Director Mike Nichols on His 60-Year Career: 'Trouble Always Seemed Glamorous'

9:00 AM PST 05/10/2012 by As Told to Stephen Galloway
Brigitte Lacombe

In his own words, the "Death of a Salesman" helmer shares his fears of "f---ing up" and why this is likely his last great play.

This story first appeared in the May 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

My life began at 54." It's a curious statement from a director who by that age had won an Oscar, a Grammy and five Tonys. But it says something about the turmoil that must have consumed Mike Nichols and still is buried within him today.

At 54, he met Diane Sawyer, the then-60 Minutes correspondent (and current ABC World News anchor) who became his fourth wife. Nichols had been going through a black depression and addiction to the sedative Halcion, which a friend calls "just a symptom of what was going on underneath."

Nichols, now 80, spotted Sawyer "on the Concorde -- if you want to talk about glamorous," he reveals this late April morning. "She was hiding in the lounge because she hadn't done her hair or something. I found her and said, 'You're my hero.' And she said: 'No, you're my hero. Do you ever have lunch?' She wanted to interview me for 60 Minutes. I pretended that I was up for it, and we had about 14 lunches."

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Over a single lunch with this reporter, it is hard to imagine that the urbane, limpidly self-aware man sitting in a restaurant at New York's The Mark hotel, just a few blocks from his Upper East Side home, was ever so tormented that he'd create a dividing line before and after Sawyer.

"I had loved other women before," he notes, "but not like this."

Despite being half of the early 1960s' most influential comedy duo, Nichols and May; despite becoming Broadway's golden boy with four Tonys for directing Neil Simon's plays alone; and despite his flourishing film career, something was missing.

"He had really hit a wall," says Meryl Streep, a longtime collaborator whom he brought back to the New York stage for 2001's The Seagull. "He'd had a sort of breakdown, and then he met Diane, and everything changed. Before, he was always the smartest and most brilliant person in the room -- and he could be the meanest, too -- but now, that's just an arrow in his creative arsenal."

That arsenal has been deployed to great effect with his revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre. The production -- about an aging salesman who struggles to keep his job and his sons' love -- brings Nichols full circle to a play he first saw as a teenager, directed by his idol, Elia Kazan; and also to the father he lost to leukemia at age 9 and whose death remains the defining event of his life.

That father, Igor, a doctor, had fled Nazi Germany for America in 1938, a year before his family, with 7-year-old Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky, joined him. The young Michael spoke only a few words of English, but he embraced the journey with enthusiasm. Upon his arrival in New York, things became more turbulent: He had to learn a new language; overcome the complete baldness that struck him at age 4, caused by whooping cough medication (he eventually hid it with wigs and false eyebrows); deal with his father's death and his impossible mother (famously satirized in one of Nichols and May's sketches); change his name; then navigate the shift from medical student to comic to director.

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It was one of many transformations for this man who has become a master of them, an ongoing process that continues to this day, evident in the notes he writes for himself long after productions have faded. Sometimes his evaluations are fiercer than the critics' -- as with Uncle Vanya, which he calls a failure despite Streep's insistence that Nichols' version enthralled her as a student.

"He is responsible for igniting people's dreams," she says.

The actress didn't get to know him until later, "when I did a reading in his apartment. Carrie Fisher was sitting all curled up at his feet, and there was some astonishing art on his walls and this huge telescope aimed across the park," recalls Streep. "I was living downtown in a loft with a hot plate -- it took a while for me to get my life together -- and after the reading, he sent everyone silver pens from Tiffany in a blue box. I don't think I'd gotten anything from Tiffany in my life."

While Nichols shifted to Hollywood with films such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge, he never abandoned the stage, returning over and over with two Chekhovs and productions as diverse as Annie, Waiting for Godot and Spamalot.

"He has an eye and an ear and a heart for the truth," says Natalie Portman, one of Nichols' favorites whom he directed in Closer (2004) and The Seagull. "He'll tell you something that suddenly seems obvious but that you'd never have come up with yourself, which is probably the definition of genius."

