“When in Doubt, Seduce”

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

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.

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.”

No surprise, then, that rehearsals exposed many points of family convergence, even though Willy is a drawn-out failure while Paul Nichols was a quick success. But like the Loman boys, who discover their dad’s tawdry dalliance with a Boston secretary, Nichols and his brother came to know more than they wanted about their father’s affairs. In a scene Nichols describes as “horrendous but comic,” they intuited that their nanny was one of his girlfriends; they jumped up and down on the bed shouting, “Frieda loves Daddy! Frieda loves Daddy!” And even though his mother also had lovers—Nichols’s earliest memory, at age 4, is of seeing his gym teacher tear a necklace from her neck and throw it out the window—it’s his father’s absence he’s spent a lifetime revisiting.

“Remember, most of my relationship with him happened after he was gone,” he says. “But you have to have those conversations you couldn’t have. Because for an American to live without his father’s okay is very, very painful. It takes half a lifetime to get over.”

In the end, he found his father, as he finds Willy Loman, forgivable. (“Everything is about forgiveness,” he says.) As for his mother, whose neediness and narcissism were nearly toxic, she was something perhaps even better. She was material.

I was playing the Blue Angel with Elaine. I picked up the phone. “Hello, Michael, this is your mother, do you remember me?” I said, “Mom, can I call you right back?” I called Elaine, and I said, “I have a great piece for us.” I gave her the line, and she screamed. We never talked about it, but we did it that night and for the next five years. I told my mother it was Elaine’s mother, and she told her mother it was mine. She had the same mother. Now, this was the end of a story that actually set me free. The beginning of it was that we lived in the West Seventies, in that sort of short, gray-brick building with podiatrists on the first floor. And across the hall from us was another refugee family who had been on the boat with my mother. The daughter, Gaby, was my friend, still is. One day, she and I, we were about 12, were bullshitting in the dining room, and my mother comes in and in ten seconds does her specialty: She makes us both feel bad and then leaves. And Gaby said, “My God, your mother is a difficult woman.” I said, “She is? Tell me more! I thought it was me.” In fairness, my mother was a widow with no money, deeply depressed, not well. I came to have sympathy for her, but … as I learned on that movie, some things are too late.

Another morning, at a restaurant near his Upper East Side home, Nichols asks a waitress if the pancakes are “wet or flannelly.” She’s mystified, which allows him to turn ordering breakfast into a bit. (“You know how pancakes can be?” it starts.) Likewise, post-rehearsal dinners at the Cafe Edison find the Salesman cast hanging on his serpentine stories: “Campfire tales,” as Rudin puts it, “except with borscht.”

In rehearsal, that reflex becomes a technique, allowing Nichols to direct by indirection. It gives the actors room, Hoffman says, “to get at the work without putting too many ideas in the way.” “It’s osmosis, it’s unconscious,” Garfield adds. And open-ended. Today’s theory that the play is about fathers and sons does not obviate tomorrow’s about mothers and ­marriages. “He’s like a dog with a bone,” Emond says. “But when one bone is done, he happily discards it and picks up another.” Indeed, time permitting, Nichols wants as many ideas in the mix as possible; they deepen the experience. That said, he has asked stage management to keep a timer handy. When he starts a story, he flips it, aiming but often failing to conclude before the sand runs out.

And yet, in the play’s outward expression, he has severely limited his palette. The full text is used, of course; if not, Rebecca Miller, the playwright’s daughter, “would cut my toes off.” But he’s also decided to re-create, along with North’s score, the original set designs by Jo Mielziner. Mielziner’s system of cutaway rooms and semi-translucent scrims allows instantaneous changes of scene and mood through the manipulation of light. The Loman house, cramped among high-rises, becomes, as you watch, the Loman house of memory, nestled among trees. A Boston hotel room appears in an unnoticed corner of the stage, as if a circuit had lit up in Willy’s brain. In fact, until Mielziner showed Miller his scheme, that’s where the play was meant to be set: in Willy’s brain.

Groundbreaking 60 years ago, the Mielziner design, for all its sweep and poetry, gives Nichols few choices of where to put the actors. “I haven’t blocked a thing,” he says. “I couldn’t. Mielziner thought out every friggin’ event of the play. But that’s liberating. Of course, you don’t want to end up like the fifteenth replacement in Phantom, making the moves but not knowing why. You have to change it. But it seems to me that when something is so completely achieved by the people who made it, you better know how they got there. Not to include that in your work is to miss the play.”

For the first time, he’s raised his voice. In moments like this, his fierceness emerges, briefly naked, from behind its curtain of charm, and makes you realize whom you’re dealing with. Rudin used to find him scary. They met when, at 19, Rudin was hired to cast the New York run of Annie. “It was meeting God,” he says now. “I always felt unequal to him and still do. But I also feel that being afraid of him is useless; he’s so munificent with what he knows and what he wants to share. How can you be scared of someone that gifted?”

In his work, Nichols plays on exactly that tension. One of his trademarks is making characters so bright and appealing that when they turn ruthless, you don’t turn on them. This has something to do with magnetism (“When in doubt, seduce”) and something to do with his willingness to understand, and forgive, almost any fault. Maybe these are the same thing. But whether he includes himself in the general amnesty is an open question. Rudin remembers meeting with him and Chris Rock a few months after The Country Girl closed. “We arrive in his living room,” Rudin says. “He’s sitting there with a yellow legal pad, making a list. ‘What’s the list?’ I ask. ‘It’s a list of all the things I did wrong on The Country Girl.’ ”

If anyone could short-circuit that critical impulse, you’d think it would be Sawyer. “My happiness in life really started with seeing my children”—he has three, from his second and third marriages—“become astonishing people. But my ultimate happiness,” he says over one last bite of pancake, “began in 1988 when I married Diane.”

At which point, as if on cue, she pops into the restaurant, even more attractive unmade-up and in mufti than in her ­anchor drag. They exchange a few words, but there’s no scene to play: no fight, ­negotiation, contradiction, seduction. As she leaves a moment later, Nichols mouths two small kisses silently toward her. Like everyone, he seems awed by her glamour—and in that awe, all his former incarnations resolve into one. Come quick: Mike has a character.

But when I ask if he ever critiques Sawyers’s performance at the ABC news desk, he nevertheless says, “Of course. Every night.”

Molly Price, who plays Willy Loman’s mistress, in her dressing room. Photographs by Brigitte Lacombe

Finn Wittrock, who plays Willy’s younger son, Happy.

Linda Emond prepares to go on as Willy’s wife, Linda.

Backstage at the Barrymore Theatre, the wardrobe awaits.

John Glover knits backstage between scenes as Willy’s brother, Uncle Ben.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in the kitchen of the Loman house.

“When in Doubt, Seduce”