UPDATES with a few more quotes, below.
Mike Nichols, one of the funniest wiseacres ever to walk the planet, never planned to write an autobiography. So a few months ago he agreed to be interviewed—in a Broadway theater, of course, and before an invited audience—by fellow director Jack O’Brien. It was for an HBO documentary, just after the announcement that Nichols would direct Meryl Streep in an HBO film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s play Master Class, about the opera diva Maria Callas. Almost immediately, the subject turned to Nichols’ freshman film effort, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
“I went to see Virginia Woolf and I was stunned, paralyzed,” Nichols said. “I’d never seen such a play.” At the time, Nichols and his partner in comedy Elaine May were performing around the corner from Camelot, where Burton was playing King Arthur. They became friends. “Two years passed, and I read that they’d hired Elizabeth Taylor to do Virginia Woolf,” Nichols recalled. He sent a message saying that he should direct it, and she agreed.
“I cast Burton—because they’re already there,” Nichols added. He didn’t mean merely that Burton was around the corner at the Majestic Theatre. He meant that it wasn’t too much of a stretch to see parallels between the stormy Burton and Taylor and the central couple in Albee’s furious, alcohol-fueled fever dream of a play.”The people in the play loved each other, as they did,” Nichols said. “And they had issues…” Cue a great, knowing laugh from the audience.
If you came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, as I did, and found yourself in the cultural vortex of Broadway and Hollywood, Mike Nichols was the god of personal transformation. How else explain the intimate yet public journey from the ur-comedies of Vietnam-era head-in-the-sand Broadway—Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, all of which won Nichols Best Director Tony Awards—to the blistering dramas of David Rabe (Streamers and, later, Hurlyburly). And inbetween, arguably the most astonishing Hollywood threnody of Virginia Woolf, followed by The Graduate and then Carnal Knowledge? Reggie Jackson’s three home runs in the 1977 World Series might be a good comparison…
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“William Goldman said there were two great American film directors—Elia Kazan and Mike Nichols,” said Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg, co-producer with Nichols of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. “I think that’s true,” Azenberg added. “He was a giant who could convince people to be better than they were.”
And then there was Annie, another fluke in the Nichols canon. He’d gone to see the musical at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, loved its Great Depression-era sensibility of smiling in the face of despair, and was shocked when no one stepped in to transfer it to Broadway. “Nobody showed up!” he told me during one of many conversations we had over the years, several at his favorite watering hole, Bar Centrale, in the Theater District. “So I thought, Fuck it, I’ll produce it.” Score another Tony, as producer, one of the 10 he accumulated over the years.
Azenberg, whose producing credits include Simon’s plays beginning with The Sunshine Boys in 1974, recalled that The Real Thing had been a hit in London. When it nevertheless got a negative review from the New York Times, interest in a transfer faded. But Nichols had his own vision of the serious comedy. “It was Mike’s concept to stage it as if it were a film, and he knew you had to feel the sexuality of the play, which resulted in the casting of Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons,” Azenberg recalls. “When it opened on Broadway, this time Frank Rich loved it. When Mike did The Real Thing he was cooking.”
Scott Rudin produced Nichols’ landmark revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, as well as Nichols’ revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which I loved, though not all my colleagues agreed. Rudin seemed hellbent on shoring up Nichols’ theater legacy as his health grew frailer in recent years, pulling out all the stops in promoting those shows while keeping the spotlight coolly, proudly, on his director.
Nichols was as comfortable working the outdoor stage of the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park (where in 2001 he directed a cast led by Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman in Chekhov’s The Seagull) as he was on the Broadway stage or filming movies as wildly disparate as The Birdcage, Angels In America, Charlie Wilson’s War and Silkwood. If there is any body of work that can even compare, I can’t think of it.
“I have known Mike since I was 12 years old and he and Elaine were in the Compass Players at my dad’s cabaret, the Crystal Palace in St Louis,” Rocco Landesman, himself a Broadway legend and president emeritus of Jujamyn Theatres, told me this morning. “He lived in our ratskellar. He was so obviously talented. When they left to go to Chicago, my dad gave him a gold watch that he had engraved Destination Moon.”
“An inspiration and joy to know, a director who cried when he laughed, a friend without whom, well, we can’t imagine our world, an indelible irreplaceable man,” Streep said today in a statement released to the press.
And yet Nichols retained the air and composure—and humor—of an outsider who, regardless of his personal accomplishments (chief among them, he’d once told me, the knowledge that he got to go home to bed every night with his wife Diane Sawyer), was ever a child of the European cataclysms that had sent his family from Siberia to Berlin, where he was born Michael Igor Pechowsky, to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His father had to learn German and retake his medical exams, and then do the same thing in New York when, through a fortuitous quirk of the Hitler-Stalin pact, they were afforded a chance to escape that German Jews were denied. In New York, his father’s patients were the elite, including the great Russian impresario Sol Hurok.
“After my father died, I would see Sol Hurok in the Russian Tea Room and he always said the same thing,” Nichols recalled, assuming Hurok’s thick accent: “Mike, d’joor feery funny. But d’joor fadder vuz funnier. There was no time to be a good father,” he continued. “There was no time for anything. We got an apartment in the West ’70s, opposite the Pythian Temple. I was sent to boarding school because I was difficult. Then he got leukemia and he died.”
And then he confided something classically Mike Nichols, at once sad and deeply funny: “I sort of had to go get him and start imaginary conversations with him,” he said, adding, “We’re doing very well!”
My last communication with him was only a few weeks ago, when he—reluctantly, I hope—begged off an interview we’d planned in anticipation of his starting work on Master Class: Jeremy, he wrote, please have a heart. I’m in production on a movie and am about to be 83. Is there no pity? No help? WHY? Mike
No matter how much you think you’ve prepared, death is never not a surprise. Who won’t miss his incomparable, hilarious genius. So I’ll just say, Happy Birthday, Mike.
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