So it’s something of a mystery that now, at an age when even he doubted he had “one left” in him, he is taking on Salesman. It is, perhaps, the greatest American play, but also very difficult to balance, with its kaleidoscopic timeline and hysterical swings between hope and despair. Furthermore, it was revived in 1999, in an acclaimed production starring Brian Dennehy. Why bother? Surely Nichols has nothing to prove. His is the rare case of ambitiousness sated rather than thwarted, of rage distilled into mastery. The process has left him at the center of the culture while no longer needing to contest it: a calm eye—from which perspective his tales of the whirlwind are even more astonishing.
I was in Paris with Dick and Evie Avedon, and somebody introduced me to Marlene Dietrich. Evie said, “Oh, tell Marlene about your grandmother.” So I told the story: When we came to the States in the late thirties, my grandmother and uncle ended up in Russia. My uncle fired a secretary for stealing and she turned him in to the thought police and he went to Siberia for fifteen years until Stalin died and they opened the prison. A few years later, Elaine and I were on the cover of Ameryka, a magazine from the USIA published in Russia; they saw it and sent a letter addressed to “Famous Actor Mike Nichols, USA.” And it got to me! And what my cousin eventually told me was that my Russian family, before they came to Germany, had gold mines on Sakhalin Island, which is where my father was born. And I said, “Really? Jews with a gold mine? Tell me more!” Apparently, the Russians gave depleted gold mines to Jews. Well, my family got 35 tons of gold out of their depleted mine. When they came to Berlin in—guess when?—1917, my grandmother had 40 pieces of luggage with 75 gold bars inside. And I finally got it about my father. He was a rich kid with this mysterious past and great connections. Anyway, I told this whole story to Dietrich, who was silent for a moment, then said, “Oh! Grandmothers! I entirely forgot grandmothers in my book!” I learned something about stars from that. It became very useful later.
Nichols has “had a date with” Salesman since 1949, when, at 17, he had a literal date with a girl named Lucy Halpern. Lucy’s mother gave them tickets to the original production, just a year or so after sending them to A Streetcar Named Desire—also being revived on Broadway this spring. “I was devastated totally by both plays,” Nichols recalls. “Which never happened again.” The experience shoved him toward the theater, the world’s most diabolical test of salesmanship.
Both plays were directed by Elia Kazan: like Nichols, an immigrant who in youth had no choice but to make a quick study of what it meant to be American. Nichols often calls him “my hero,” and says he chose to direct Salesman in part to “investigate” their relationship. But he’s also doing it because the right actors were available. Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom he’d worked on The Seagull and Charlie Wilson’s War, agreed to play Willy; Linda Emond, Andrew Garfield, John Glover, and the rest of the luxury cast signed on instantaneously. It’s also relevant that Scott Rudin persisted when Nichols quailed. “With the singular exception of Mike,” Rudin says, “no director since Kazan has come close to demonstrating the capacity to deconstruct, rebuild, question, and even love the basic ideas of America that exist at the heart of Salesman. It’s in his bones. He doesn’t feel the need for answers because he knows that answers are for children—but he knows how important the questions are.”
If Kazan was a kind of spiritual father, he was a flawed one—though Nichols says it’s impossible to judge, without having been in his skin at the time, Kazan’s choice to betray colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. And at least Kazan’s flaws are known and can be “investigated.” Nichols’s real father was mostly just a notion. In order to set up his medical practice, he left Berlin for New York a year before the rest of the family—and then, almost immediately upon their arrival, sent Nichols and his brother, Robert, four years younger, to live with a patient on Long Island. Next came the banishment to boarding school and, two years later, his father’s death from leukemia, the result of the unshielded radiological tests he performed. To need a man’s approval when you can’t get his attention is, well, a tragedy.
So while critics generally see Salesman as an indictment of the American Dream, it’s almost inevitable that Nichols wouldn’t. For him, it’s about something more fundamentally human and more relevant today than when Miller wrote it: the need for recognition. “You find it all around you,” Nichols says. “Now everyone in America is a salesman—online. Facebook is worth $100 billion because that’s how many people want to be known.” The genius of the play is that it explores this idea not just in the aggregate but in the smallest units of society—especially, Nichols feels, in “the central American relationship,” between father and son. “It’s the relationship that causes grown men to cry,” he says. “You go back to all of those movies, many of them starring Robert Duvall, and whenever you’ve got a father and son and a sport, the aisles are awash with men’s tears.”