Fresh Air Remembers Film And Broadway Director Mike Nichols

Nov 21, 2014

Nichols directed such movies as The Graduate and Birdcage and Broadway musicals such as Spamalot. He won nine Tony Awards. Nichols died Wednesday at 83. He talked with Terry Gross in 2001.

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This is FRESH AIR. Mike Nichols, the celebrated and influential film and theater director, died of cardiac arrest Wednesday. He was 83 years old. Mike Nichols first became known in the late '50s for his improvisational comedy with Elaine May. He went on to direct theater, films and television. And he was one of the very select show business talents to collect all of the major awards - winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and nine Tonys. Terry Gross spoke to Mike Nichols in 2001.


Why did you get into directing? You started off as a performer, you know, doing comedy. Why did you want to go behind the camera?

MIKE NICHOLS: Well, I didn't want to stay a performer. I mean, it's not that it came up that much. I think that as a performer I was something of a director. You know, there were two of us performing, and I was, you know, always bossing her around a little bit. But also I never really was crazy about what performing brought out in me - more of the baby. And I feel like directing brings out the daddy in me to some extent, and I enjoy it more. I like it better.

GROSS: In what way did acting bring about the baby in you?

NICHOLS: Why did it? It's just something that happens to me. I just turn into a baby. You know, I say, shouldn't I have the other dressing room? And, look, that light is out. Why don't we come first? And who's opening? And I just don't like the performers' baby impulses, and they come out plenty in me.

GROSS: Whereas as the director, you have to be careful of all the other actors' egos and baby impulses probably.

NICHOLS: Well, that's right. Well, you're worrying about somebody else. You're thinking about somebody else, which is somehow more freeing and which I enjoy more. I don't like worrying, did they like me, will they like me? I prefer worrying, will they like her, will they like him, will they like them?

GROSS: You must have had your hands full with the first movie you directed, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" because starring in that was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were two of, you know, perhaps, the most, like, followed couple in the press and by the American public. And they had this tumultuous relationship, and the story is about people who prey on each other's neuroses and delusions. That must have been quite a job for a first-time director.

NICHOLS: Well, I was lucky. They were very good friends of mine. Richard and I were very good friends. We'd been in the same alley - our theaters were in the same alley when we were on Broadway in different shows. I was in "Evening With Nichols And May," and he was in "Camelot." And we'd become very close friends, and then I was just becoming a good friend of Elizabeth's. And I felt quite easy with them. And they were very sweet and wanted very much to make the movie as good as they could.

And there was really only four of them - four actors - and they were wonderful to the other two actors, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. And they were wonderful to me, and Richard had his difficult days - difficult for him first - but we waited for him - this way and that way - and that was the only problem that ever arose. I was extremely fond of them, and I thought they were doing very good work. And in a good way, we enjoyed doing it. I mean, they would get down. They would get depressed. Sometimes she'd say she was tired of spitting at him. You know, and could we do something else for a while? She'd had three days spitting at him. But by and large, they were a pleasure.

GROSS: Let's just listen to a short scene from the film.


RICHARD BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Martha) Oh, what do you want?

BURTON: (As George) I wouldn't go on with this if I were you.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Oh, you wouldn't would you? Well, you're not.

BURTON: (As George) You've already sprung a leak about you-know-what.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) What? What?

BURTON: (As George) About the sprout - the little bugger - our son. If you start in on this other business, Martha, I warn you.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I stand warned.

GEORGE SEGAL: (As Nick) Do we really have to go through all this?

TAYLOR: (As Martha) So anyway, I married the SOB. I had it all planned out. First, he'd take over the history department. Then when daddy retired, he'd take over the whole college, you know? That was the way it was supposed to be - getting angry, baby? That was the way it was supposed to be - all very simple. And daddy thought it was a good idea, too, for a while, until he started watching for a couple of years - getting angrier? Until he watched for couple of years and started thinking that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all, that maybe Georgie boy didn't have the stuff, that maybe he didn't have it in him.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Like hell I will. You see, George didn't have much push. He wasn't particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flock - a great, big, fat flock.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary, not on an associate professor's salary.

GROSS: That's a scene of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" directed by my guest Mike Nichols. It was his first film - the first film that he directed. You know, it's funny as part of Nichols and May you dealt a lot with neuroses in relationships, but not on this level of kind of grand neurosis, you know, (laughter), the grand theatrical version of neurosis. So it was kind of continuing a theme but in a completely different level for you.

NICHOLS: Well, yes, I think that's right. But, you know, when I saw the play of "Virginia Woolf," I was really knocked out by it. I thought, and still think, that it's a great play, and I was - I felt I knew a lot about it when it came up because there's something about the way Albee went about it that was very familiar for somebody who had gone to the University of Chicago and known certain people there who had difficult marriages and lived a certain kind of academic life, you know? The gag about academia is that the - you know why there's so much backbiting and viciousness in academia?

GROSS: No. Why?

NICHOLS: Because the stakes are so low.

GROSS: (Laughter). Right.

