Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taking a bite out of Nicholson's 'hold the chicken' legend

According to urban legend, the famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces was filmed on Vancouver Island. Not so. This is the Denny's alongside Interstate 5 at Eugene, Ore. But a Vancouver Island diner does appear in the movie's final scene. See below.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 23, 2011


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 anymore 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 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 humourist 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 cafe.

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 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 cafe’s neon rooster sign can clearly be seen. When his girlfriend goes for coffee, 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.

The closing scene of 1970's Five Easy Pieces takes place at the Red Rooster Cafe on the Trans-Canada Highway between Duncan and Chemainus. Check out the flickering neon sign. The cafe and the gas station have been demolished in recent years.

Spot the location

Here are some Vancouver Island scenes from Five Easy Pieces:

Jack Nicholson holds up traffic at the Mill Bay Ferry, a stand-in for a Washington State ferry. Note the CAA sticker on the car driven by Susan Anspach.

A 1912 mansion in Central Saanich served as the Dupea family manse, set on an unnamed island. This house, at 8080 McPhail Rd., was demolished in 2003.

Jack Nicholson grabs a drink. Spot the outline of the Saanich peninsula on the map on the rear wall.

Jack Nicholson's character, the alienated Bobby Dupea, has a heart-to-heart with his mute and dying father in Beacon Hill Park.

Beacon Hill Park stands in for one of the unnamed San Juan Islands in a powerful scene from Five Easy Pieces.

In the movie's final scene, Jack Nicholson drives a 1963 Mercury Monterey into a Gulf gas station next to the Red Rooster Cafe on the Trans-Canada Highway north of Duncan, B.C. The cafe and the gas station have been demolished in recent years.


ross said...

Hi Tom, a reader on my blog pointed out that the Onion AV Club's "Pop Pilgrims" show recently did an item about the Eugene diner in the "hold the chicken" scene:,57335/

Just goes to show: we're not the only weirdos who care about this stuff!

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