Bucket List, a gentle geriatric comedy about two men (Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) finally fitting in all the things they’ve wanted to do as they confront the end of their lives. In his pre-fame Hollywood days, Nicholson alternated acting jobs with writing gigs on such ’60s B-movies as Flight to Fury and the Monkees cult classic Head, and he brought that early experience to Reiner’s set. “Every single morning, I’d go to Jack’s trailer, and whatever scene we were working on that day, we’d go over it and make it better. That was a big kick for me, working with him to improve the scene for the day. We didn’t do that as much on A Few Good Men because Aaron Sorkin wrote an incredible screenplay. But Jack is also a writer — he’s written a bunch of screenplays.”

Reiner couldn’t have known this at the time, but The Bucket List also proved to be Nicholson’s last leading role. Three years later, in 2010, he played a supporting role opposite Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Paul Rudd in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know, and since then Nicholson has been on an extended hiatus from the silver screen. There’s a chance that hiatus might end soon, though; Nicholson is attached to headline a remake of the Oscar-nominated German father-daughter comedy Toni Erdmann, written by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner and co-starring Kristen Wiig. Reiner, for one, is certainly rooting for a comeback. “I hope he returns. He’s one of the great American film actors of all time.” We can handle that truth.

A Few Good Men and The Bucket List are available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube. Watch the original trailer:

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