Mike Nichols is running scared.
“Here’s the most mysterious thing to me,” says Nichols, a performer and director with an almost golden touch on Broadway and in Hollywood over the past half-century. “I look back at those first plays I did and the first movies I did, and I only have one question, which is, ‘What was I so confident about? Where did I get that?’ It scares me because I’m not [confident] now at all. I’m anything but confident.”
Contemplating the terrors of life seems both apt and incongruous in the course of an interview with Nichols. At 80, before he “hangs up his shingle,” as he puts it, the veteran director is scaling what he considers the greatest American play: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, Linda Emond as his wife and Andrew Garfield as son Biff. In this 1949 epitaph to the American dream, which opens on Broadway on Thursday, a weary salesman clings to his stubborn pride and delusions of success.
As Arthur Miller once wrote of Loman, “Willy is a man who is trying to write his name on a block of ice on a hot July day.” In the play, Willy is haunted not only by the specter of failure but also the ghost of his brother, Ben, who taunts him for having turned down his invitation to strike it rich in Alaska, as he did. The elusive dream — “like a diamond shining in the dark, rough and hard” — hangs in the air of the Lomans’ modest Brooklyn home like a reproach.
However, Nichols is talking about fear of failing in the context of what most people would consider the epitome of American success. He is conversing in a cool, chic restaurant on the Upper East Side, a few blocks from the 5th Avenue apartment he shares with his glamorous wife, Diane Sawyer. For many years to many people, Nichols was Ben, with his shelves full of honors and tributes, including an Oscar, four Emmys and nine Tony Awards. Richard Burton, who starred with Elizabeth Taylor in Nichols’ first film in 1966, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” wrote in his diary that the director was only one of the two men — the other was Noel Coward — who could change the world just by entering a room. “They’re as bland as butter and brilliant as diamonds,” he wrote.
Nichols doesn’t see it that way. “I’ve been very lucky, but I feel so much the opposite.... It’s so far from my experience,” he says of any perception that he’s grabbed the brass ring. “No sane person ever thinks, ‘I’m it, man, they’re nowhere as good as me.’”
Lustily tearing into lunch, casually dressed in rumpled khakis and a sweater over an untucked shirt, Nichols is hardly “bland.” A bit more frail perhaps but robustly good company, a witty raconteur dispensing self-deprecating anecdotes. When Nichols hears Burton’s description of him, he laughs. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” The idea that he comes to any project with anything other than questions and insecurities is unfathomable to him.
“Directing is mystifying,” he continues. “It’s a long, long, skid on an icy road, and you do the best you can trying to stay on the road.... If you’re still here when you come out of the spin, it’s a relief. But you’ve got to have the terror if you’re going to do anything worthwhile. “
In fact, Nichols faced just such a crisis at the beginning of rehearsals for “Death of a Salesman” despite having assembled a stellar cast. The director had directed Hoffman before — in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” for which the actor was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, and in “The Seagull” in Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. He had been impressed with Garfield’s performance in the film “The Social Network” and had heard good reports about his London stage performances from Scott Rudin, producer of “Death of a Salesman.”
“Phil is a monster onstage, and so is Andrew, and Linda is such a real and startling actress,” says Nichols. Even so, it was daunting to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and hero Elia Kazan, who had directed the 1949 production, a risk accentuated by Nichols’ decision to re-create the original Jo Mielziner sets and use Alex North’s original score. “I was unnerved on that first day and told them so.”
Emond says that the admission had a salutary effect. “Mike doesn’t compartmentalize his honesty. He’s honest about absolutely everything,” she says. “So it made it possible for us to be open, candid, raw in the best possible way.”
The actors’ reaction, Nichols says, was practical. They simply got to work. “There is not a trace of self-pity,” says Nichols. A breakthrough came one afternoon while rehearsing the scene in which Biff punctures his father’s pathetic grandiosity. “I’m a dime a dozen and so are you!” he screams. At that moment, Hoffman rapaciously kissed Garfield on the lips. Nichols recalls, “I thought, ‘We’re there. This is ours.’ We found a physical expression for what is at the heart of these two guys, this love of father and son.”
It is a killer’s kiss, poisoned by what Nichols calls “the disease” of American ambition. He was not entirely immune to it. The son of German-Jewish émigrés who escaped the Nazis in 1939, Michael Igorevitch Peschowsky became Americanized from the day he arrived in New York at age 7 and his father brought home Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola — “food that talked back to you,” he says.
