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Mike Nichols reflects on his Life

From ”The Odd Couple” to ”The Graduate” to ”Angels in America,” the Oscar winner has spent the past six decades with an eye on our ever-changing times. Now he focuses, for a moment, on himself

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At 80, Mike Nichols can look back on a remarkable career both on stage and on screen. Which is exactly what we’ve asked the acclaimed director to do — look back. On the eve of his eagerly awaited new revival of Death of a Salesman on Broadway, EW sat down with Nichols to reminisce about a life of highs and lows, beginning with the 1935 photo of a bright-eyed young boy who would soon flee Nazi Germany for America. ”I remember everything about getting on the boat in Germany in 1939,” says Nichols. ”I was 7, my brother was 3, and my father was already in New York setting up his practice as a doctor. German Jews couldn’t leave the country, but we had Russian papers. We had somehow miraculously walked through the flames and landed on West 70th Street. At the time, I almost felt guilty. My father was waiting for us on the dock, and the first thing I saw was a kosher deli and in the neon sign were Hebrew letters. I said to my dad, ‘Is that allowed?’ And he said, ‘Here, it is.’ Unbelievable luck. Undeserved luck. Life-shaming luck.”

On Elaine May
”We had immediate chemistry,” says Nichols of his onstage comedy partner, whom he met in the early ’50s. ”We auditioned for Harry Belafonte’s manager, and that same night we were opening for Mort Sahl. By the weekend, we were opening for Carol Burnett. And two weeks later, they were opening for us.”

Barefoot in the Park (1963)
Nichols made his directing debut with the Broadway hit starring Robert Redford. ”After the first 15 minutes of opening night, I thought, ‘This is what I was meant to do!’ Robert was so young, so brilliant, and women loved him. He was the most beautiful guy anyone ever saw. There was no question where he was going. Diane [Sawyer] and I live in his old apartment now.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
”The first movie I directed. I knew Richard Burton because when Elaine and I were on Broadway, he was in a nearby theater with Camelot. We’d go drinking. He and Elizabeth knew these characters. He would yell at her, she would cry, and then the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would come to the set and take them to lunch and they’d come back hours late. It was an interesting experience. When I look back on it, I think, ‘What the f— was I so confident about?”’

The Odd Couple (1965)
The stars of Neil Simon’s hit Broadway comedy, Walter Matthau and Art Carney, were aptly cast. ”Walter was not a nice man and Art was a saint,” says Nichols. ”But their gifts interlocked. The play had a different ending every night. I still don’t know how it’s supposed to end.”

The Graduate (1967)
Nichols didn’t expect his comedy starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman to be such a phenomenon. ”We had a preview at the RKO 86th Street in New York and the audience stood on their feet for the last five minutes, screaming like they were at a prizefight. Dustin came down from his seat in the balcony and he was white as a sheet. We just didn’t understand why people were going nuts,” says Nichols, who downplays the Academy Award he received for directing the film. ”I used to say that winning the Oscar means being back at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 1 a.m. feeling empty. It’s the industry voting. It doesn’t come from God. It doesn’t change your life, really.”

Catch-22 (1970)
”This is my favorite photograph. Guaymas, Mexico,” Nichols says, recalling the filming of his poorly received adaptation of Joseph Heller’s WWII novel. ”Catch-22 was a nightmare to make, and everybody was unhappy except me. I had [screenwriter] Buck Henry at my side making me laugh the whole time. I’d had all these hits, and this was my first failure. It had to come eventually. And when it did, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Oddly, I kind of like the film.”

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
The R-rated drama starring Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson caused a stir for its sexual content. ”The relationships between men and women interest me very much, which is why I was drawn to this and Virginia Woolf. I saw Jack in Easy Rider and said, ‘I need that guy!’ We loved each other immediately. I told Jack he had to lay off the grass while we were shooting because it would make his timing too slow. And he did it. I learned everything about movie acting from him.”

Silkwood (1983)
Nichols’ nuclear-conspiracy drama starring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher followed a long dry spell. ”I hadn’t made a movie in seven years. It was like I had been asleep. And Meryl’s talent woke me up. Three days after we arrived in Texas, Cher was her best friend and Kurt was wildly in love with her. She mysteriously rearranges what’s around her so that all the other actors have to do is show up.”

Working Girl (1988)
Nichols picked up his fourth Oscar nod for directing the modern fairy tale. ”I knew it would work because it’s Cinderella and Cinderella always works. I concentrated on the details. I told our makeup guy, J. Roy Helland, who I got from Meryl, ‘I want the real working girls — where they’re from, how they look.’ He went on the Staten Island Ferry at rush hour and took hundreds of pictures of those girls: the clothes, the hair, the makeup. It looked like Kabuki to me, it was so extreme. But it was real.”

On his wife Diane Sawyer
In 1988, Nichols married his fourth wife, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. When asked how two busy celebs make a relationship work, he says, ”In 25 years, she has never said, ‘You always do this’ or ‘You always do that.’ She’s never brought up an occasion from the past. She’s just different from any other woman. We don’t go anywhere. We have our secret life in our own little place. I don’t know any secrets about what makes a marriage work, except if you can marry Diane, you’ll be in great shape.”

Angels in America (2003)
Nichols’ adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play for HBO holds a special place on the director’s résumé. ”When I first saw it on stage I was overwhelmed. Tony’s story is so magical. We shot it right over the bridge in Queens for a year, and I forgot that anyone would ever see it. I was just so happy going to work every day. It’s the thing I’m the proudest of. I think it’s really good. What can I say?”

Death of a Salesman (2012)
Opening March 15, Nichols’ Broadway revival of the Arthur Miller classic starring Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Linda Emond represents a kind of homecoming. ”I’m in the theater because of two plays: A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman,” says Nichols. ”I saw both original productions when I was in high school. Salesman is more relevant now than it was even then. Everybody wants to be known. Everybody’s a Kardashian. We are a nation of salesmen. Arthur Miller knew what was coming. We were neighbors, and his daughter once told me that he wrote the first act of Salesman in one night. She said the next morning there was the smell of brimstone. Philip Seymour Hoffman is astounding as Willy Loman. He’s like Meryl — no one knows how the f— they do what they do.”