At age 80, director Mike Nichols has won eight Tony Awards, and is a frontrunner to add another with Death Of A Salesman. The revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 groundbreaking play is up for seven Tony Awards including Best Revival. Nichols chose Philip Seymour Hoffman for Willy Loman, the world-weary salesman on the downside of the American dream; Andrew Garfield as son Biff; Finn Wittrock as son Hap; and Linda Emond as Linda Loman. The show just became the rare straight play to crack $1 million for a week’s worth of performances, through the Memorial Day holiday. That is the seventh time the limited-run play broke the house record for the Barrymore Theatre. The limited run ends Saturday. Here, Nichols discusses a play which wears out its cast nightly but clearly has reinvigorated its director.
DEADLINE: Give me a second while I start the tape recorder.
NICHOLS: Tape recorder? I thought this interview was going to be off the record.
DEADLINE: This is one that should be on the record. Your production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might be the best received version since the very first in 1949. At the risk of betraying myself a cultural cretin, yours was the first Salesman I saw, and so for me the title was a real spoiler.
NICHOLS: Because it told you what was going to happen? The very first producer they went to thought that and wanted them to change it but he wouldn’t. So they had to go to the second producer.
DEADLINE: Why take on The Great American play?
NICHOLS: Several things. Most great plays of the past lose their grip on immediacy; on application to our lives right now. That is the opposite of the case with Salesman. Take, for instance A Streetcar Named Desire, which is one of the reasons I’m in the theater. I had a girlfriend who got us the very fancy theater tickets when I was in high school. Believe it or not, we saw it the second night. We were so stunned by it we didn’t get up to pee, we didn’t talk; we just sat poleaxed for the three hours or so. And to this day I still remember it as the only thing I’ve ever seen that was a hundred percent real and a hundred percent poetic at the same time. And then about sometime later, maybe a year later, we saw Salesman. It was no longer the number one cast. Lee J. Cobb was already out of it. He only did it three and a half months because it’s a part that just kills the actors.
DEADLINE: I’ll bet it does.
NICHOLS: So Cobb was gone and I got to see Thomas Mitchell, whom I don’t remember. But I remember the play.
DEADLINE: What was your initial reaction?
NICHOLS: If you went to a progressive school in New York, a private school like I did, it was a big deal because there were stories about fathers for whom the doctor had had to called because they couldn’t stop crying all night. It was a kind of a legend. It was so clearly a great play. And as the decades and finally the century passed I would keep thinking about Salesman simply because it was more and more about the moments instead of less and less. Streetcar is no longer about the moment at all. There is no Blanche DuBois anywhere; south, north, east or west. We don’t have Blanche DuBois at the moment. But we have Willy Loman; everywhere we look we see Willy Loman. We are Willy Loman. We’re on Facebook; we need to be known; we’re selling all the time. I’m selling our show right now to you. There is stunning foresight in this that really made me want to do it.
DEADLINE: What were you trying to emphasize or flesh out that makes this Salesman different from its predecessors?
NICHOLS: I thought Willy and Linda and Biff and to some extent Hap are there and they have to be filled, although Hap I didn’t think had been completely explored so far. And I had a Willy and a Biff and a Linda in my head that was not what had been seen so far. And the more I thought about the other characters – Ben, Charley, the woman from Boston, every single other character – the more I thought it would be interesting to explore them anew. For instance, instead of Willy’s brother Ben being a rich guy in a business suit, what if he were an explorer, which is all he talks about? And since he’s a figment, an augmented memory, we were pretty free to find the Ben that we wanted to find. That was the adventure of the workshop. I did a workshop months before we started rehearsals, which was the smartest thing I did because the play will sometimes ripen within the actors when they are not doing it for some months. Strangely, that can really lead to some real growth and ferment.
DEADLINE: You prefer that to opening out of town and coming to Broadway when you’re ready?NICHOLS: Absolutely. You can’t open out of town anymore because nobody can afford it. But back in the days when you did open out of town; when we did The Odd Couple originally, we knew on the second day of rehearsal that it was a hit but we took it to three other cities for months and worked on it. The trouble with that, even then but especially now, is you’ve got to start performing as soon as you can or you can’t afford it. That means you have five weeks or some infinitely small amount of time before you perform. And when you start performing it’s really difficult to keep searching when they’re doing it every night and the thing is beginning to gel, and worse, set. It’s just very hard to keep work open and continue to explore. In a workshop that you’re never gonna show anybody, you’ve got a month to try anything you want. And then having tried many different things, to go away and not think about it but it turns out to be a very useful thing.
DEADLINE: For how long?
NICHOLS: Over three months. I really recommend it if you’re going to do a hard play. It made a big difference.
DEADLINE: You mention we are all Willy Loman. What is it about the American psyche that makes us need validation on Facebook, and follow the Kardashians, a family famous without accomplishment?
