Two years ago, on the eve of his eagerly awaited Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, I sat down with Mike Nichols to look back on his remarkable career. During those two-plus hours together at the Mark Hotel in Manhattan, the legendary director, then 80, reminisced about a life of highs and lows that began as a bright-eyed young boy who fled Nazi Germany for America. ”I remember everything about getting on the boat in Germany in 1939,” Nichols said. ”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.”
Nichols made the most of that luck, building a career that is almost without equal in the entertainment profession. With his passing today, at the age of 83, here’s portions of our candid conversation about who he was, what he did, and what he loved.
EW: How’s the play coming?
MIKE NICHOLS: Good, we have such a great cast. The sets are great. The play was originally set in Willy’s skull. And when Elia Kazan directed it, he dissuaded Arthur Miller about that. Every single actor is amazing, even in the smaller parts.
Death of a Salesman has had such a great line of powerhouse actors playing Willy over the years—Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, and now Philip Seymour Hoffman, who obviously knows the play. What was it about this that made you want to do it?
I’m in the theater because of two plays—A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. And I saw both original productions when I was in high school, a year apart. I didn’t see Cobb. He was in it for guess how long? Three and a half months. I don’t remember much about Salesman so I didn’t have to worry about doing what they did.
How old were you when you saw them?
I was 15 or 16. And Streetcar just simply recruited me to the theater; I was stunned. It was the only thing to this day that I’ve seen that was 100 percent real and 100 percent poetic at the same time. 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. And all of us, to keep our jobs, have to sell ourselves. So do I. The theater has become a very weird place. Arthur Miller knew what was coming, almost like Orwell. Which makes it very exciting. The audience is shocked by this thing that they thought was safely in the past that comes and bites them on the ass. There are risks every night.
We were neighbors in the country, and his daughter, Rebecca, once told me that he wrote the first act of Salesman in one night. She said that the next morning there was the smell of brimstone. And maybe there was!
Tell me more about Streetcar: What that must have been like, seeing Brando on stage at 15?
And Karl Malden, they were all brilliant. The whole question of what does a director do—I really learned from a few guys: for theater Kazan, for movies, watching George Stevens and Billy Wilder. It’s all there to learn if you watch. And it’s very hard not to think of them as you go on doing the job. Billy Wilder was my mentor. He said things that I think of all the time. When I went off to make my first movie, he had been very hospitable and looked after me. I needed to know what to wear on the set and he had the answer. When I was going off to start shooting, he said to me, “Don’t forget to leave some string for the pearls.” Most useful thing anyone ever said to me. He meant, connect your masterpiece scenes—tell the f-cking story! It was incredibly useful.
Tell me about Philip Seymour Hoffman.
We’ve worked together a number of times now. He works like some of the other great actors I’ve worked with. What he does is completely mysterious, you never understand or find it out. What he’s doing physically is very important to him. Did you see the Sam Sheperd play where he plays both parts?
I did. I saw him in both parts actually.
Astounding, impossible. And he became Truman Capote even though he’s five times the size of the little twerp. He became Truman Capote. Philip is astounding as Willy Loman. He’s like Meryl—nobody knows how the f-ck they do what they do. For me, he’s a kind of a compass. If something’s uncomfortable for him, I know it’s wrong.
And Andrew Garfield plays Biff.
Like Phil, Andrew is a theater actor. He’s very serious and dedicated. He’s never satisfied with himself. He knows what’s happened with his movie career—and he’ll fight with every fiber of his being not to let that go to his head. He is out to protect himself from the dangers and he’ll do just fine. He’s found the perfect girl for him; they’re the same. Their life is protecting themselves from the horseshit that awaits. The only way to do it is to do something for others and live like a simple person. It doesn’t hurt to be smart and happy.
[I pull out a picture from Catch-22. It’s Nichols, in a flak jacket, and all the guys from Catch-22.]
This is my favorite photograph. [He stares at it.] It’s funny, it’s such a powerful memory. Catch-22 was a nightmare to make. Just physically. And everybody on it was unhappy except me. I was happy as a clam. I had the sixth largest airforce in the world. I didn’t think it was going very well, it wasn’t my kind of picture, but I was happy anyway. I met a girl there that I loved. I was so happy with her. I had Buck Henry at my side making me laugh the whole time. And all of the actors were so funny. They kept bitching because they couldn’t leave.
When that movie came out it was regarded as not a success…
Oh, it wasn’t.
