The Boy from Berlin: Mark Harris on Mike Nichols

I recently interviewed the author Mark Harris about his terrific new biography Mike Nichols: A Life (Penguin) for a live Zoom event as part of the speaker series from the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. (You can see our full hour-long conversation here.)

I was a huge fan of Mark’s 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin again), which brilliantly uses the story of the five Best Picture nominees for the 1968 Oscars—The Graduate, Bonnie and ClydeIn the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and (believe it or not) Dr. Doolittle—to capture the moment when “Old Hollywood” gave way to “New Hollywood.” 

(Bonus points for anyone who knows which picture won. Hint: it’s not one of the ones now remembered as a turning point in American cinema.)

For me, reading that book was like digging into a huge piece of chocolate cake (and I have a sweet tooth like you wouldn’t believe). It includes quite a bit about Mike Nichols, for obvious reasons, so when I learned that Harris was writing a full-length biography, thanks to an excerpt in New York Magazine, I was very excited and ready for a second helping of cake and a possible diabetic coma. The end product did not disappoint, though fortunately no trip to the emergency room was necessary. 

But the cake metaphor does Harris and the book a disservice, as this is no mere confection. It’s a deeply considered portrait of an artist that is revelatory about cinema, theater, and a complex man who bestrode both worlds like a colossus.

(Note to self: Is “bestrode” a word? Check before publishing this.)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BECOMING MIKE NICHOLS

ROBERT EDWARDS: I want to start out by naming just four of the many things that I learned about Mike Nichols in your book. 

  • He was offered both The Jerk and Animal House, which is very hard to imagine as a Mike Nichols film…. 
  • He briefly dated Anne Bancroft before she married Mel Brooks, or he cast her in The Graduate….
  • At one point he was going to direct Melvin and Howard with Elvis in the part of Melvin….
  • He was originally set to direct Chinatown and Roman Polanski was going to do The Day of the Dolphin, and then they switched, which worked out great for Roman and not so great for Mike. 

So how did you happen to embark on this book?

MARK HARRIS: I didn’t think that I would ever write a biography of Mike Nichols or anyone else. In fact, I had spent some time encouraging Mike fruitlessly to write his autobiography. The other two books I did were both kind of multicharacter narratives, where I was able to take five or six people and intertwine their stories over a fairly compressed period of time, like six or eight years. With those books, I really felt kind of like an orchestra conductor. There were structural challenges in cutting between all the plotlines and figuring out where they came together, but I had a lot of instruments to play with, and always another storyline to cut to when one went dry. With a biography you’re locked to the particulars of someone’s life…..in this case one life for 83 years.

So I didn’t come to the idea until after Mike passed away, when my publisher approached me about it. And the more I thought about it, the more interested I was, because I think he had a truly unique life and career. As a 20th century artist, his story is both kind of typical in a way, in that he starts as an immigrant before World War II, which is the story of so many people, but then there’s the extraordinary set of two careers as a theater director and as a movie director, each for the same half-century period, and both proceeded by his career as a performer. I thought there was no one else like him, but I also knew that what I didn’t know was tremendously more than what I did know. 

RE: You alluded to the fact that you knew Mike personally, which is not always the case, with a biographer, and in fact pretty rare. I imagine that must have affected how you approached the process. (Mark is married to Tony Kushner, whose masterpiece Angels in America Nichols directed as a two-part film for HBO in 2003.)

MH: Yes, I knew Mike because in 2000 or 2001 he started working with my husband on the HBO version of Angels in America, and I knew him in another way, because a few years later I interviewed him really extensively about The Graduate when I started work on Pictures at a Revolution. And then we knew each other socially as well. 

So one of the things I worried about when I started researching the book was how much am I going to be able to push that out of the way. Because this is in no sense a personal memoir, and it’s not an authorized biography either. I wrote it with the permission of Mike’s family, but they had no say over the content and they did not ask to see the book or ask that anything be left out or anything like that. But as I started to work on it, I realized that it really wasn’t something that I had to worry about because, although I felt that I had known Mike for a long time, in this 35 chapter biography I come in at Chapter 32. The years when I didn’t know him are so much more tremendous, and the degree to which the person I knew had been shaped by those prior experiences that I didn’t know about was so great, that most of the time I was working on it I didn’t have the “Mike” that I knew in my head at all. It was only when we got to the later years.