NICHOLS: It’s all about having something to sell. I think that we have actually become pure market forces which if you recall was petitioned for us in 1840. That’s looking pretty far ahead. de Tocqueville, whose field was economics, came from France and toured this country and published his book Democracy in America in 1840. He wrote that if American democracy proceeds in the way in which it is going, it will become eventually pure market forces. And it has. That’s what we are. We’re not anything else, really. And once market forces run everything, everybody is selling all the time, everybody is a salesman all the time. And being known is part of being a salesman. You can’t sell what isn’t known; you have to have a brand. You are your brand. The Kardashians are their brand,and if you want them, you have to pay. And that’s what market forces will do to individuals and families when there is nothing else to lead them.
DEADLINE: Well, now, we see how it affects average people but how does that inherent desire tug at an artist like yourself?
NICHOLS: Well, the first thing that happens is you have to figure out a way to make enough money to be able to pay for what has become more and more expensive. A set and some actors on the Broadway stage. And if it’s a theater chain that has allowed the price of everything to go up and up, then you have to simultaneously plan, prepare, sell and cash in, in order to be able to do it at all. With luck, you could put people in plays that became the stars, like when we did Barefoot in the Park and had Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, whom nobody had ever heard of. And after we opened, they were stars, we were lucky, and they ran as long as they could stand being in the play. And then we got some other stars. Now, you have to go buy stars for anybody to even take any interest in the play. And all these things affect everybody in the theater all the time because it is a market more than it is anything else.
DEADLINE: Is that to the betterment or detriment of Broadway?
NICHOLS: Well, it’s changed on Broadway to where there are many different Broadways. There’s the Broadway for the audience from Sea World and they go to see, what’s it’s called at the Winter Garden? Mamma Mia! If you go to Mamma Mia!, you will encounter the audience from Sea World. Perfectly happy, loving the music from Abba, loving the little story. They’re happy and they are the audience that particular market is going for. What you have in Broadway now is different audiences being sought. And what used to be for art, for experiment, what we call off-Broadway, is now for the retired who are willing to pay not to be stuck at home with each other. They support the so-called art theaters, old people who are interested in certain topics and plays that cater to those topics to try to keep the old people coming. And it’s not that hard, because they just don’t want to be home.
DEADLINE: Does having the great Mike Nichols presenting Death of a Salesman count enough to mount such an ambitious revival, or did you require a star with marquee value like Philip Seymour Hoffman?
NICHOLS: That gets very complicated. There are very few actors who attain both the ability and the age to play Willy Loman, without having become a star of some kind. They will be their forties or fifties, that is the right age to play a man who’s sixty in one part of the play and forty-something in the other half of the play. It’s very unlikely that the actor who can do that is unknown because it’s one of the hardest parts ever written to play. He’s never off-stage for two hours and forty-five minutes. And he has to go through hell and can’t fake it. So people just can’t play Willy for very long cause it wears them out and breaks them down. So somewhere in there you’re dealing with a star because who else could do it?
DEADLINE: Did you consider other stars?
NICHOLS: No. My idea partly for doing this was that it should be Phil.
DEADLINE: How did he react when you first suggested it?
NICHOLS: He said, “Ooooh. Not yet.” In effect, he said I know I’ve got this coming at me but I don’t think I want to do it yet; I want to spend time with my kids. I said but you will have time with your kids, except for Wednesdays and Saturday, you’ll have all day. And he says you know very well that I’ll start working every morning when I wake up. And of course it’s true; you don’t play that part. You don’t just breeze into the theater and put on your costume. It’s a very difficult and expensive part to play as are the other parts in that family. You have to dedicate yourself to it. You don’t have any soul left for many other things.
DEADLINE: When you mention the price the actors pay, how does that manifest itself? What difference do you see in him, from when you worked with him before in Charlie Wilson’s War and onstage in The Seagull, and when he finishes a performance?
NICHOLS: He gets right out. There are two things. The actors who play the family need to spend some more time together to come down and they have rituals for that. They spend some time together, maybe they have a meal. Whatever they do they can’t leave each other immediately; they need to spend some time; they need to get out of the theater; they need to stop talking. And then they go to their lives. I don’t think they do much else. Many of them have children, of course, and they connect with their loved ones. They are restoring and they are simultaneously living their lives and catching that part of them that is in character all the time that they’re doing the play. You can’t jump in and out of that coming to the theater a half hour and leap into your costume.
DEADLINE: Is there another play that perhaps you’ve directed or that you know of that takes that much of a toll on its principal cast?
NICHOLS: I haven’t experienced anything that’s this strong, that needs so much from them. Different actors put different amounts of themselves in different parts and I’ve seen a lot of it; I’ve seen it in Chekhov and Beckett. But this is pretty absolute.
DEADLINE: Elia Kazan directed both the first production of Streetcar and Death of a Salesman. He moved from theater to screen as you have. Is that why he was such an important figure to you?