You had always been the golden boy, the wunderkind who could do no wrong up until that point…
How did you take that?
I’d had all these hits, first on stage and then movies, and this was my first failure. And I remember thinking it would be terrible. But it wasn’t bad. I agree that it’s not a success. But what’s so terrible? I had a failure. Okay. I was thrilled that it didn’t dash me at all. I sort of liked it. It had to come eventually. And when it did, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I love my life, I love my wife, what’s the big deal? You don’t want to get used to that sort of thing, but you learn that nobody knows anything about a movie in the first year or so. What will it mean next year and after that? Some movies stay and some don’t. I can hardly bear to watch most of them. Oddly, I kind of like the film. Buck and I went to see it at the MoMa with an audience recently and I liked it. I’ve been so hard on it my whole life, but there was some good stuff there.
Tell me how you met Elaine May.
[Smiles] I met Elaine several ways. I was in a horrible production of Miss Julie when I was at the University of Chicago. A terrible thing happened—the big critic from downtown, Sidney J. Harris, came and reviewed it and said it was magnificient, so we had to play this crappy production for months. And one of the nights, there was this fascinating looking girl in the front row. I couldn’t stop looking at her because she had a sneer on her face. And she rolled her eyes. She knew it was sh-t. And then when the rave review came out, I was carrying the paper and I bumped into her and she read it over my shoulder and she said, “Ha!” I was so struck by her because she was so great looking. A few weeks later I bumped into her sitting on a bench, and I said, “May I sit down?” and we went into an accented spy scene. We talked out of the corners of our months. We had accents. The aim was to make everyone think we were spies. And that was it. We had immediate chemistry. She is the most amazing woman. And we got very close very fast. And then we did various plays together.
What did you and Elaine teach each other about comedy and the opposite sex.
The first thing is, the first time around, we were just having so much fun together and Elaine was so astonishing. We both had reputations for being dangerous and we were both easily pissed off. We could both defend ourselves very well. She is now the nicest, sweetest woman I know. But at the time, we would walk into Jimmy’s, this bar where everyone went, and it was windy and her hair was a mess, and the guy inside the door would say, “Elaine, did you bring your broomstick?” and she said, “Why, do you want something up your ass?” Without a breath, always ready. You couldn’t mess with her. I went back to Chicago because Elaine was there. I was crappy on stage for months. Shelly Berman was great right away. But I was better with Elaine. And soon we had a body of work together. We auditioned for Harry Belafonte’s manager. And that night, we were opening for Mort Sahl. And by the weekend we were at the Blue Angel opening for Carol Burnett. And two weeks later, they were opening for us. We did 20 minutes, and just like that, we were famous. And we never intended it. I asked her, “What do we do? It was a mistake!” But we just went on doing it.
Your first important play that you directed was Barefoot in the Park, with Robert Redford.
After the first 15 minutes of opening night, I thought, “This is what I was meant to do!” Robert Redford was so young, so brilliant, and women loved him. He was the most beautiful guy that anybody ever saw. There was no question where he was going. A lot of the things in the play were his idea. He was hilarious. We had dinner one night in New Haven, and Liz Ashley had the audience in the palm in her hand. And I took Redford to dinner, and told him, “I had a partner for years with Elaine and I know how two people on stage can be—it’s a battle. And you can’t win the battle until you acknowledge to yourself that it’s a battle.” Well, that night you couldn’t see her. He was just on fire. And he came to me and said, “When I kiss her and she kicks her leg up, what do I do?” I said, “Why don’t you do it too?” Biggest laugh in the show. He was brilliant. He was in it for a year and true in every performance. I knew he’d be a movie star.
The Odd Couple—another Neil Simon production: Tell me about the chemistry between Walter Matthau and Art Carney.
Walter Matthau was not a nice man. There it is. And Art Carney was a saint. But their gifts interlocked. Art had separated from his wife and gone into [AA], and we were supporting him. And he was so stunningly gifted. Walter was a wise-ass. Not all that nice to Art. I remember opening night in New York, I changed something and Walter came to me and said, [in Matthau’s accent], “Mike, don’t you think when Artie does that, he’s a little faggy?” And I went, “Thanks for f-cking up our first night.” That was his approach. Neil Simon and I, that was the most fun we had. The play had a different ending every night. I still don’t know how it’s supposed to end. It was a great collaboration. He wrote the greatest joke in the Odd Couple by mistake. Oscar says to Felix, “You leave me little notes: ‘We’re all out of milk—F.U.’ It took me 20 minutes to figure out that F.U. meant Felix Unger.” The audience laughed so long, Walter had to sit down and read the New York Post while they laughed. It went on forever. He was so funny. Play after play.