Salesman, which Streep calls "revelatory," might be his final production. There is no play he feels the same drive to stage, and the economics of the theater have become too vast to allow him the liberty he desires. It is perhaps the conclusion of "his desire to express a continuing, evolving idea of America that has kept him interested for 60 years," says his producer Scott Rudin.

And, of course, there's something else: For the endlessly self-critical director, so much gentler and more humane today than the "dangerous" figure of his past, it has brought some measure of satisfaction. "This was too good," he admits of Salesman. "Making it, I had too good a time."

STORY: Todd McCarthy Reflects on the Film Career of Mike Nichols

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Nichols recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his life in the theater:

The first thing I saw onstage was in Germany. It was called Little Peter's Trip to the Moon. I was 4 or 5. I remember some kids fiddling and one of them saying he couldn't get any sound out of his violin, and I remember the trouble it caused. Trouble always seemed glamorous to me. I don't know why. It was what I was used to -- it was the era. Jews hadto fight, and it was also my family, which was troubled.

I remember my gym teacher and my mother having a fight, and him ripping off her necklace and throwing it out the window and her going downstairs to get it. I think she was having an affair with him. My parents were very tempestuous.

We only got out because my father was Russian; my father's family had come from Siberia in 1917 -- from Sakhalin Island. We got out because of this two-year Stalin/Hitler pact, through which Russian Jews could move but German Jews could not.

When we were leaving for the boat, everybody stopped. Cars pulled over. Hitler was making a speech [on loudspeakers], and we all had to listen. I'm incredibly lucky, and getting on that boat was my first piece of luck because two weeks later, the next boat to America was turned away.

Nothing about coming here felt traumatic; it just felt like an adventure. But Buck Henry [who wrote the screenplay for The Graduate] was in my school, and the way he described it, I was an outsider in every possible way.

Then my father died. He had famous patients -- my family had a big picture of me and [silent screen star] Pola Negri posing on the running board of her Rolls-Royce, with a teddy bear as big as you. But he died very young because he was using radiation on his patients without protection, and nobody knew its effects. He died of leukemia at 44. I was 9. My mother was always in the hospital; she always had something terrible and mysterious. She was pretty much sick from then on. She had been a great beauty, and all these terrible things had happened, like her father being murdered when she was 12.

Being foreign, being a refugee, was difficult for her. For years, I didn't like her, but then I look back and think I was an asshole: She was a single mother and still sent me to school and then college. The school was quite strange because the guys were mostly impoverished and the girls were rich. One of them was very fashionable, very smart, and her mother would give us theater tickets -- including, amazingly, to the second night of A Streetcar Named Desire.

It was 1947, and I was 15, and it was the most astounding thing of my life. I had never seen anything like it. There were two intermissions, but we never got up or spoke. We were just stunned. To this day, I remember it was the most poetic thing I ever saw. It was magnificent and very upsetting and exciting. It was so true, real and shocking.

I got to know its director, Elia Kazan. The first time I saw him, I sat behind him and [screenwriter] Budd Schulberg at a Directors Guild screening of The Graduate. He didn't think Mrs. Robinson was a worthy antagonist.

A few years later, there was a party, and he came in, a dark figure, and talked to me for about 50 minutes. I would have told him anything. He was the shrink you can never find. He was unbelievably compelling and very intense. You felt, at last, you'd found your dad. But then, sadly, by the time we got to be friends, all he wanted to talk about was women. Everything else, he'd lost interest in.

I'm not a defender or an accuser [of his naming names during the McCarthy era]. There's never been anything like the House Un-American Activities Committee before or since. After Kazan wrote his autobiography, a book came out by a former student of his who told him: "I know you hated communism. But here's what I don't understand: You never did anything against it after that." And Kazan fainted! I understand because a similar thing happened to me once: A friend in L.A. said, "What happened between you and so-and-so?" I said, "I hated his idea about the material." The friend said, "I heard you persecuted him [for hanging out with Nichols' then-mistress] because you were so jealous." I had to sit down. It was the truth, and I had completely rewritten the entire thing in my head.

