Performing Arts
4:09 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Mike Nichols: 'Salesman' By Day, Artist Always

Originally published on Fri March 9, 2012 5:13 pm

Film and theater director Mike Nichols doesn't talk — he sells.

"The producers want us to sell, sell, sell," Nichols tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "That's my little joke. That's what we do by day; by night, we're artists."

The joke is that, these days, Nichols is selling Death of a Salesman. He's directing a Broadway revival of the Arthur Miller classic — with Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as the salesman himself — that's set to open on March 15. According to Nichols, Death of a Salesman is about a central relationship of American life — the one that exists between fathers and sons. He says it's central to our culture and it's central to lots of movies, "most of them with Robert Duvall."

Nichols' own father, Igor Nicholaievitch Peschkowsky, was a German-trained doctor and Russian Jew who escaped the Nazis by fleeing with his family to New York (he took the name Nichols from his Russian patronymic). Once in the states, Igor sent Mike and his brother to live with a patient while he set up his practice.

The elder Nichols' marriage was, by his son's account, one marked by discord and infidelity. Then, when Mike Nichols was just 12, his father died. It sounds like a troubled father-son relationship, but Nichols doesn't feel that way.

"Here's the thing," he says. "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."

Besides, Nichols says, as a kid, he wasn't so aware of what was going on at the time. He says his first memory is of his father coming to meet him and his family when they arrived in New York. Nichols remembers spotting a deli that had a neon sign with Hebrew letters on it. "And I said, 'Is that allowed?' And my dad said, 'Yes, it is here.' "

After that, it was all Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola.

"We'd never ever had food that made noise before," Nichols says. "We were very excited."

Digging For The Story

Mike Nichols can do serious, but he can also do shtick. He went from being part of the comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May to directing both on stage and in the movies. He's 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.

Now 80, Nichols attributes part of his success to something he learned as the little refugee kid who only spoke German, the kid whose whooping cough medication in Germany left him bald for life. (Today he uses toupees and fake eyebrows.) Nichols was different, an outsider.

"The thing about being an outsider ... is that it teaches you to hear what people are thinking because you're constantly looking for the people who just don't give a damn," Nichols says.

"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, because I knew where to go, and b) in confidence, because you can make them like you."

But the job of a director, working behind the scenes, is another matter.

"You find what's happening under the words," Nichols says, "the story that is not in the words. 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.' "

According to Nichols, that hidden story is just as integral to Death of a Salesman as it is to the Monty Python musical comedy Spamalot. He remembers working on that musical in Chicago, just before bringing it to New York City, and realizing that while it was meant for laughs, it still needed some rudimentary story. So at the very end, they had King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake fall in love and live happily ever after.

"We put it sort of in the last three minutes and, by God, it was very moving and it was a story. You can do it in the very last few moments," he says. "Our need — our desire — for a story is so powerful that it'll still work."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Yesterday, the director Mike Nichols stopped by our New York bureau to talk, or as he put it, to sell.

MIKE NICHOLS: The producers want us to sell, sell, sell. That's my little joke. That's what we do by day. By night, we're artists.

SIEGEL: The joke is that what Mike Nichols is selling these days is "Death of a Salesman." He's directing the Arthur Miller classic with Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as Willy Loman. Mike Nichols says "Death of a Salesman" is about the central relationship of American life, fathers and sons. Central to our culture, he says, and central to lots of movies, not necessarily his.

NICHOLS: As I said in some interview last week, most of them with Robert Duvall...

SIEGEL: Yes, yes.

NICHOLS: ...because it is our central relationship, more than in, I believe, any other culture.

SIEGEL: This talk of fathers and sons leads quickly to questions about Nichols' own relationship with his father. Igor Nicholaievitch Peschkowsky was a Russian Jew, a German trained doctor who got his family to New York to flee the Nazis. He took the name Nichols from his Russian patronymic.

Once in the states, he sent Mike and his brother to live with a patient while he set up his practice. The elder Nichols' marriage was, by the sons' account, one marked by discord and infidelity and when Mike Nichols was just 12, his father died.

It sounds like a very troubled father-son relationship, but Nichols says, no.

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: But that's a tremendous pressure, to think the dynamic within the family is insignificant because you've got to figure out which continent we can survive on and whether we get out of this place on time. It's pretty - it's understandable, it's pretty constraining for a kid growing up.

NICHOLS: Yeah. The thing about that is that, if you're a kid, you don't know that much what's going on in a large world. Like when we landed in New York and my father was waiting for us and he came onboard 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 Krispies and Coca-Cola because we'd never, ever had food that made noise before.

SIEGEL: And here was a virtual symphony of food that you could have.

NICHOLS: We were very excited. Next came Chiclets, which I swallowed, of course. What else would you do? And, after a while, it was explained what it was for.

SIEGEL: This is Mike Nichols. He can do serious and he can do shtick. He went from the comedy duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May to directing, both onstage and in the movies. What has 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.

At age 80, Nichols says he has used a gift that comes from being a little refugee kid who spoke only German, a kid whose whooping cough medication in Germany left him bald for life. He was the child who was different, the outsider.

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 because 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, because I needed to, I think it stood me in good stead.

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 because I knew where to go and, B, in confidence because, if you could make them like you - 1,000 people liking you and you hear it, that's not bad.

SIEGEL: The cast that Mike Nichols is directing in "Death of a Salesman" isn't so bad, either. He says they're all so talented - Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield, Bill Camp, John Glover - it's like a joke. The show is still in previews. It opens next week.

And I asked him - what's his job as director?

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 you. 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: That, to me - that description of what you're doing right now - you know, I'm trying to reconcile the act of directing with that and, say, "Spamalot," is it still the same thing, even when the production is - it's point is to be outrageously silly at every turn?

NICHOLS: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Same thing?

NICHOLS: Yeah. I did learn something very interesting on "Spamalot." Namely, we got very close to New York. We were in Chicago for a long time working on it and, towards the end of the period in Chicago, I said, we do have to have some kind of story, just a rudimentary story.

SIEGEL: There has to be something going on?

NICHOLS: Yes. I was experienced in this because even Nichols and May, of course, didn't have a story. It had individual sketches or scenes.

Here's what I discovered. We put a story in the end. You know, the King Arthur - the Lady of the Lake fell in love and lived happily ever after. We put it in sort of the last three minutes and, by God, it was very moving and it was a story. You can do it in the very last few moments and our need, our desire for story is so powerful that it'll still work if you're truthful in it. I used to say to the replacements, if you don't do this real as yourself, I'll come and beat the crap out of you. You have to...

SIEGEL: This approach to actors works?

NICHOLS: Yeah. Well, when they know a joke when they hear it. And they have to really love each other and so on and so forth. And, as soon as an audience recognizes that, they've laughed their ass off and they're perfectly happy. They have a story and it has a happy ending and that's all of us who want nothing more. And it's pretty difficult to achieve without love and love and its consummation is the ending of most happy stories.

SIEGEL: Well, Mike Nichols, thank you very much for talking with us today.

NICHOLS: A pleasure. Thanks for asking.

SIEGEL: Mike Nichols, who is directing "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.