Jack Nicholson was in a strong negotiating spot when he was proposed to play the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 adaption of Batman. When the actor was first approached with the idea of playing the iconic villain, it was before Burton or Bruce Wayne himself, Michael Keaton, were ever in the running for their respective duties. Nicholson also had numerous box office successes, along with two Oscars, to his name. To Warner Brothers, all other production pieces were expendable, but Nicholson was necessary to make the film happen.
Producer Gary Peters sought out Nicholson’s involvement as early as 1986, and Burton allegedly used the studio’s usurping of his role as production leader to get his first choice of Batman, Keaton, approved. When it came time for Nicholson to sign on the dotted line, he went to the table with some specific requirements that have now become legendary.
One of which involved the amount of time he was required to spend on set. Nicholson negotiated all of his scenes to be shot in a three-week window, while he would get additional time off to attend Los Angeles Lakers home games. This proved problematic when filming moved from Warner Brother’s studio in Burbank, California, to Pinewood Studios in England. Nicholson ended up acquiescing when the original three-week window ballooned to over 100 days. But Nicholson was OK with the push because he had negotiated another clause that rewarded his patience.
Nicholson, being perhaps the most famous actor in the world, had a minimum guarantee of $10 million to star in a movie. But for Batman, he lowered this price to $6 million, instead getting a cut of the film’s box office and merchandising profits. Batman wound up being the highest-grossing film in North America in 1989, and was the second highest-grossing film in the world that year, behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The estimates of how much Nicholson netted range from $60 to $90 million, which is nearly $200 million today when adjusted for inflation.
But the most significant impact of Nicholson’s negotiations come when you watch the film 30 years later. In the opening scrawl, Nicholson’s name appears first, in front of the actor that portrays the titular lead character. Nicholson had so much clout that he received top billing for the main supporting role. To be fair, Nicholson steals every scene he’s in, so it hardly feels inappropriate. With all the benefits, Nicholson’s Batman contract just might be the best contract ever signed by an actor.