After school, I went to the University of Chicago, and I was in this terrible production of Miss Julie. We did it for months because Sydney J. Harris, the great critic from the Chicago Daily News, saw it and raved. One night, there was this beautiful girl sitting in the front row, rolling her eyes, obviously watching the biggest piece of shit she had ever seen. Later, I saw her at the IC rail station downtown, sitting on a bench, and I said, "Shall I sit down?" And she said, "Eef you vish." And I thought, "Oh, she's doing a Russian spy thing" -- and I did it with her. It was our first improv, and that was Elaine May, and we became very, very close.

We were involved together in a weird way, briefly. We were both very dangerous -- that was our reputation: "Don't f-- with them." Because we were very quick to retaliate. It's a reflex; I think I am on top of it more now, and she has become the kindest woman on Earth, truly. But I have to be a little careful. I asked a shrink: "Everything is so great. Why am I still so angry?" He said, "Anger doesn't go away." I always thought it was kind of a good engine.

But Elaine was famously dangerous. Oh, my God! Once, we walked into Jimmy's, the bar where everybody hung out, and a guy right outside the door said, "Hi, Elaine, did you bring your broomstick?" And she said: "Why? Do you want something up your ass?" -- without a moment's pause. She was incredibly quick and always ready when angered, but she was never angry with me. I felt safe with her. We had a brief relationship, and then we decided we would be better off doing all this stuff to other people and keeping us for each other.

It took me forever, learning improvisation, because I had studied with Lee Strasberg -- I dropped out of Chicago and went to his classes in New York for a couple of years, once or twice a week. What I didn't realize was I was learning directing because he wasn't all that good about acting, not for me. All the "affective memories" and "sense memories," I never found useful. I believed early and still believe that everybody who can act can do it already, just they don't know how and don't want to talk about it. That's all there is to say.

After returning to Chicago, I would do "affective memories" and cry. It was totally ludicrous. But then I got better, and then I got good, and then I got very good, which is the thing about improvising: No matter how painful it is, if you keep doing it, eventually you'll be good.

Soon all those people started to come, and we were the rage. We were on Omnibus, which was huge. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball wanted to give us our own show, and we flew all the way out to L.A. with our lawyers and manager. We got to this room with a big desk, and I said: "You know what? I don't want to do it." And Elaine laughed so hard, she fell on the floor. The two of us on a TV series would have been a catastrophe. We were too weird. We weren't made for that.

I liked doing the stand-up. I only stopped because Elaine wanted to stop. I've never understood it. I thought: "Why? It's not a very long show. It doesn't cost us anything emotionally." But it was hard for her. She was much more inventive than I was. I was plot, she was character. And so we stopped. But there were things we learned viscerally through improvising, the things that I became very grateful for later, such as that there are only three kinds of scenes: seductions, fights and negotiations.

I didn't want to continue acting on my own, though. I didn't like it.

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For a year or so, I didn't know what to do. Leonard Bernstein said: "Oh, Mikey, you are so good. I just don't know at what." And I didn't, either. Then this producer said, "Would you direct a play?" They sent me a play called Nobody Loves Me by Neil Simon. I thought it was nice, but I didn't think it was a big deal. We only had five days of rehearsal, and on the first day, half an hour in, I thought, "F-- me, this is what I am supposed to do." The third act didn't work; he did about 11 different versions, and Doc [Simon], who was very nervous, said to this old guy whose theater it was, "Is this the worst thing you've ever had here?" And he said, "Not the worst!" But when it opened as Barefoot in the Park, it was hilarious. That was a big lesson: If it doesn't work, keep looking.

I did four plays with him: Barefoot and Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Odd Couple. There were real discoveries. Sometimes we didn't even know things were funny. Walter Matthau says: "You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. 'We're all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.' Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar." And the audience laughed so hard, he had to sit down and read the New York Post.

I never understand when people say, "Do you do comedy or tragedy?" I don't think they're very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn't a great play in the world that doesn't have funny parts to it -- as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.

With Spamalot, I didn't want to direct a musical and especially a comedy musical. They kept asking me, and I said, "No, please go away!" It seemed like a lot of work. They said, "Well, just come to a reading." So we had a reading, and I was lost because it was so funny. So I said: "Oh, f-- it! Why not?" But I didn't know what it was about until rehearsals began, and one of the cast says they're the knights of the "rind" table -- pronouncing "round" like "rind" [in the upper-class British way]. Then I realized, Spamalot is about class because the English only have one subject, and that's class.