NICHOLS: And that - I had seen a certain amount that at the university. And I really felt I understood it. And I think you're right, you know. Elaine May and I did neurotic couples, God knows. And here was one more.

GROSS: Actually, maybe this would be a good time to hear an example of the kind of neurotic couple that you and Elaine May did. But this is not just neurotic, it's also neurotic with a lot of intellectual pretensions.

NICHOLS: Yes. Oh, I know which one that is.

GROSS: This is a routine called "Bach To Bach."


ELAINE MAY: (As character) My family was middle-class - ordinary. And there was no relating. There was proximity, but no relating.

NICHOLS: (As character) Oh, no, it can't be. The pressures are just incredible.

MAY: (As character) And of course I had a great many difficulties, which I've been trying to resolve.

NICHOLS: (As character) Yes. And I think you are. I mean, I haven't known you that long, but - you know, when you consider the ambivalence of the women's world today...

MAY: (As character) Oh, it's incredibly ambivalent. It's so hard to resolve. It's so hard to acknowledge the fact that aggressiveness need not be hostile.

NICHOLS: (As character) That's right - yes. No, Adler was no fool.

MAY: (As character) No. I always thought of him as a fool, but he said some good things.

NICHOLS: (As character) Yes. No, I've reread him recently. There are really - there are insights there.

MAY: (As character) Yeah. Too many people think of Adler as a man who made mice neurotic. He was more, much more.

NICHOLS: (As character) Can you move over a little? I'm falling off the bed.

MAY: (As character) I'm sorry.

NICHOLS: (As character) A great deal more.

MAY: (As character) Yes, yes, he was.

GROSS: This was, I think, the era when psychotherapy was pretty new for middle-class people to have. And the whole idea of neurosis, I think, was a kind of new part of the vocabulary.

NICHOLS: It wasn't new around me...


NICHOLS: ...Because, among other things, I'd gone to a series of progressive schools. And in these schools which I had attended, one of which was a block away from the studio in which I find myself, everybody was in therapy. The school encouraged it, and there was a school psychologist who was kept very busy. And it was very much part of the vocabulary. And most of the kids in this progressive school were in therapy, so that I was very familiar with it. It was all around me.

BIANCULLI: Producer-director Mike Nichols speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2001 interview with producer-director Mike Nichols. He died Wednesday of cardiac arrest at age 83.


GROSS: Well, Mike Nichols, I don't want to say goodbye without asking you first about one of the most famous shots in modern movies, in a movie that you directed, "The Graduate." The scene that this is from is the scene in which Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft, is trying to seduce the young Dustin Hoffman, freshly out of college. And the shot that I am referring to is just as he's saying, Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me? She has been sitting on a bar stool. She's wearing a fairly short skirt, and as if an answer to that question, she has, like, raised her legs a little bit and separated them. She's, like, bent one of her legs, and you shoot Dustin Hoffman through her spread legs - through that one bent leg. And that shot even became the shot used or the image used in the ad campaign. Can you just talk a little bit about coming up with that shot?

NICHOLS: That scene was all about him being stalked by Mrs. Robinson, you know? And we talked about it being a jungle, and it was a jungle. There was all these plants in the Beverly Hills garden that was, you know, behind the glass that surrounded this sun porch. And we talked about her being the tiger in the jungle, and she had a striped dress on and - tiger-striped dress on. It was all built to be a trap, a tender trap, and then I wanted to - just to find a way to express the fact that she was being extremely provocative and that he was framed by that provocativeness, that it was making him sweat. There was her leg, and it was up. And it seemed logical to shoot through that - the arch of that leg.

GROSS: And did you try it many different ways before coming up with just the right shot?

NICHOLS: No, we just did that one shot. I mean, there it was. Anne put her heel up on the bar stool, and there was this very nice, little arch through which you could see Dustin very well. I said, oh, good, let's come over here - I like this. Things that become famous in movies are a concatenation of so many things that are out of control. All sorts of things that we don't control, but the process of choosing the pieces, the beads for the necklace that eventually gets thrown into the flames on the funeral pyre or that gets put on the princess as she's made into the queen, those - the process of making the beads to try to bend in this metaphor as quickly as possible...


NICHOLS: ...Is always the same. You know, you just look for the shot that most clearly expresses what's happening.

GROSS: Well, Mike Nichols, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

NICHOLS: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Mike Nichols speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. The acclaimed producer-director died Wednesday at age 83.


ANNE BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) May I ask you a question? What do you think of me?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What do you mean?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) You've known me nearly all your life. You must've formed some opinion of me.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Well, I always thought that you were a very nice person.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know I was an alcoholic?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know that?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Look, I think I should be going.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Sit down, Benjamin.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange. Now, I'm sure that Mr. Robinson will be here any minute now.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) No.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) My husband will be back quite late. He should be gone for several hours.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Oh, my God.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson): Pardon?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson, oh, no.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What's wrong?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Mrs. Robinson, you didn't - I mean, you didn't expect.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) I mean, you didn't really think I'd do something like that?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Like what?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What do you think?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Well, I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) For God's sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won't be home for hours.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) So?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson, laughter).

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Aren't you? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.