TIME called you the most in-demand director in the American theater after that. Why did you go west to Hollywood afterwards?
First of all, I had done a lot of plays and they had all worked. Second of all, I had a false start with movies and, thank god, caught it—another movie that never happened after a bad experience with a producer of a Doris Day picture.
So how did you get Virginia Woolf?
I knew Richard Burton, because when Elaine and I were on Broadway, he was in the theater with Camelot and I got friendly with Burton. We’d go out drinking after the show.
That must have been interesting…
It was fun. And then I was going to get married—which I eventually didn’t do—Richard was in Rome shooting Cleopatra. And he said, “Come on over to Rome and we’ll do it!”
Have us married at his place. But by the time I was supposed to go to Rome, I’d told this girl that I could not marry her. I told Richard and he said, “Come anyway.” And by the time I got to Rome, there were no Burtons anymore; there was only Richard and Elizabeth. Richard asked me to take care of Elizabeth and take her out. So I picked her up in my VW and she put a kerchief over her head and we snuck out the back door and we took a ride to Villa d’este to see the fountains and walk around. No one recognized her. I liked her so much, we became great friends. And then we go back to New York and I read that she’d been signed to do Virginia Woolf. We had the same press agent and I told him, “Tell Elizabeth that I should direct her.” And he called me and said, “She thinks so too.” And that was it. I had socialled my way into directing movies.
Tell me about being on the set with those two. That’s a raw movie and those two were known for fighting and being tempestuous. It must have been a handful.
Richard and Elizabeth knew these characters. We all loved each other. George Segal was an old friend. Richard was difficult. When Richard was drinking, he was difficult. But he wasn’t vicious, he was unhappy. By and large, he was never unkind. One night, he said, “I can’t act,” and we’d shoot something else. But he would yell at Elizabeth—they had stuff going on between them. And halfway through, I thought, “This is really good; she’s a really good actress.” And she was.
But was there off camera tempestuousness?
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. My signature Elizabeth story is, she was worried about her monologue about her son. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to cry and I said don’t worry about it. And on the first take she was incredible, and, of course, the tears came. And right in the middle of this beautiful take, you could hear a crew guy snoring. And it was so loud that I had to cut. And she said, “Please don’t fire him!” That was the first thing she said. Unheard of kindness. That’s why everyone loved her.
With The Graduate, did you sense the generational shift in Hollywood? Did it feel like something new and radical to you?
No. Here’s what it felt like. When we were shooting in Berkeley—the natives were very pissy about us. We took it all around to campus, and 80 percent of the people didn’t like that it wasn’t about Vietnam. They were so obsessed about being correct, that they couldn’t stand the idea of a movie about anything but Vietnam. That’s how things were at the time.
Did you know that that last scene would be the sort of Mona Lisa smile of the decade?
No. I didn’t know anything at that time. 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.
Let me ask you about the Oscars, because it was your first. What was that night like for you?
It’s like being in the hospital and you get the anesthetic and then you wake up and it’s all over. You’re not actually there. It’s so unreal. You see a lot of your friends, which is nice. You think nothing. I thought nothing. I felt nothing. 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. It’s the Oscar. Also, who are we kidding?
One of my favorite films is Carnal Knowledge. You seem to be drawn to this theme of the war between the sexes and how brutal it can be…
The relationships between men and women interest me very much, which is why I was drawn to this and Virginia Woolf. I had a disastrous second marriage. I has some rough relationships—a lot of anger. One woman who was catastrophic and I suppose that had an effect. There are only three types of scenes—fights, seductions, and negotiations. Jules Feiffer wrote the script. I knew I had to direct it.
Tell me about Jack Nicholson. That was really the kickstart of a string of great performances in the ’70s—one of the great runs.
