When Mike Nichols passed away last Wednesday night at the age of 83, I found myself needing to hit the YouTube buttons to have another look at some of the sketches he and Elaine May performed when they were working together in the late 1950s. Watching two teenagers on their first date in the car the young man only got “once a week”, listening to a mother tell her astronaut son how worried she gets when he doesn’t call because “you lose some of them and I worry”, having a talk show couple discuss Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell as Al and Bert — all that and more had me sitting at my computer table laughing myself silly for over an hour.
They were incomparable, and their work will be giving pleasure to viewers “a hundred years from now” as predicted by their manager Jack Rollins in an interview.
Sadly, they never worked together again on stage after producer Alex Cohen brought their “Evening with Nichols and May” to Broadway for over 300 performances during the 1961 season. She was a writer/director and he, of course, was a director, both waiting to happen. It didn’t take long.
In the fifty years since, he’s proved his range had no limits — from the power of Death of a Salesman (in an acclaimed revival with Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the silliness of Spamalot, from hit after hit with Neil Simon to a successful introductory production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.
And stretching further, he volunteered to direct the film of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Albee, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton all agreed to work with him, though it was his first film. The result: It brought him his first Oscar. His reputation as a brilliant director who knew how to get the best out of his casts while giving them the time of their lives kept him in demand as long as his health permitted him to work. At the time of his death he was deeply into pre-production on a film of Terrence McNally’s Master Class which was to have starred Meryl Streep.
Many of the giant talents with whom he worked have written about him in recent days, and there will be more to come. I don’t presume to claim a close relationship with him, but I did know him, and this is my take on how he behaved with others in the theatre who were merely supplicants or satellites to his bright star. On three or four occasions I was lucky that his life brushed my own.
In 1963 my partners and I represented the young actors Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, who’d been offered the leads in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, which was to be tested during the summer at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. As this was a most important step up for the young stars, the choice of director was particularly important. Producer Arnold Saint Subber suggested Mike Nichols, who was still remembered for his great success as a performer on Broadway. To make certain the direction was up to snuff, and the casting correct, Saint Subber booked the summer theatre, gave the play a pseudonym (it was called Nobody Loves Me) and we all trooped out to New Hope to have a look.
Before the final curtain fell on that first night, the decision was easy. “Yes!” it was agreed by all concerned. Nichols was in, and we all signed up to invest in the play (in 1963 one could invest as little as $300). That was the summer; by the time the play opened in New York in October of that year, I had managed to take shares in my name, in my partner’s name, in the name of a syndicate that was run by my cousin Andrew, and in our agency’s name as a company. Can you see why, though he never knew any of this, I’ve been grateful to Mike Nichols for fifty one years and counting? The play paid a 1,000% profit! That meant for every dollar invested, you earned back ten.
Years later, when fortuitous circumstances led to a friendship with Emma Thompson, she invited me to the premiere of her film “Primary Colors”, which Nichols had directed. At the Loew’s 84th Street Theatre in New York, I was seated next to the director and his wife, news anchor Diane Sawyer. He had a heavy cold and was uncomfortable trying to stifle a persistent cough. I was suddenly elevated to peerage with the Nicholses and there I was chattering away with my advice about the advantages of Robitussin DM. I had some cough drops with me, and I passed them along. It was an out-of-body experience in which one of me was telling the other me: “This is Diane Sawyer. You are prescribing for Mike Nichols! You are having a wonderful life.”
And more recently, when “Angels in America” was being shot in a film studio on Long Island, I joined Emma’s husband Greg Wise and their very small daughter Gaia when they went to watch her filming as the Angel, again under Nichols’ direction. Young Gaia became restless and Dad took her off to a dressing room at the far end of the sound stage. At one point Emma went off for some makeup adjustments so there I was, alone with the great man.
We actually exchanged a few words, and he graciously remembered my meeting him at the premiere. He had that way of elevating a casual acquaintanceship into what sounded like an important friendship, even if only for that moment when you and he were in contact. When I got home I decided I would dare to ask him to read a musical for which I’d written the book, knowing that he had produced Annie on Broadway just because he’d seen it at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Ct. and was shocked to learn no one was going to move it to New York.
I wrote him in October 2010 and made my proposal, and was delighted to get a letter by return mail. In it he treated me as a colleague but went on to say that he had committed to “something called Spamalot, which is now in development, but as I am seventy it’s the last thing I’ll do, before I retire”. He went on to say he’d best not read my script, for if he liked it he’d be in terrible trouble. Thank God he did not retire after Spamalot, another lovely winner for him, but once again I felt satisfied that I’d made my proposal, and grateful that he’d been so thoughtful even in rejecting it.
He was a rare bird, this Mike Nichols, born with another name in another country, one of those we were all so lucky to have had here with us and who left us such a splendid legacy, to enrich our lives so consistently.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.