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Five Easy Pieces starring Jack Nicholson, 1970. (Globe files/Globe files)
Five Easy Pieces starring Jack Nicholson, 1970. (Globe files/Globe files)

TOM HAWTHORN

Taking a bite out Nicholson's 'hold the chicken' legend Add to ...

They're handing out the Oscars on Sunday, which means 73-year-old Jack Nicholson likely will be seen leering from behind the dark glasses he wears even when indoors.

He's had a dozen nominations as an actor, more than any other male performer. One of the movies that established his career was Five Easy Pieces, much of which was filmed on Vancouver Island.

He plays Robert Eroica Dupea, a classically trained pianist alienated from his bourgeois background who drops out to kick around the seedier side. The movie's tagline: "He rode the fast lane on the road to nowhere."

Released in 1970, the movie is best remembered for a scene in which his character butts up against a land of inexplicable rules and an unthinking obedience to same. (It is not a stretch to see the scene as a metaphor for how America became embroiled in Vietnam.)

Dupea and three companions sit at a table in a diner. He politely gives his order to the waitress: "I'd like a plain omelette. No potatoes. Tomatoes, instead. Cup of coffee and wheat toast."

"No substitutions," the waitress responds, pointing to a notice on the menu.

He then tries unsuccessfully to order a side of toast. The pair jostle, each getting more frustrated by the moment.

"Okay, I'll make it as easy for you as I can," Dupea says. "I'd like an omelette - plain - and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee."

"A No. 2. Chicken sal san," the waitress repeats, exasperated, through clenched teeth. "Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?"

"Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a cheque for the chicken salad sandwich and you haven't broken any rules."

"You want me to hold the chicken, huh?"

"I want you to hold it between your knees," he says.

"You see that sign, sir. Yes, you'll all have to leave. I'm not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm."

"You see this sign," he snarls, sweeping four glasses off the table with his right arm.

The scene helped earn Mr. Nicholson his first Oscar nod as best actor, though he lost to George C. Scott's five-star performance in Patton.

To this day, some insist the famous scene was shot at a diner north of Duncan. The humorist Arthur Black once wrote a newspaper column about visiting the Red Rooster Cafe, a roadside joint on the Trans-Canada Highway between Duncan and Chemainus. He describes a waitress, more kindly than the one portrayed in the movie, gently breaking the bad news to him - the chicken-salad-sandwich scene was not filmed at the café.

Turns out Mr. Nicholson made his splash at a Denny's off Interstate 5 near Eugene, Ore.

The latter half of the movie is set in the San Juan Islands, but keen eyes will spot several Vancouver Island locales, including the Mill Bay ferry; a bar in which a map of the Saanich peninsula can be seen on the wall; Beacon Hill Park, where Mr. Nicholson's character delivers a powerful monologue to his mute and dying father; and, a waterfront mansion, at 8080 McPhail Road in Central Saanich, about which the Nicholson character says, "This is a fine house." The mansion was demolished eight years ago.

The Red Rooster Cafe does appear in the movie's final scene. Driving a 1963 Mercury Monterey, Mr. Nicholson pulls into a Gulf gas station alongside which the café's neon rooster sign can clearly be seen. When his girlfriend goes for coffee, Mr. Nicholson's character abandons his car, his jacket and his woman to hitch a northbound ride aboard a logging truck.

A few years ago, the restaurant was demolished and replaced, as has been the gas station, cinematic landmarks now relegated to film and memory.

Before the demolitions, Ross Crockford, the author of Victoria: The Unknown City, tried to interest Cowichan Valley newspapers in the story. None bit.

"Seems like I was the only person who had concern," he said.

The gas station's owner told him he had never even seen the movie.

The Red Rooster's blue-plate special was an item billed as Maryland Chicken - a fried chicken breast served with bacon and fried banana, drenched in cream gravy, with a corn fritter on the side. Accept no substitution.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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