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The Cry Baby Killer: Jack Nicholson’s First Movie Role

By John R. Barrows

On August 18*, 1958, the Hollywood film studio Allied Artists Pictures released a new motion picture called The Cry Baby Killer, starring 20-year-old Jack Nicholson in the lead role, his first film credit in what would become one of the most amazing careers in entertainment history.

A publicity still of Jack Nicholson starring as Jimmy Wallace in The Cry Baby Killer. Image credit: IMDB.

Jack Nicholson, like Danny DeVito, had just one TV credit to his career before landing his first acting role in a motion picture.  While DeVito provided the voice for the red M&M for a TV ad, Nicholson first appeared as “Musician’s Son,” the title character in a long-lost 1956 episode of the TV series Matinee Theatre.

Trailer for The Cry Baby Killer, 1958.

  For two long years after that first break Nicholson studied at acting school and went on auditions, without much success, until he was cast in the lead role of legendary film producer Roger Corman’s new film, The Cry Baby Killer.  The film was directed by Justus Addiss (1917–1979), whose greatest success came in directing episodic television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Corman, of Silence of the Lambs fame among hundreds of other films to his name, is credited with Nicholson’s landing the starring role in this film.

Promotional poster for The Cry Baby Killer. Image credit: IMDB.

The Cry Baby Killer tells the story of Jimmy Wallace, a teenage hoodlum who holds a mother and her baby as hostage in a drive-in cafe after a shooting in which he believes he has killed two other youths.  The film came out during a period of popular Hollywood films depicting teen angst and violence, such as James Dean’s iconic turn in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). 

A still from The Cry Baby Killer, with Jack Nicholson and Barbara Knudson. Image credit: IMDB.

Initially invited to audition for a minor part, “Jack gave a sensational reading,” according to co-producer David Kramarsky.  He was soon cast in the lead role.

The film went into production in mid-October 1957, shot in Los Angeles.  The cinematographer was Floyd Crosby, father of musician David Crosby. 

Corman produced another teen flick at the same time called Hot Car Girl, and wanted to have theaters show this and The Cry Baby Killer as a double feature, so he insisted on editing Killer down to just over one hour in length, a very short running time for a feature film.  Some believe this brevity contributed to its extremely poor performance at the box office.

According to Kramarsky, “Jack saw it several times, in a theater up on Hollywood Boulevard, at once proud and embarrassed.”  But he would go on to enjoy one of the greatest careers in entertainment history.

Ad for an early premiere showing of The Cry Baby Killer, many weeks in advance of the film’s theatrical release.

*It’s bad enough that so many people claim to know the exact details of Jack Nicholson’s birth, despite there being no written record or birth certificate, and the fact that the identity of his father has never been confirmed, but there’s also no way to say for certain what the exact release date was for Jack Nicholson’s first film.  AllMovie.com says it was released on August 15, IMDB and RottenTomatoes say it was August 17, and the American Film Institute and Turner Classic Movies say it was August 18.  You can find newspaper reports with ads for earlier premiere showings in places like Wichita Falls, Texas, on June 4, 1958, the earliest reported showing of the film.

Sources:

Advertisement. (1958). Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Lubbock, Texas, June 1, 1958, P. 9.

The Cry Baby Killer. (2022). AFI Catalog of Feature Films: The First 100 Years 1893–1993. Available: https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/52514/

The Cry Baby Killer Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3834823193/?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_1

Debut. (1958). Times Record News, Wichita Falls, Texas, June 3, 1958, P. 3.

Films in Review. (1958). Lansing State Journal, Lansing, Mich., November 20, 1958, P. 23.

McGilligan, Patrick. (1994). Jack’s Life. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, N.Y.

Nicholson’s Roles Run the Gamut. (1988). Knight-Ridder Newspapers, published in the Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., April 24, 1988, P. F7.

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