He was very important in my life. It was my third or fourth movie and I saw Jack in Easy Rider and said, “I need that guy!” We loved each other immediately. I told Jack that he had to lay off the grass while we were shooting because it would make his timing too slow. And he did it. He had a giant sauna in the place he rented and there were all these women and stewardesses there all the time. But he was the best. And I learned everything about movie acting from him. He connected to everyone on the set. They all know and love him. So when he starts to act, they’re all lifting him. His genius is connection and openness. When he had to do a nude scene, he said, “Alright, everyone stand back, Steve is coming out.” It was just an ordinary dick, but he treated it like other guys would commit suicide and women would fall to their knees. He had an almost parody of confidence. But it was a parody. You know the story of his two mothers, right?
I think that’s why he is the way he is. He had two mothers. And through everything that’s happened to him, he’s still Jack. I love him. He’s one of my dearest friends.
Let me ask about Annie.
Annie is very easy to explain. We live in Connecticut—Bridgewater—and a friend had Annie up at Goodspeed Opera House. And he asked me to come up and see it. There was a standing ovation afterwards. So I produced it and brought it to Broadway. I knew it would work. My contributions were small things. They knew what they were doing. And it went on forever. And they made billions and sold it to the movies. I wasn’t the director. There’s nothing to producing.
Did you make a boatload off of it?
You didn’t direct a movie for awhile and then came Silkwood.
One way or another, whatever I was doing—I was raising kids in Connecticut and raising horses—I didn’t make a movie for seven years. Some people thought I was scared. But I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to do. Then Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep, who I was already crazy about, they came with Silkwood and asked if I’d be interested. I looked at what they had done and I said, “Very.”
Meryl was already attached at that point.
Yeah. I knew immediately what it was about—it was about a woman waking up to what was happening around her. And when we started to do it, I realized that I was also waking up. I hadn’t made a movie in seven years. It was like I had been asleep. And Meryl’s talent woke me up.
I have to ask, as someone who’s directed her, what the hell is it about her that makes her so great?
I cannot explain it, but I can describe it. Three days after we arrived in Texas, Cher was her best friend and Kurt was wildly in love with her. She had the relationships with these characters that Karen Silkwood had in the movie. She mysteriously rearranges what’s around her so that all the other actors have to do is show up. She makes everyone’s job easier. When you work with Meryl, all you have to do is look at her and you’re in character. It’s mysterious.
The Real Thing was another complex relationship drama, with Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons.
There are two things about it: One, is it was a great group of people led by Tom Stoppard, who I would say is my best friend. Buck and him. I love him so much. He’s so temperate and funny and stunningly brilliant. Tony Kushner is one more. Those are the three. It was a joy, a holiday, every moment of it. Same with Glenn and Jeremy, who loved each other. We were in Boston having an unbelievably good time. Tom in that play gives the best explanation of happiness I’ve ever heard: Happiness is equilibrium, shift your weight, that’s all.
And you got the Tony for it?
What do you mean, you guess?
I don’t remember which ones I got the Tony for. Why would I?
Let me ask you about you and your wife, Diane: What makes it work?
Here’s the thing about my wife. In 25 years, she has never said, “You always do this,” or “You always do that.” She’s never brought up an occasion in the past. She’s just different from any other woman. We don’t go anywhere. We have our own 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.
Let me ask you about Working Girl, a movie that when it comes on, my wife has to watch it til the end. You might as well write off the next two hours.
The look of the film—the hair, the costumes, it really captures that time.
That was a gift. I got the script from Barry Diller, who was running Fox at the time. I knew it would work because it’s Cinderella and Cinderella always works. I concentrated on the details. I told our makeup and hair 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. Harrison Ford is another lifelong friend. Here’s Harrison: we were working on the script and he wanted to make some changes And he said, “I don’t care about good lines or anything like that, I just want to advance the action.” That’s how smart he is.
When you direct Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage, did you get scared about, “How am I going to rein them in?”
They stay on script unless you give them permission to go off. Elaine and I were after The Birdcage for 20 years after we saw La Cage Aux Folles because it was about family, it wasn’t about being gay at all. After 20 years of trying, we finally got it. When I realized what Nathan and Robin were going to do, I would tell them not to rehearse, save it, and do it when the camera rolls. Robin invented his entire dance on the spot. I just turned them loose. They were so much in their element.
You say it’s not a gay film, that it’s about family. But were you surprised that it was such a hit? Did it give you more faith in people?
No, I had that much faith in people. I knew it was a family picture about family and that these two guys were put on Earth to play these two parts. And Hank Azaria.
A movie that I think is totally underrated is Primary Colors.
John Travolta is terrific. What were the perils of making that film when everyone knew it was about Clinton?
