As usual, Mike Nichols is telling stories. In many, he’s an awestruck bystander to his own biography, which is longer than you think: He’s 80. His maternal grandmother, he says, wrote the libretto for Strauss’s Salome. Her anarchist husband was bayoneted by German police. Henry Louis Gates mapped the family history. The Aga Khan took him up the Nile on his yacht. The Nazis chased him out of Berlin at age 7; upon arrival in New York, one of his only English phrases was “Please do not kiss me.” He married Diane Sawyer. “I know!” he says, when you look amazed.
Other stories are self-portraits of putziness, exaggerated for your enjoyment. There’s his being “crazy on Halcion” for a while in the eighties. His supposed ineptitudes, unintentional insults, and superabundance of wives. (Sawyer is No. 4.) His years of impatience and imperiousness on sets. When he took the director of photography on one film out for a beer to figure out how to regain the crew’s trust, the D.P. told him, “It’s too late.”
From the start, though, he was a natural at escape and reinvention. Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky, he became just Igor at Dalton and then, when his father changed the family name, Mike Nichols. After a bad reaction to the whooping-cough vaccine left him permanently hairless at age 4, he mastered the use of toupees and false eyebrows. When he dropped out of the University of Chicago—he wanted to be a psychiatrist but couldn’t face the unresponsiveness of cadavers—he glommed onto an improv-comedy group called the Compass Players then forming in Hyde Park.
There, along with a cadre of uprooted smart alecks like Elaine May, Paul Sills, and Shelley Berman, he discovered that audiences could be even more unresponsive than cadavers. A quick tongue (he’d been sent to boarding school at 9 “for being fresh”) wasn’t enough. You needed to be someone; you needed something to do.
We were terrible for a long time. Painful. We would literally run out the back door and jump in Lake Michigan after some shows to rid ourselves of the horror of what we’d just perpetrated. I still think of the night that some of the actors ran into the bar where the other actors were, and one of them said, “Come quick: Mike has a character!” But we were, all the while, without knowing it, creating for ourselves a series of answers to what is a scene. And actually, only a few weeks ago in rehearsal, I remembered one of my rules from back then, which is that there are only three kinds of scenes: fights, seductions, and negotiations. Oh, and contradictions. As Elaine used to say, “When in doubt, seduce.”
For the revival he’s directing of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, opening March 15 on Broadway, Nichols is using the incidental music composed for the original production by Alex North. And so, one Sunday morning in February, he sits in the control booth at the sound designer Scott Lehrer’s Lower East Side studio, in a fleece pullover and New Balance sneakers, listening as the score is recorded. At the same time, he’s slicing a heap of doughnuts and trying to make everyone eat them. And of course telling stories. “Alex North stood up to the studio for me on Virginia Woolf … try this tres leches flavor, it’s delicious … can you make that trumpet get louder and louder?” His response to the music is no less acute for the cloud of doughnut dust it emerges from; somewhere in his overstuffed résumé, it appears that he was “a classical D.J. for years.” He tartly dismisses one cue as “squirrels with eyelashes” and praises another for its Coplandesque loveliness: “After that, there won’t be a dry seat in the house.”
Making people wet themselves, or laugh until they cry, or preferably both, has been his aim from the start. (No wonder he wanted to be a shrink.) After the international success of Nichols and May, whose humor often amounted to psychiatry by other means, he reinvented himself as a stage director, making hits of early-sixties Neil Simon comedies like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. A Newsweek cover story in 1966 heralded his defection to Hollywood, and though success onstage continued, it’s hard to overstate how much his first four film features—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge—helped redefine American moviemaking as the upheavals of the sixties spilled into the seventies. By the eighties, he was also, under his Icarus banner, a major producer; he sometimes directed the projects he produced (Silkwood and, on Broadway, The Real Thing and Hurlyburly) and sometimes contented himself with minding the till. He did that well, too: surely making more on the stage musical Annie, which reportedly grossed at least $100 million on an investment of $650,000, than on any of the nineteen Broadway shows he’s actually directed.
By 1988, when he had another hit with Working Girl, Nichols’s reputation for urbanity, for eliciting spectacular star performances, and for maintaining a very high level of taste in a very crass industry was long secure. But his protean nature (he’s one of only a dozen or so “egots,” having won four Emmys, one Grammy, one Oscar, and nine Tonys) led him to keep revising himself. “You could look at that and say this is someone who has a remarkable understanding of the culture,” says Scott Rudin, the producer of Salesman, “or someone who is on the run from himself.” Or both. In any case, starting in the nineties, Nichols began to take a broader, more political stance, even as the climate for such work became less hospitable. Along the way, there have been notable successes, including the HBO Angels in America and, of all things, the smash Broadway silly-fest Spamalot. But there have also been a few head-scratchers, like the Garry Shandling vehicle What Planet Are You From? in 2000 and the seemingly aimless revival of The Country Girl on Broadway in 2008.