RE: Did your impression of Mike or how you thought of him change as a result of writing the book and the research that you did?

MH: Oh, yeah, tremendously. I got to know him when he was about 70, and by then he was at a very settled, generous, happy place in his life. He used to say, “I started out as a prick, and then I changed.” But I didn’t have any idea of the depth of the struggles of his early childhood, I didn’t have any idea of what a factor depression had been in his life through the decades. The thing that surprised me the most was that so much of his life was a struggle against being pulled down by this darkness that he really seemed to have conquered or obliterated by the time I knew him.

RE: I think that that’s the experience that a lot of people had reading the book, myself included. He’s a public figure of course. We thought we knew him. But the public Mike Nichols—who’s almost the epitome of this suave and accomplished guy—is totally at odds with the tortured, depression-suffering individual that you’re describing.

MH: Well, many people have a public self and a private self. I think we are all different when we’re off the Zoom camera than when we’re on, and for famous people exponentially more so. But I think Mike had a very composed public persona, even more than most people, because he had to from early in his life. He grew up an immigrant. He came to the United States at seven, not speaking any English, he was bald from very early childhood as a result of a vaccination reaction, so he didn’t look like other kids and he really had to create a self that not only would be palatable and passably American and quote unquote “normal” to other people, but that would be everything that he wasn’t in real life, which was kind of invulnerable, impregnable, and a little bit remote.

(NB: Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky —or by some accounts, Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky—in Berlin in 1931 and sent to the US on a steamship just before World War II broke out, accompanied only by his younger brother, and famously knowing only two phrases in the language of his adoptive home: “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.”)

George Segal who died just recently, told me that Mike once said to him, “It takes me three hours to become Mike Nichols every day.” And when you’re doing research, certain quotes really stick with you and sort of become like distant beacons that you’re rowing toward, and that quote really stayed in my mind. What does it mean to feel that you can’t go out in the world until you create a self that’s acceptable to you and to other people? I think that was a big factor in Mike Nichols becoming “Mike Nichols.”

RE: When Segal talks about those three hours, it’s not just metaphorical: he literally puts on the wig and the whole process. To me, Nichols has this kind of Gatsby-like quality, where he has invented himself out of whole cloth. 

MH: I should also say that I hope that people who read the book will not come away with the impression that Mike’s exterior was false, because I think there’s a big difference between an invented self and a phony self. Mike wasn’t just creating a character that he could walk through the world being. In “becoming Mike Nichols every day,” to use his own phrase, he was creating the person that he wanted to be…..and with every year that passed, he actually got closer to being that person. There became less of a gap between his public self and his private self. So I don’t think that Mike was posturing or phony or anything like that. I just think that turning himself into someone who could do what he did took a great deal of effort and a great deal of thought on his part.

THE FILM FESTIVAL THAT WASN’T

RE: Another thing that struck me was how he was wounded by reviews. I look at Mike Nichols and I think, this guy’s on top of the world: all the acclaim, all the awards and everything else. But he really did deeply feel the criticism whenever it was leveled at him.

MH: Being successful doesn’t make you less vulnerable to criticism or less likely for your feelings to be hurt. He was certainly prone to that. 

RE: I’m thinking in particular of the story about the reaction to Regarding Henry (1991), which was pretty widely panned. You write:

There was a Nichols (the critics) liked and a Nichols they hated. The Nichols they liked was the acid anatomist of human behavior whose movies were extensions of his barbed, unsparing routines with Elaine May in which vanities and pretensions were laid bare almost prosecutorially. The Nichols they hated was a valorizer of the celebrated and well-to-do, a man who had become complacently attached to what Rolling Stone dismissed as “haute bourgeois marital dramedy” and unwilling to explore any personal sacrifice deeper than…..the trauma of downsizing from a sprawling suburban home to a large and well-appointed city apartment.

I mean, that must have been very frustrating for him as an artist, to have worked so hard to get to where he was and then find himself pigeonholed like that.