NICHOLS: He was a great director. His definition of directing was that a director turned psychology into behavior and he was particularly good at the minding what people might do in a certain situation.
DEADLINE: You mean using psychology to coax a performance out of an actor?
NICHOLS: No, it’s in the building of the events. Let’s say you’re doing Tea and Sympathy. If a boy is in boarding school and is suspected or accused of being of what they call a homosexual at the time, and if his father who’s a big bruiser of a guy; very intolerant, comes to see to look into what the problem is. And Kazan knows that the moment that the father and the son, when they greet each other and are about to hug, that is a very interesting moment to explore. Because the hug suddenly means many different things. And because it does they’re both self-conscious and they don’t quite know what to do. And you can spread that through a whole play, simply ask what is it that’s really happening here? That’s the job; that’s one of the jobs of a director and that’s what Kazan for modern plays was particularly good at finding and creating.
DEADLINE: Did he recognize his influence in your work?
NICHOLS: We were friends. The first time I ever saw him I was sitting behind him at the Director’s Guild screening of The Graduate. So that was an unnerving experience. And at the end, when everybody else stood up, I heard him say to Budd Schulberg next to him, ‘Ah, I don’t know, I was taught to have a worthy adversary.” And I thought, really? You don’t think Mrs. Robinson was worthy? It just goes to show how different generations are leery of each other. It may have been competitiveness, or maybe he might not have liked it. But he changed. You could tell how much I admired him, that he was some kind of hero to me. We met at parties and he would come and talk to me. I would have told him anything he asked me and I would have sat on his lap. I really respected him and admired him and he was a very interesting guy and then towards the end of his life we actually became friends. We used to have lunch and stuff. But by that time he was more interested in talking about pussy than about theater.
DEADLINE: His reaction to The Graduate sounds like when a comedian hears another one tell a good joke. They don’t laugh, just grudgingly acknowledge it was a good one. They are so competitive. You started in that business.
NICHOLS: Well, what comedians mostly do is rap the table rhythmically and say, funny. That’s their way of laughing at a competitor.
DEADLINE: You are big on improvisation. How much room for that is there in a play like this?
NICHOLS: I don’t know that we improvised all that much. Improvisation has to do with exploring something like two brothers in a room together. You find out things about situations by discovering the things that they aren’t saying. It’s a way to explore scenes. Sometimes it’s more useful than others but it’s always there to see if there’s anything that you might improve.
DEADLINE: What elements not emphasized in the original play did you explore that was useful in revealing the relationship between the characters? There is a scene where Biff and Willy toss a football, and wind up throwing it over the head of the younger son Hap, that said volumes about how invisible he was to his father.
NICHOLS: That was us, and it is a perfect example of what there is to be found in workshop. At a time they were still holding their pages and learning their lines, I tossed them a football and they started to pass it. From that moment to this, they’ve never missed a pass. They are all athletes, which is another contribution these three guys made. And very soon in the scene of Biff and Willy were throwing the ball to each other way over Hap’s half head and he was jumping higher and higher and I thought oh, there it is; there’s Hap’s life up to now. It’s a perfect example of what actors and a director can do when you’re looking for the physical expression of these characters’ lives and their situation with one another. Everything is about what is underneath the words.
DEADLINE: Willy’s internal monologue was all about reaching crossroads and not taking a risk. You were half of a hit performing team with Elaine May before you stopped and became a director. Why did you stop what had been a very successful stage career?
NICHOLS: Well, I was a leftover half of a comedy team. I would never have been a performer by myself. My impulse had a lot to do with what happened between Elaine and me when we improvised. When we broke up I really didn’t have any interest in performing. I didn’t particularly like performing and I haven’t since then. So I was a leftover half of a comedy team; I didn’t know what else to do.
DEADLINE: Why did you break up?
NICHOLS: She got tired of it. I think it took more out of her than me. I was never sure why. I kept saying, this is so easy, what are you talking about? It’s like an hour and forty minutes and we’re not sweating and we know the scenes and we improvise one, which keeps us fresh. What’s wrong with that? She didn’t want to go on with it. It may have been also that by time I was a pain in the ass.
DEADLINE: You? How is that possible?
NICHOLS: Because without knowing it, I was already a director. So I would sort of tend to push her around a little bit and say, you know, you get to that line a little early, and you know if you could do this and that here… It must have been annoying. And she was just sick of me.
DEADLINE: This production would be a capstone to a great career. Has it made you want more? I’ve heard you’ve been offered a play by your former partner Elaine May, and TV projects like Angels In America?
NICHOLS: It doesn’t work like that for me. I’m glad it turned out well, I loved doing it and it was a great process. That doesn’t translate to whether I do another play or movie or TV show, it depends on a specific thing that interests me. That itself is a process of exploration that takes me a long time to decide. It’s never simple as you figure out if you have anything to add to it, among many other things. Whether something is a success or not has never had much to do with what you do next.