There’s so much I want to say about Mike Nichols that I don’t know where to start. Actually, I do. I’ll start by saying what I’ve been saying to myself and others for something like 40 years: In the post-Elia Kazan era, Mike Nichols is the best American stage director we have. Make that had.
I got the thought for the first time when, having seen the wonders he did with Neil Simon’s comedies—starting with Barefoot in the Park—I was stunned by his Lincoln Center production of David Rabe’s Streamers. I wasn’t prepared for the punishing depths he was able to probe in a theater setting.
There’s a reason, of course, for his ascendance to Kazan’s heady level. He said more than once he was strongly influenced by Kazan. He certainly said it when readying his Death of a Salesman revival and meticulously reiterated the set Jo Mielziner designed for the first production. Nichols was praised for casting Philip Seymour Hoffman, then 44, as Willy Loman, when, many commentators forget, Kazan had 39-year-old Lee J. Cobb in the 1949 cast.
I first heard Nichols’s name much earlier, though, and at the time it was inseparably linked with the name Elaine May. There they were—the buzz about them intensifying—on television doing one of the honed improvisational routines that made them overnight sensations. I forget which one it was. Perhaps the one in which Mike is on the phone with Elaine as his mother. Perhaps it was the one where Mike as a bombastic interviewer is gabbing with Elaine as a typical starlet—“I have personally never dated Al [Albert Schweitzer],” she croons, “but word gets back from those who have….”
I was hooked. I’d never heard anything like it. As soon as I could I bought their first spoken word album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and over the next few days committed it to memory. I listened to it I-have-no-idea-how-many times and laughed every time as hard as I had the first time. They were to comedy, I believed, what Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, popular at the same time, were to jazz.
It was only after many listens, however, that I began to analyze the team’s dynamics. In most of the skits Mike was a frustrated man encountering madness in the characters Elaine created. I realized that while he was quick with the humorous line, she was the zany. It was he who sensed when she had gone far enough on one comic tack and would shift into something else. In other words, while she was writing, Mike was directing.
It’s still possible to absorb their expertise, thanks in part to YouTube, where television footage is accessible. There’s also the entire American Masters edition, Mike Nichols and Elaine May – Take Two, in which fans like Steve Martin discuss their brilliance, as does Jack Rollins, the equally brilliant manager who helped propel their early success.
What becomes clear during the hour-long program is not only that they were ahead of their time then—while helping to define it—but that they’re still ahead of their time, particularly when contemporary dumbed-down humor is diametrically opposed to their contributions.
Watching Mike and Elaine is realizing that they were superb comic actors, which in some ways makes Nichols’s abandoning acting a disappointment. After they separated, he appeared as an actor, as far I recall, only once—in London’s National Theatre production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, directed by David Hare.
Nichols was superb as a man in an unidentified repressed society whose moral fiber completely evaporates over the play’s course. What stays in my mind are his face and shrinking physical bearing during moments when the character is expressing his justifications for increasingly inexcusable behavior. Luckily, he repeated the performance in the videotaped version.
But if Nichols was lost to us as an actor, the compensation is his work as a director. And what compensation it is! There’s no need to list those achievements on stage, film or television. They’ve been well covered in the lengthy obituaries. I’ll only say that his HBO treatment of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which won him an Emmy, is the best realization of that superlative script. I also maintain that if it had had a theatrical release, it would have won the Oscar as the year’s best movie.
Although I can’t say I knew Nichols well—I hardly knew him at all—I did interview him a few times but always about others. Once, though, I attended a master class he taught when he was running, with longtime Chicago colleagues George Morrison and Paul Sills, the relatively short-lived New Actors Workshop. There I witnessed first-hand his boundless director’s acumen.
On Wednesday evenings, if Nichols happened to be in town and free, he’d lead a class for second-year students. (This was a two-year course.) The night I was there, the generally young aspirants had been asked to pair off and present a short bedroom scene from Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape.
There’s no call to quote Nichols’s discussion of the script with the actors—to whom he was unfailingly generous while properly critical. I’ll only report that his understanding of both the text and the subtext was breathtaking. The insights he relayed became a glimpse into the uncanny flare with which he worked alongside many of the top actors of our time.
When the class was over, I asked him how he felt about the teams having prepared their scenes without the help of a director. Had they had a good director’s guidance, I suggested, mightn’t that have substantially altered the results he’d assessed? He merely said, expressing an incontrovertible truth, “They’re going to work in many places where they’re not going to have a good director.” Incidentally, none of the obits I read mentioned the New Actors Workshop or his beneficent part in it.
The last time (of, I reiterate, very few times) that I was in a room with Nichols, I didn’t ask him why he wasn’t directing for the stage more often than he was. (For selfish reasons, I badgered him about this more than once.) I didn’t even speak to him that night.
The occasion was a publishing party for Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which was held at Chartwell Booksellers in the Park Avenue Plaza building. It’s a very narrow space—extremely narrow. As Nichols was leaving the friends with whom he’d been conversing and headed towards the door, he said—always the consummate theater man—as an exit line, “We could have had this party at my place. I also have a nice hallway.”
For that and for—I don’t know—a million other things, we’re going to miss, but never forget, Mike Nichols.