He was educated in private schools, worked as a shipping clerk for a time and, not having taken his college boards, found that he was eligible for only Mexico City University and the University of Chicago. The latter won out, and it was during that first — and only — year that he confessed to a psychoanalyst-in-training: “I’m so unhappy, I do have a weird sense that I was meant for something better, something special. What is that?’” recalls Nichols. “And he said, ‘It’s a wish.’ The shrink was right. To be ‘special’ is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist.”
In the early ‘50s, he met Elaine May, and they began a collaboration that would result in three bestselling comedy albums and a Broadway hit, fueled in part by what Nichols believes is in the arsenal of every good actor: a deep vein of anger. “It’s a very good engine,” he says. “And I think that angry people recognize each other. Elaine and I both had reputations on campus of being very dangerous, and from the moment we met, we were totally safe from each other. I’m still angry. A shrink once told me it never goes away.”
After he split up with May, Nichols turned to directing. He had an unbroken string of Broadway hits in the ‘60s, including “Barefoot in the Park,” “Luv,” and “The Odd Couple.” The success carried him to Hollywood, where his first two films were the Burton-Taylor “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate,” for which he won the Oscar — and one semi-winner, “Carnal Knowledge.” He ran aground, however, with the failure of “Catch-22,” and “The Fortune” was even grimmer. The response was quick.
“Los Angeles is actually a nest of Willy Lomans,” says Nichols. “That’s the only place where you can see whether your stock is up or down in the eyes of the guy who parks your car. That’s why I can’t live out there.”
The flops were a chastening experience. Suddenly, like Willy Loman, Nichols was “out there on a shoeshine and a smile” and people were not smiling back. But it was not an earthquake. “After the failure of ‘Catch-22,’ I thought, ‘So this is it? It’s not so bad.’” In fact, it was beneficial. “I believed all that [stuff]! It’s very hard not believe it. When the girls act different and you can have them? All of them? Then you’re in serious danger. It brought me back down to earth.”
Nichols regained his luster — and the smiles of car jockeys — with the ‘80s hits “Silkwood” and “Working Girl” and in the ‘90s with “Primary Colors” and “The Birdcage.” The last decade saw “Closer” and “Charlie Wilson’s War” and the acclaimed TV productions of “Wit” and “Angels in America.” On Broadway, where his star has never seriously dimmed, he collected another Tony in 2005 for “Spamalot.” The director says that he is toying with two ideas, a new play and an offer for a series that is his idea. “I love serials, ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Homeland’ and, of course, ‘Sopranos,’ but I don’t know if I’m up for it, if I want to work that hard.”
Despite the vindications of success, Nichols says there are some “comforts” to its opposite: bringing a sharper focus to his love of family — he refers to Sawyer, his fourth wife, as his “beloved” — and fear of failure as an engine for the future. He recounts that Rudin and Chris Rock once came over to his apartment to find him on the couch writing on a pad. He was making a list of all the mistakes he had made on his last Broadway outing, the 2008 flop revival of “The Country Girl” starring Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand.
“I was still obsessed about getting it right,” he says. “Sometimes you can blame the play or the screenplay or the release. But failure is not a bullet. It’s not something that paralyzes you. It’s something you can learn from.”
It is Willy Loman’s singular tragedy that he can’t understand that true success, says Nichols, is simply the ability to change. “Willie can’t understand the joy of changing yourself even by a millimeter. Even if you get 5 millimeters of difference in your life, not bad,” he says. His eyes, behind stern dark-rimmed glasses, suddenly moisten. “I don’t like to talk about my kids, but [their] ability to learn and adjust and change moves me more than I can say. It’s the one characteristic you want for them. Learn. Do something else. Change.”
In “Death of a Salesman,” the “diamond shining in the dark, hard and rough” turns out to be death itself. While Nichols once said, “Get the world to revolve around you and you think you’re never going to die,” he says that he has no such illusions. “Omigod, if I know anything, I know I’m gonna die! I never forget that. I know I’ll be forgotten in a minute, and that’s just fine with me.”
He tells the story of watching the film “Elizabeth” one night when he couldn’t sleep. He was stunned by how good the Cate Blanchett movie was and how “gutsy” its heroine, Queen Elizabeth I. The next morning over breakfast, he told Sawyer about the movie, how Elizabeth stood up to the pope, killed all her enemies at the same time, “just like in ‘The Godfather,’” and was not only right but right forever.
And, recalls Nichols, “Diane said one of the greatest things she ever said to me: ‘If forever matters.’”
As “Death of a Salesman” points out, it is the love — or damage — that a spouse and parent leaves behind in the here and now that ultimately matters. Everything else is a delusion.
Says Nichols, “And that’s what I’d like on my tombstone: “If forever matters....”