Mike Nichols: Hardest working man in show business (Now that James Brown has passed)

by Kim Steele

Mike Nichols by Eric Fischl, 1999


Opening March 15th, Boulevardier Mike Nichols will be directing Death of a Salesman, one of the most seminal plays in the American oeuvre by Arthur Miller.  First brought to the stage, which he viewed, in 1949 by one of his heroes, Elia Kazan.  This play is a cornerstone of modern theater and as his fourth wife, Diane Sawyer, quoted, “forever matters.”  I was fortunate to see the 1984 production on Broadway with the renowned Dustin Hoffman playing the lead, Willie Loman, and remember it to this day. “He was liked, but not ‘well liked’.”


The Graduate, tvtropes.org





Mr. Nichols has won an Oscar, for the game changing movie that is dear to the hearts of my generation, The Graduate,  four Emmys and nine Tony Awards.  His directorial premier was for one of my all time favorite films, Who’s  Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring the incomparable-on and off stage – Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  While drunken Burton is crawling on all fours in the yard, Taylor swings the shabby screen door open and queries Burton…”A little more rubbing alcohol dear?”


Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, 1967, fashionsmostwanted.blogspot.com






Confidence is the central characteristic in Death. While Willy is educating his son, Biff, on the ways of the world, Biff retorts to his father’s pathetic confidence “I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!”  Nichols built on his confidence, which in retrospect astounds him, early on with his partner Elaine May.  They created three hit comedy records in the fifties, which my parents listened to at parties replete with martinis and cocktail dresses, alongside the likes of Shelly Berman.


Elaine May and Mike Nichols, staunchcharacters.tumblr.com


Having escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, Nichols started as an ‘outsider’ and keenly listened to the audience.  “It is probably why I’m in the theater, because I could hear the audience thinking when I was in front of them, which was a terrific advantage…”you can make them like you.”  “I am anything but confident now.”

Change is the other over-riding theme in Death.  Willy was terrified of change, albeit he hated himself for not being able to change.  This stifled his relationship to his son-the central universal relationship in the play.  Nichols pronounces that he is an angry person and that is a ‘very good engine’ for creativity. He claims a shrink once told him that it will never go away.  “Los Angeles is a nest of Willy Lomans. That is the only place where you can see whether your stock is up or down in the eyes of the guy who parks your car.”  He says that is why he cannot live there.


Mike Nichols, age 80, 2012, photograph by Brigitte Lacombe, nymag.com


Recently Nichols directed another revealing film, Charlie Wilson’s War, where he first worked with the talented Philip Seymour Hoffman who stars as Willy in the current Death production, and a television production of the acclaimed Angels of America.  A number of films deserve mentioned here, Catch 22 was a wonderful black comedy, as was the coming of age flick, Carnal Knowledge that also made an impression on a generation, introducing two powerhouses, Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen-it rocks the house! Just as fresh today as The Graduate….’plastics!’


Mike Nichols, ijulian.blogspot.com


I had the pleasure to meet Mike Nichols in the eighties.  I was crashing at a friend’s loft in Manhattan while I was building mine, Luis Sanjurjo, who was an agent at ICM and his personal assistant. He was pleasant but as Burton said while filming Virginia, “Nichols was one of only two men [Coward being the other] that could change the world just by entering a room. ‘Bland as butter but brilliant as diamonds’.” I wish I were there to feast on one of my favorite plays in three days.  At eighty  years of age, Nichols has touched the heart strings of many people, and should be profoundly confident.


Research assisted by the Los Angles Times, The New York Times and NPR…


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