MH: I think so. Nowadays when we think of directors with kind of strong stylistic stamps, very often we’re thinking of directors who also write their own movies: Wes Anderson, or Paul Thomas Anderson, or the Coens, for instance. But because Mike worked with a bunch of different writers, and really loved writers and loved collaborating with them, I think it became harder for critics to decide who Mike was as a director. So they took a handful of his early movies—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), The Graduate (1967), Carnal Knowledge (1971)—and decided that he was this kind of cold, brittle, technically perfect filmmaker, and that what he was really interested in was this sort of icy take on human nature. 

I think drawing connections between those movies is legitimate. You can go to a much later movie of his, like Closer (2004), and see parallels to Virginia Woolf or Carnal Knowledge, but from pretty early in his career, he decided just to go toward material that interested him, or collaborators that interested him. What he thought about was, “Do I like this? Am I excited by it? Do I think I can do a good job with it?” And very importantly, “Am I excited by the people who I’ll be working with?” He did not think so much: “Is this movie the natural next chapter in this cohesive body of work that I’m trying to create?” I don’t think that’s the way his mind or his ego operated as a director. 

The flip side of that was that if he didn’t feel that, he would walk away. I joked that I could create a great Mike Nichols film festival, but I could also create a great “Could Have Been Directed by Mike Nichols Film Festival.” He turned down and dropped out of a lot of movies at the last minute.

RE: You have a great anecdote about his depression about making The Fortune (1975), which didn’t do well, and then seeing the lines down the block for The Exorcist, which he passed on. And he called Elaine May to get some solace, but he didn’t get it….

MH: (laughs) Elaine May said to him, “Oh Mike, don’t worry about The Exorcist. If you had directed it, it wouldn’t have made any money at all.” I think it’s very, very representative of Mike that he loved that story and loved to tell it. But I also think it’s kind of the way he thought. 

Mike really cared about how he cast his movies and his plays, and if he cast the wrong person, often he felt like he was totally at sea. And I think that extended to his view of himself. When he would drop out of something, it often wouldn’t be because he was saying “This isn’t right for me,” but “I’m not right for this.” He would see himself as miscast in the role of the director of that movie and he’d walk away. 

Famously, he even did it once as an actor, with The Sopranos. David Chase had asked him to play the psychiatrist in the third season who says to Carmella, “Tell your husband ‘I’m not taking your blood money anymore, and take the kids and go.’” It’s one of the great scenes in the series. And Mike worked on it for a couple of days, and then told Chase, “You’ve got the wrong Jew, I’m the wrong kind of Jew for this. You need someone else.” (laughs) And he dropped out….and then became friends with David Chase.

RE: Did they actually film that? Do you know if that footage exists?

MH: No, they didn’t get as far as filming it. I think they did maybe table reads and the rehearsal or something. That would be gold footage to have, but I don’t think it’s out there. 

RE: And then he quipped, “That should be the title of my biography: The Wrong Jew.” And at the end of your book, you even apologize—facetiously—for not calling it that.

MH: (laughs) Yes.

THE WRONG JEW

RE: Speaking of Elaine May, his relationship with her is pivotal to his story and his life and the book. Can you talk a little bit about their relationship?

MH: This is another one of those things that surprised me besides the depression. Before I went into the book, my impression was that Nichols & May was sort of an interesting first act to his life that did not really have any connection to what came later. But the more I worked on the book, and especially after talking to Elaine May, what I came to understand was that it informs everything that comes after it.

The way Mike viewed acting grew out of his work with Elaine. The way he viewed directing grew out of the fact that he felt that she was a greater inventor of character than he was, that she could come up with 12 lines for a character to say instantly and he couldn’t, so the skill he developed was knowing how to move a scene along, knowing when it was time to go from one beat to the next, knowing when the audience was quiet because it was interested and what it was quiet because it was bored. Those are all directing skills. He sort of developed a director’s ear in working with her. And maybe most importantly, you won’t find many other directors of Mike’s generation—he was born in 1931—whose first major creative collaboration was with a woman….and with a woman who really was at least his equal and maybe in many ways his better.