The comedies were very successful, but I've had failures, too, and you learn more from failure than success. I f--ed up Death and the Maiden. I was horrified by the author, Ariel Dorfman; there was something off-putting about him. He was the kind of communist who would say, "Where the f-- is my limo?" And I also f--ed up The Country Girl. I cast actors whom I admired, but that's not good enough; there has to be something more intimate. I have to be in love with them -- like Julia Roberts or Meryl Streep or Natalie Portman.

In Uncle Vanya, some scenes were great, but George C. Scott had his usual weird thing on dress rehearsal night. He said, "I don't want to go onstage with that c--." I said, "Which c--?" He said, "Nicol Williamson." We were great until then, but it was never quite what it had been before. And I've been drawn to Chekhov but find him unbelievably hard. Chekhov and Samuel Beckett take one polite step back every day of rehearsal; they get harder and harder.

I had been thinking about Salesman forever. I saw a version of the original -- but not with Lee J. Cobb -- and I knew Arthur Miller and liked him very much. We were neighbors in Connecticut and went on a trip down the Nile together. He and I stood on the top deck of this yacht and watched Egyptian guys picking up rocks almost as big as this table, slinging them on their backs and dumping them in a barge. He inquired how much they got paid, and it came to about 80 cents a week. He was very concerned and pained for less fortunate people.

What became apparent as the years passed was that the play was becoming truer and truer. I decided I wanted to do it if Philip Seymour Hoffman said he would. I asked him, and he groaned and said, "Oh, God, I have kids, and I don't see them enough." But finally, he agreed.

We had a workshop for a month. Nobody came to see it, we never performed, and then we went away for 3-1/2 months and came back and went into rehearsal, and they were maybe 1,000 times better than before. I'm no good until I'm with the actors. I make notes, read it many times, but I don't start really having ideas until I am with the people saying the words, and then I begin to see what's happening.

I expected Salesman to take the step backward every day that Chekhov and Beckett did -- but no, it was there to help all the time. The circumstances are like a brick shithouse, they are so solid.

You can't really be satisfied, but I am pretty close to it because the cast took it and ran.
They get better every day. I've never seen anything like that before, and I don't know if I'll ever see it again.

Is my ambition sated? I don't know. To get something right, it can't be sated because you can't ever get enough of it right -- and even if it is right, it won't stay right. That's the thing about a play. But with Salesman, it's different. I don't know how, but they just keep getting better each night.

I really don't think I'll direct another play. This is as good a time as I've ever had, and I don't want to f-- it up.

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5 THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT NICHOLS

  1. His Russian grandparents owned a Siberian gold mine.
  2. His mother's father was a famous anarchist -- and philosopher Martin Buber's best friend: "Martin came to see me in college wearing his green tweed suit in July."
  3. Theater legend Tyrone Guthrie wanted him to play Hamlet: "I said, 'I can't -- I don't have the voice, and I don't know Shakespeare.' He said, 'Don't you think you can pretty much do anything?' I said, 'No!'"
  4. He quit after three days on The Sopranos: "It was a good part -- I was her shrink, not his -- but I was 'acting.' I told David Chase, 'Forgive me, I'm the wrong Jew.' "
  5. His grandmother wrote the libretto to Richard Strauss' Salome: "She died when my mother was very young, but we still got royalties for years."

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EIGHT PLAYS, EIGHT TONYS: Nichols' latest, Death of a Salesman, has earned 7 nominations

  • Barefoot in the Park (1964) -- Best Direction of a Play
  • Luv (1965) -- Best Direction of a Play
  • The Odd Couple (1965) -- Best Direction of a Play
  • Plaza Suite (1968) -- Best Direction of a Play
  • The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972) -- Best Direction of a Play
  • Annie (1977) -- Best Musical
  • The Real Thing (1984) -- Best Direction of a Play and Best Play
  • Spamalot (2005) -- Best Direction of a Musical
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