'A Few Good Men' at 30: Rob Reiner reveals the origins of Jack Nicholson's iconic speech

Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in Rob Reiner's 1992 hit drama, A Few Good Men. (Photo: Everett Collection)
Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in Rob Reiner's 1992 hit drama, A Few Good Men. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Dec. 8, 2017. It has been updated to reflect recent events.

From "these go to 11" to "I'll have what she's having," Rob Reiner's movies are 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 30 years ago, on Dec. 11, 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 three decades 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 2017 conversation with Reiner, the director remembered 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.'"

Jack Nicholson and Rob Reiner on the set of <em>A Few Good Men</em> 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)

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."

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," Reiner recalled. "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."

BERLIN - JANUARY 21:  Director Rob Reiner and actors Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman attend
Reiner, Nicholson and Morgan Freeman at the German premiere of The Bucket List in 2007. (Photo by Anita Bugge/WireImage)

Reiner couldn't have known this at the time, but The Bucket List also proved to be Nicholson's last star turn. 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. For a time, the actor was attached to headline a remake of the Oscar-nominated 2016 German comedy Toni Erdmann, written by Girls duo Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner and co-starring Kristen Wiig.

Reiner, for one, will n ever stop rooting for a late-career comeback from Nicholson. "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 is available to purchase on most VOD services, including Amazon.