Director Mike Nichols Remembered As A Comedian, Raconteur, Charmer
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Mike Nichols, who died yesterday at age 83, was as accomplished and celebrated for his work in film and theater as any director could hope to be. He was also a comedian, raconteur, a charmer. But to hear him tell it, he was, at heart, the outsider - the odd child who learned to hear people thinking and spot the ones who ignored his own oddities. A couple of years ago, when he was directing "Death Of A Salesman" on Broadway, we talked about his life and about the art of directing.
MIKE NICHOLS: I think you find what's happening under the words - the story that is not in the words. You have to dig out the events beneath it. You have to find the events. And when you find the events, you have to make them clear through and in addition to the words that they speak. And plays, especially great plays, yield their secrets over a long period of time. You can't read it three times and say, OK, I got it. I know what's happening, and that's the great excitement.
SIEGEL: Mike Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin. His father was a Russian Jew, a German-trained doctor who got his family to New York to flee the Nazis. His father took the name Nichols from his Russian patronymic, Nikolaevich.
In our interview, Nichols described how his father went to the States first, got settled and then brought Mike and his brother over when Mike was just seven. Then he sent them off to live with a patient while he set up his practice. Mike Nichols said, his parents' marriage was marked by discord and infidelity, and when he was just 12, his father died. I told Nichols it sounded like a difficult father-son relationship, but he put that in context.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
NICHOLS: Here's the thing. If you're fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, and you're a Jew, you don't think so much about relationships. People didn't have a lot of divorces during the Holocaust, for instance. And I never thought of it as anything but a great relationship.
SIEGEL: That's a tremendous pressure to think dynamic within the family is insignificant because we've got to figure out which continent we can survive on and...
SIEGEL: ...Whether we get out of this place on time. It's a pretty - it's understandable it's pretty constraining for a kid growing up.
NICHOLS: Yeah, the thing about that is if you're a kid, you don't know that much what's going on in the large world, like when we landed in New York, and my father was waiting for us. And he came on board to get us, and I looked across where the docks are. And on the land side was a delicatessen, and in its neon sign, there were Hebrew letters. And I said, is that allowed? And my dad said, yes, it is here. That's my first memory. My next memory is of Rice Crispies and Coca-Cola because we'd never, ever had food that made noise before.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) And here was the ritual - a symphony of food that you had.
NICHOLS: We were very excited.
NICHOLS: Next came Chiclets, which I swallowed, of course. What else would you do?
NICHOLS: After a while, it was explained what it was for.
SIEGEL: This was Mike Nichols. He could do serious, and he could do shtick. He went from the improvisational comedy duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May to directing, both on stage and in the movies. He directed "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?," "Barefoot In The Park," "The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge," "Silkwood," "The Birdcage," "Working Girl," "Closer," "Spamalot," and the list goes on and on. Mike Nichols told me in that 2012 interview that he used the gift that came from being a little refugee kid who spoke only German, a kid whose whooping cough medication in Germany had left him a bald for life. He was the child who was different.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
NICHOLS: The thing about being an outsider, no matter what - because of some physical thing - that I didn't understand is that there's a good part, which is that it teaches you to hear what people are thinking 'cause you're constantly looking for the people who just don't give a damn. And, you know, these increase as you go through life. And because I learned to hear what people are thinking - quite literally - 'cause I needed to - I think it stood me in good state. It's probably why I'm in the theater because I could hear an audience thinking when I was in front of them, which was a terrific advantage - A - in improvising 'cause I knew where to go and - B - in confidence because you could make them like you. A thousand people liking you, and you hear it - that's not bad.
SIEGEL: Mike Nichols - he died yesterday of a heart attack at home. He is survived by his wife, Diane Sawyer of ABC News, and by three children from previous marriages. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.