And I think when you go through the rest of his career and look at his collaborative work with Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson and Nora Ephron and the costume designer Ann Roth and the production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, Mike worked with a lot of women and was very comfortable with that, all the way down to Natalie Portman toward the very end of his career. I think his years with Elaine May—who, by the way, he also worked with for decades as a writer after their performing partnership broke up—those years really set the tone for everything that was to come.

Even when they were not officially working together, Mike and Elaine were never really out of one another’s lives. All along the way he would give her advice. He would show her the scripts for anything that he was thinking of working on, and she would show him her scripts. The bad time when they were really not speaking to each other was actually a quite short period, like ‘63 to ‘65 or so, and by 1980 they were working together on stage again, and as actors in a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

RE: You can’t help but think about how large Elaine May loomed in his life—and many people have noted this—when at the end of The Graduate Dustin Hoffman is pounding on the glass of the church and screaming, “Elaine, Elaine, Elaine!”

MH: (laughs) So I did all of Pictures at a Revolution, which took me probably three, four years to research and write, and that never occurred to me. It just shows you how you can work on something forever and think you’ve considered it from every angle, and it’s right in front of your nose. This time it did occur to me, because Elaine was so much in my head. I had this moment, sitting in the library and thinking, “Oh my God: was the character in the novel named Elaine?” And she was. But then maybe that was one of the reasons Mike picked the novel to direct.

RE: Could talk a little bit about the contrasting arcs of their directing careers? Because Mike had many hits and made some classic films, but he had a lot of flops too, and yet he continued to work and be considered an A-lister—an A plus lister, in fact. Meanwhile, Elaine May famously had one big flop which effectively killed her career and to this day remains a punchline in the industry, even though it’s having a kind of a renaissance now. 

MH: Right. I don’t think you can look at their respective careers without considering gender and the different opportunities for men and women in their positions. 

I’m not sure how Elaine may would feel about me saying that, because I haven’t heard her talk about it. But as a director, she came out of the gate with two really good comedies, A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and then a really interesting change of pace, Mikey and Nicky (1976). These are all are streaming; you can see them. And then a few years later, Ishtar, which was her biggest budget movie and the one that kind of in one stroke ended her career as a director. 

What was interesting to me, and what I didn’t realize until I started doing the work on the book, is that when Nichols & May broke up as a performing team—which was 1962, 1963—the sort of prevailing notion in the press was, well, she will obviously be fine. No one imagined that she was going to be a director because people just didn’t think of women in those terms. But the consensus was that she was a brilliant performer who could go on to do anything, and they weren’t quite sure what was going to happen with Nichols. And that’s something he felt too. 

Careers are idiosyncratic and Elaine May didn’t necessarily want the exact career that Mike had. I’m just very pleased that, at this late stage of her life and career, she is getting recognized as the truly important artist that she is: not just as a director, but as a performer. I know that Mike would have been absolutely thrilled to see her win the Tony Award for The Waverly Gallery. His admiration for her and her work was really unbounded through the decades, and he described the Nineties, which is when they worked together as director and screenwriter on three movies in a row, as one of the happiest working times of his life. He just absolutely loved working with her and loved having her in his life.

COMEDY ISN’T PRETTY

RE: Speaking of Nichols & May, could talk a little bit  about their influence on comedy in general? In the book you describe them as “avatars of a generational shift from an old school of comedy to a new one.”

MH: A couple of things were really important to them that are now important to a whole generation of comedy performers, some of whom probably don’t even know that they were influenced by Nichols & May. 

One thing is they both really felt strongly that you should never chase a laugh, that the laughs should emerge out of real situations and you should come by them honestly. Another thing, if you look at Nichols & May’s regular repertoire of sketches, often the situations that are set up are really pretty ordinary—from teenagers in the front seat of a car, or a mother guilt-tripping her adult son for not calling more often, or a guy who’s down to his last dime and is desperately trying to place a phone call through an operator—and then they spiral into kind of insane exaggerated, amazing places. But in every case, what was really important to them is that as performers—and as writers in a way, because they effectively wrote their own sketches—was that they provide those moments of recognition….those moments when the audience could say, “Oh, that’s a little private thing that I thought only I did,” or “Oh, I thought only I noticed that,” or, “Oh, my voice does that when I get upset.” Just those little things that would make people say as, Mike put it, “I know that guy, I am that guy!” 

