"The thing I love most about movies and that I love most about other people’s work is the small things. You think about your favorite thing in a movie or in a play or in a performance … it’s always something very small, it’s so small that you can barely tell other people about, but it just makes you gasp, because it’s like a little pebble of something true. And harvesting them—because, after all, the acting is done by other people—is still something that I think is so thrilling. I think the thing is just to keep doing it because with luck you can catch that wind, it can still be done."
And in a nutshell, the late film director Mike Nichols summed up why he directed plays and films for so long: He was harvesting moments. Lucky for us, he had an innate ability to coax a performance out of nearly anybody. When he directed his very first play (which turned out to be Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park that ran on Broadway for three years—not a bad start), he recognized immediately it was what he had been put on this earth to do. He was already thirty-one years old, highly accomplished and famous as half the comedy act of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. But for anyone out there curious if there are second acts in American lives (there are), this was one of those examples of someone having a swift and rapid rise of an Act One and a long and tremendously fulfilling Act Two, that ended as close to the top as where he began. This doesn't happen to the average guy, but Mike Nichols wasn't anybody's idea of an average guy.
First there were the circumstances of his getting out of Europe on one of the last ships that allowed any Jews to emigrate to America. Landing in New York at age eight, he claims to have known only two phrases in English, one of which was, "Please don't kiss me." Is it any wonder he wound up something of an expert in the field of comedy?
Mike Nichols (2010)
Essentially self-taught (school bored him throughout his life and he dropped out of college), Nichols described himself as "a refugee or first-generation Jewish intellectual." His abiding curiosity for the way people act—what makes them tick—is what drove him and marked his talent as unique and exceptional, first as a satirist with Elaine May in their multitude of extended comedy sketches, and later as a director. Bob Balaban, who at age twenty-three was cast by Nichols in the Neil Simon Broadway hit, Plaza Suite, told me in an interview what it was like being exposed to the way Nichols worked: "Mike knows how people behave, so the words come out of behavior. It’s a very simple thing to say, but quite another matter to have no instinct about how to do that ... so it was a great lesson watching him."
There were two recent TV documentaries on Nichols that aired within the last six months. One, a PBS episode of American Masters simply titled Mike Nichols, directed by his longtime collaborator, Elaine May. The other, Becoming Mike Nichols: a Portrait of an Artist, which consisted of a two-night Q & A (heavily edited) between Nichols and his friend and fellow theatre director, Jack O'Brien. Neither gives you as broad and insightful a look into who Mike Nichols was than the 2000 New Yorker profile "Making it Real," by John Lahr. Reprinted that same year in Lahr's book Show and Tell, it is by far the most thorough assessment of Nichols as an artist (and a person) ever written. Nichols sat for a host of interviews over many months with Lahr and, if you are as familiar as I am with these kinds of profiles Lahr has done over a twenty-five year period, this is one of his very best. Though it's long, that's one of its greatest attributes. It will leave you wanting more. It can be linked here:
There's an old party game, whereby the question is asked: "Who would you most like to sit next to on a twenty-two hour flight?" My answer for the longest time was always Mike Nichols. A good choice, right? Knowledgable on a vast number of subjects, possessed with a razor-sharp wit, as well as stories from life in the arts that is almost unparalleled, how could I go wrong? So imagine my considerable good fortune (and great surprise) when I was asked in 2011 by a casting director to be the utility actor for a week's rehearsal in Los Angeles on Nichols's soon-to-be-shot film of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks. There, seated between Nichols and Hanks (two natural born raconteurs) every day for a week, I got my wish. Though the business at hand was rehearsing, there were so many anecdotes flying through the air that my script eventually became overloaded with pencil scribblings, all from my writing as fast as I could to get everything down. And always, at the appropriate moment, Nichols would look up from his handkerchief he kept, usually used to wipe away tears from his laughing so hard (he was a mighty laugher), he would turn to Julia Roberts or Philip Seymour Hoffman, also among this cast, and commence with the same line each time: "Shall we say the words?"
This was his manner of rehearsing. We sat and read ... and then talked. Or I should say, I listened.
It was one of the best weeks of my life, topped only by when a few years later, I asked if he would sit for an interview for my book Up in the Cheap Seats and he agreed. I was told by his assistant that I would have a half-hour, but it stretched to twice that length when our conversation (solely about his life in the theatre) seemed to delight him no end. I felt I had gone to heaven, and honestly ... from my view on the sofa of his penthouse, all I could see out the windows were clouds in the sky. I felt that was exactly where I had gone for that hour.
This was May of 2014 and it turned out to be one of the last interviews Nichols granted. He died in November, six months later. Today would have marked his eighty-fifth birthday. Hail, Mike. Your like will not likely be seen again.
Ron Fassler's Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming soon from Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/