“We were acquaintances of longstanding. We’ve gone through a lot over this period of time. We weren’t quite so distinguished when we first met,” added Nicholson. “We’d run into one another, crossing backstage at the Oscars, for instance, and talk about the women. This kind of relationship…it’s changed over the years. And it’s changed now. We got to share a protracted amount of time together.”
Nicholson stars as billionaire business man Edward Cole, the owner of multiple hospitals whose one firm rule is 'no private rooms - no exceptions'. His rule comes back to bite him in the butt when he’s diagnosed with cancer and has to share a room with Carter Chambers, a working class mechanic. Although they come from vastly different backgrounds, Edward and Carter soon find common ground and develop a friendship, along with a list of things they’d both like to do before they kick the bucket.
Morgan Freeman joined the cast first. “I got a call from Rob Reiner—how long ago—and this was a script I had read before and had turned it down, the idea,” recalled Freeman. “Rob said, ‘I’ve got this great script and I want to do it and I want to do it with you.’ I said, ‘All right.’ I read it and said, ‘In the right hands, this is going to be terrific.’ So I called him up and said, ‘It’s nice but there’s a caveat here: you need to get one actor.’ And he said, ‘who?’ I said, ‘Jack Nicholson.’ So he said, ‘Jack? All right, let’s try it.’”
It didn’t take much persuading to get Nicholson to consider a starring role in The Bucket List. “I’d worked with Rob and I liked working with him, and Morgan and I have known one another at a distance for a long time and had always known we wanted to work together. That’s pretty much all it took for me. That was that, and off we went. Plus, it’s a tough little puzzle. Rob found the tone for this fairly early on. He said, ‘We’re not going to make this movie nine times. Let’s try and get it right.’”
“To deal with this subject, one of the most fearsome subjects, in a comic manner is a creative puzzle, really,” said Nicholson. “Until I saw it with the first audience, you can’t really know if you veered on or off. My impression from the first screening was that I was impressed with how long the audience was moved at the end of the picture. It wasn’t just they were moved. When you’ve got an audience going for 10-15 minutes, that’s a long time. I don’t think you can do that if you’re sentimental, particularly these are semi-professional audiences. It has sentiment, but if you get sentimental you’re going to lose them. So hats off. We kind of throw it at the wall and Rob got it good. He did a good job really. It’s not the kind of job you get credit for as a director. It’s a two-hander. It’s not pyrotechnical in that sense. [There were] a lot of scenes between Morgan and I, which we enjoyed tremendously. But a director, you’ve got to have things blowing up, very odd story progressions and so forth.”
Although they’d known each other for decades, Freeman was surprised to learn about one of Nicholson’s little known talents. “I found out he was a writer,” revealed Freeman. “I didn’t know he was a stinking writer. I knew he was a great actor. He came up to me and said, ‘I’m probably going to drive you crazy but I work. I love nights angsting over little things in the script. I will be doing that and talking to you the next day.’ [I said], ‘Fine, my joy is you. What you do in your off time is your business.’”
Nicholson, who admits to being much more of a worrier than Freeman, worked on his own lines - never his co-star’s. “He’s a great shaper, I think, of material, because he looks at commas, periods and colons and semi-colons, and they make the difference,” explained Freeman.
Addressing the film's theme, Freeman has his own interesting take on the concept of a bucket list. “I think that your bucket list is your bucket list. I don’t think it’s one you wrote down, but it’s written somewhere on you, in your heart. There are things you check off as you go through life, doing the things you want to do, if you get to do the things you want to do.”
Nicholson interjected, “That’s the thing: if you get to. I just did an interview and I told the man I was going to lie more so I didn’t repeat myself, but I’m going to anyway. The third element in this was to see the pyramids, which was kind of in my silent list. Pavarotti was going to do ‘Aida’ at the pyramids, and Lorne Michaels was going to [produce it.] And I signed up for that a year and a half early and, of course, he didn’t, God rest his soul. So winding up on a rooftop in the middle of Los Angeles [to shoot that scene] was a mild disappointment to me. I still want to see the pyramids.”
“That question about what’s on your bucket list, this [pointing to Jack] has been on my bucket list for a long time,” said Freeman.