Mike Nichols, one of the best-known film and theater directors in the world, died on Wednesday of cardiac arrest at age 83. A brilliant, witty and multifaceted man who was born in Berlin and whose family fled the Nazis, Nichols’ career lasted from its 1955 launch, as part of the satiric comedy team Nichols and May — with Elaine May, whom he met through friends while at the University of Chicago — to the 2012 Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role and for which the director received a Tony, adding to the other eight he already had.
The first play he directed, Neil Simon’s 1963 “Barefoot in the Park,” provided him with his first of those awards, while the first film he helmed was the 1966 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton version of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which won five Oscars, although not one for him. He did get a directing Oscar for his next movie, 1967’s “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.
Though he wasn’t a dedicated follower of fashion, he and his wife, ABC newscaster Diane Sawyer, were friends with Diane von Furstenberg and appeared in the front row of the designer’s show each season, and Nichols and WWD intersected from time to time over the years.
Giving a talk at Brandeis University in 1968, when he directed Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” on Broadway. (He refused to do interviews at the time.)
“Rehearsals for the theater I enjoy almost more than anything. I can sit there and laugh and let the actors perform and say, ‘That’s great. Do that some more.’ Rehearsal is a joy because the actor can amaze you….You, as [a] director, can only make an atmosphere where the actors breathe — if the actors are good.
“Being [a] director, for me, is not working with established or non-established stars. The division is actors or nonactors. Miss [Maureen] Stapleton and Mr. [George C.] Scott [who appeared in “Plaza Suite”] are extraordinary actors, but most people can’t act…so you can only make do with what you have — on film…but on the stage, never.
“The job of director is to discuss what’s happening, that it’s not just being said. He must discuss an event, either make it or let it happen. Onstage, you try to make things physical.
“In films, if the director doesn’t leave anything unsaid, it’s a lousy picture. They’re implicit things. A picture is good to the extent it’s implicit. Any good movie is filled with secrets…you feel them working if a picture is any good.
“I hated making ‘The Graduate’….It was very scary, the hardest thing I ever did. The best time is afterwards, in the cutting room — you and the cutter having a good time together. The pressure is off.”
“People compare the methods I used [in ‘The Graduate’] to other directors. I have not derived, but stolen, from other directors and will continue to do so, but you can’t recognize it. I stole from George Stevens deliberately and consciously and will continue to do it. But by the time I’m finished, it becomes something else.
“A movie becomes a social document, a thing more than itself. You make a movie now, and in 20 years, people will look at it and laugh at the funny clothes. It’s like we don’t know whether Matthew Brady was a good photographer or not because all we have are his photos of the Civil War.
“Everyone is influenced by everything. The influence is not what a stranger ascribes to the work in looking at it.
“Critics are largely eunuchs describing a gang bang.”
— WWD, Feb. 14, 1968
At the time he made the 1971 film “Carnal Knowledge,” which starred Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Candice Bergen and Art Garfunkel, he spoke to the Eye.
“Nobody never misses.”
“I don’t know that you ever get to the point where you don’t worry about artistic failures. But if you have enough commercial failures, you don’t get to make any more movies.”
“I understand they’re having trouble with the title in Buffalo.”
On the R rating: “The point is, how do two guys talk? What is life really like? ‘Carnal Knowledge’ is about missing the best possibilities in life by considering women as objects.”
— WWD, June 18, 1971
On traveling with Sawyer, his third wife, in his 1988 gray BMW from Manhattan to California:
“I always wanted to have someone I could be in a car with for a month. My fantasy is just me and my baby. I love this country, and I want to see all the things I haven’t seen before, like the Grand Canyon, which I’ve only seen from above, and Hoover Dam. We’ll take along some hard-boiled eggs, fried chicken, sleeping bags, underwear, T-shirts and jeans and one suit each for places like New Orleans and going out to dinner. We’ll stay in motels along the way and see friends in Wyoming. It reminds me of hitchhiking home to New York from the University of Chicago. When I’d finally get to Pennsylvania, I’d start to cry.”
— W (then sister publication to WWD), April 17, 1989