That was not the prevailing thing in the 1950s when they came up. That was a really new style of comedy that Mike later grabbed onto when he became a director, something that he encouraged in his performers, and that helped bring Broadway into a more modern era. And Elaine May very much had the same sensibility: that things should stay recognizable when they’re at their most absurd and seem absurd when they’re at their most recognizable.

RE: It’s interesting, talking about Mike’s ability to shift back and forth between theater and film: that sort of comedy rooted in the everyday is something he brought to the early Neil Simon plays, like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple.

MH: When The Odd Couple opened on Broadway in 1965, it was at a time when the Moscow Art Theater was also in New York performing on a sort of a semi- diplomatic mission, and some critics said, “The Moscow Art Theater should go see The Odd Couple and then they’ll know really what naturalistic acting is, because of what Mike Nichols did.”

The whole first act of that play is basically a poker game, and that is a stage director’s nightmare because it’s a bunch of people sitting around a table, which means that somebody’s back is to you, nobody’s moving, and you can’t see the cards that they’re holding. So it’s just like a sort of decathlon of challenges in terms of staging. And Mike turned it into this dynamic, active thing where everything—from the opening of a beer, to the passing of a sandwich, to the stubbing out of a cigar—told you something about those characters and their relationship to each other and their moods and what they cared about. 

RE: But it’s interesting how quickly what he did with those Neil Simon plays became the new normal, such that by the late Sixties, when he was perceived in cinema as this groundbreaking auteur making films like Carnal Knowledge and The Graduate and so forth, in the theater he was already perceived as kind of a protector of the mainstream.

MH: Yeah, it’s funny: you can go from being an innovator to being an establishment figure so quickly in the arts. It was a challenge for him, and I think it was one reason he wanted to move his theater-making experience beyond Neil Simon. Though Mike would not in a million years have referred to himself as an auteur. I don’t think that’s the way he thought of his career at all.

One person I was really interested to talk to about this was Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live, because I thought that he would be of the generation that found those Neil Simon plays from the Sixties really old hat. Because by 1975, when Saturday Night Live came on, it was rebelling against that kind of comedy, much as the Neil Simon plays were rebelling against an earlier kind of comedy. But that wasn’t the case at all. Lorne Michaels had seen those productions and he, “Oh, no, no, no. They were revolutionary. And what was revolutionary about the was not the text: it was the way Mike staged them.

THE BEST CATCH THERE IS

MH: From very early on Mike had a really good bead on the things he could carry over from stage direction to film direction, which primarily was the way he worked with actors and texts. From his first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he did something that film directors almost never do, which was to say, “I want a three week rehearsal period.” Elizabeth Taylor, who had been a star for 20 years plus, told him that she had never been asked to rehearse before. But he knew how valuable that process was going to be, and the actors all really took to it.

But he also knew what he didn’t know. Two of the main jobs in movies that have no parallel in theater are cinematographer and editor, and it always struck me that those were two of Mike’s most important collaborations when he was making a movie. Particularly his editor, which is a job that most of us, even those of us who cover movies, don’t really understand. For most of his first movies his editor was a guy named Sam O’Steen, who was on the set every day, and often saying to him, “Get a shot from this angle,” or “We don’t have enough here.” Mike really valued that; it didn’t make him insecure at all. He knew that seeing the way a movie was going to cut together in your head while you were on the set shooting was not a skill that he possessed yet. I think after his first five or six movies, he probably felt that he started to get it, but it took him that long. So he really wanted an editor and a cinematographer by his side who would know how to achieve what he wanted to achieve.

RE: Well, it was clear he was a quick study, because, as you say, within a few movies, he was arguably a master of all those cinematic skills that have no analog in theater. I understand Catch-22 (1970) didn’t do well critically, but it was so technically difficult, maybe too technically difficult, in fact, that it began to interfere with the storytelling.

