As a child, Nicholson developed a love of movies, especially fantasy and science fiction films. While in high school, he joined a science fiction fan club, where he met Forrest J Ackerman. The two produced a fantasy fanzine together. Years later, Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland would heavily promote AIP’s movies.
Nicholson’s first work in the film industry was as the manager of two theaters in Omaha, Nebraska. The chain that owned the theaters soon went out business and Nicholson found himself unemployed. He drifted through a series of short-lived jobs, including running four revival movie theaters in Los Angeles. Nicholson was eventually hired by Realart Pictures in their advertising department; his job was to devise new campaigns for the old movies that Realart re-released, which often included retitling the films. A threat of a lawsuit from Alex Gordon, regarding a title similarity between one of Realart’s reissues and a screenplay Gordon had written with Ed Wood with exactly the same title, led to Nicholson meeting Samuel Z. Arkoff, who was at that time Gordon’s lawyer. Nicholson and Arkoff became friends and eventually decided to form a film distribution company together. The name of the company was American Releasing Corporation, which would change its name to American International Pictures a few years later.
Nicholson was known as the creative member of the partnership. His movie sense, combined with Arkoff’s business savvy, led to AIP’s long string of successful films aimed squarely at teenaged audiences. From 1954 to 1980, AIP released over 125 films, most of them released directly to drive-ins and grindhouses. Nicholson would often think up an exploitable title, and devise an entire advertising campaign complete with poster art, even before a script had been drafted. The films were mostly completed on low budgets, with shooting completed in two or three weeks (and sometimes only a few days), and nearly all of them turned profits.
In the early 1970s Nicholson left AIP and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox to produce movies.
According to his then-wife Susan Hart he was going to make five films:
The Legend of Hell House
The B People
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.
Nicholson’s death meant only the first and last of these were made.
Nicholson died unexpectedly in 1972 of a brain tumor. AIP continued for several more years before Arkoff, having lost interest in the movie business, allowed himself to be bought out by Filmways for $4.3 million.