We never thought about it.
Has Clinton ever seen it?
First of all, when the movie came out, suddenly I was at a bunch of parties where the Clintons were. One of them was the big TIME magazine party where everyone who had ever been on the cover was gathered together. I remember getting my picture taken with Gorbachev and Sophia Loren—that’s the kind of party it was. And at the very beginning, the President and the First Lady were coming in, and I thought, “I can’t do this to them. I have to stay out of their way. I can’t let them be photographed with me.” And as they were passing, I turned to pretend to be talking to the person on the other side of me. And when I thought it was safe to turn back, I was face to face with Hillary. Her manners were perfect. And she asked how I was. And I said, “Nervous, I have a picture opening.” And she said, “Yes, well, there’s nervous and then there’s nervous.” And she laughed. Here’s what I know. Emma Thompson told me she was at a party talking to President Clinton, and he said, “Oh my god, you were in that awful movie!” And she said, “I’m afraid I was.” I’m so dumb, it didn’t occur to me that they would think it was an awful movie. I thought we treated them with great sympathy, but of course, it’s not true. They’re accused of monstrous things. My wife has no politics, that’s part of her job. I liked the book, I made the movie—them’s the breaks. I have to take my lumps.
What did you think when you saw the original stage production of Angels in America?
Well, when I first saw it onstage I was overwhelmed. It killed me. I don’t understand how there can be such a person as Tony. I love him so much. I need him for perspective. When I met him, I brought him home, and Diane said I have to introduce him to one of the kids. Because it would teach her that you can be 100 percent political and still be kind: You don’t have to be angry. He’s the greatest proof in the world of that.
Did you see it as a movie?
No. Not at all. The producer asked if I would be interested. I thought about it for a couple of days and I could see what I wanted to do with it. 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?
Closer is like Virginia Woolf and Carnal Knowledge and the war of the sexes. But this seems somehow meaner, colder. We try to hurt people more.
To me, it’s just about how mysterious sex is. It’s a mysterious force. There are people that you need that you don’t even like. It’s mysterious. If anyone understands it, I don’t know them. That’s why I was drawn to Carnal Knowledge and Closer. To me, it’s about the mystery of sex. It can ruin you, it can make people lose everything they have—but no one understands it.
It was the first time you worked with Julia Roberts.
I asked Cate Blanchett first, but she was pregnant. And Julia for me was like a goddess. I’d never met her, but I was nuts about her. She was unattainable to me. And her agent said she wanted to do it. And I met her… and I can’t talk about this without crying… [he starts to tear up]… we met at Lupa, and of course, I was 15 minutes early and she was already there. Talk about love at first sight. I was so smitten with her. She’s like my wife. She never complains, she never talks about herself, and that’s being southern. I was just in love with her. She’s so beautiful that people don’t know what a great actress she is. There’s a scene in Charlie Wilson’s War, where she has to blush, and not only did she blush, she did it take after take. How is that even possible? She’s a sensationally good actress and she doesn’t get the credit for it.
When you directed her and Tom Hanks, two of the biggest stars in the world, does that make your job as a director harder or easier?
No, much easier. You don’t have to tell them anything at all; just point the camera. What you are is a collaborator. I admire the hell out of them and I know they know what they’re doing. Tom had bought the book Charlie Wilson and he had definite ideas and we would talk about scenes and he was so upfront and always happy and always kind to everyone.
Last one, is Spamalot. Were you a Python fan?
Oh, enormous. And Eric Idle was an old friend of mine. From Barbados. We were both there at the same time with our kids, probably 30 years ago. We had races on the beach and all that stuff. They wanted me to direct it and I said, “No, please don’t make me direct a musical.” Musicals are a nightmare. There’s nothing more horrible than directing a musical. It’s like being in hell. But they asked me to come to a reading and it was hilarious.
When Python came out, they were very niche-y, very culty, but Spamalot has become such a mainstream tourist attraction. Were you surprised by that?
There were more Python fans than anyone knew. They lined up and then everyone else heard. It just worked from the first performance, people were pissing themselves. On the third day of rehearsal, I said to Azaria, “Give me a break, you’re off-book already?” And he said, “Mike, I’ve been off-book on this since I was 12!”
Does directing get easier with age?
It’s easier and harder.
So why continue to do it?
Because it’s so great—it’s like f-cking. It’s something you like more than other things.
I so hope I can get that quote into a family magazine.