MH: That was the first movie Nichols made where the sky was the limit in terms of budget, in terms of casting, in terms of location, because it was his first movie made after the success of his first two movies. It was a movie he blew a little hot and cold on. I don’t think that he felt it ultimately worked, but there are things that he did in it that he really liked. Alan Arkin, who was the star of the movie, criticized him for spending more time with the airplanes than the actors, and Nichols did not ultimately reject that criticism. He said, it’s really possible that I got so involved in the technical challenges and the logistics that I didn’t give the performances the attention they deserved.

I think he also ultimately felt that maybe he had chosen the wrong material. Buck Henry said much later that he felt that the movie didn’t play to Mike’s strengths because it wasn’t about human behavior, it was about attitudes. I thought that was an interesting, very writerly observation from Buck Henry about why it might not have been Mike’s strongest work. But there are still fascinating things in it. It’s not a movie that Mike Nichols is absent from in any way. You can feel him all over it.

RE: Would you talk a little bit about Mike’s reaction when he was finishing Catch-22 and he and (studio exec) John Calley saw M*A*S*H?

MH: That is one of the great grisly movie stories of all time, because you can plan for everything, you can work on something for years, and then something completely out of your control can sideswipe you in a way you never would have anticipated. And with Mike that happened when they had finished Catch-22 and it was just months from coming out and then M*A*S*H opened. Mike said that that the minute he and John Calley saw it, they knew that they were doomed, because M*A*S*H had done what they wanted to do and didn’t do. Altman had developed this kind of loose, shaggy, improvisational style. Like Catch-22, it was a movie, not about the Vietnam war, but that was supposed to have Vietnam war resonance in it. 

Altman was always a figure that Nichols sort of looked over the fence at with a kind of curiosity. At one point he said, “I should be having the career that Robert Altman is having. He’s doing the kind of movies that I want to do. Why don’t I ever choose those movies? I think I’m going to do them. I try to do them. And then it always ends up being something much more tightly controlled than what I had in mind.” 

It’s one of the reasons I loved writing about him, and why I never got bored exploring his life, because he was so introspective and open about that stuff. He was always open to thinking about all of the things he could have done differently, and not embarrassed in any way when something he did didn’t work out the way he wanted it to do. Sometimes he was upset. Sometimes he was surprised. But he was never defensive about it.

NEVER NEVER ON A SONTAG

RE: Mike famously had many friends—famous friends and not-so-famous friends—and one of them was Susan Sontag. If I remember correctly, they met on their first day at the University of Chicago. Is that correct?

MH: Yes. She had just transferred and he was starting his freshman year and they met on the registration line. 

RE: That’s a “meet cute” that you would never believe if it was in a movie. Not even a Mike Nichols movie.

MH: He did have one of those unique lives that seemed to touch so many other lives. Part of it is that he got famous so early—when he was in his twenties, in the late 1950s—and stayed successful for so long, just in terms of who he directed. Surely there’s no one else who directed everyone from Lillian Gish to Natalie Portman. That’s like the entire history of American cinema in one career.

RE: Susan was hard on him creatively and critically, isn’t that so?

MH: I think Mike liked having some people in his life who were kind of….not the devil on his shoulder, but the stern conscience on his shoulder. He kind of liked having someone who would say to him, “What are you doing this garbage for? You should be doing something serious.” He didn’t always listen, but he didn’t resent her being there. Sontag was someone who in interviews would publicly say to him, “I don’t know why he’s wasting his time. He’s one of the few people in this country who could direct Bertolt Brecht, why isn’t he doing that?” And then also, apparently she borrowed a ton of money from him and never paid it back. It was a complicated relationship, I think.

RE: And he wasn’t averse to using his friends as leverage when it was useful. I’m thinking of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the problems he had with the Catholic Church.

MH: That’s a great moment of Mike sort of pulling all of the strings at his disposal. 

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf came out in 1966, it was absolutely unprecedented that a major studio would permit the kind of language that’s used in that movie. This was before the ratings system, and at the time, the national Catholic office of motion pictures, which was what used to be called the Legion of Decency, was still very powerful. If the Catholic office condemned a movie, that meant that a lot of theaters wouldn’t show it, some chains wouldn’t show it, some cities wouldn’t show it, some states wouldn’t show it. So it was very important that this movie get approved.

Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, had fired Mike off the movie while it was in the editing room, but he eventually agreed to let Mike finish it because Mike said, “I will get us an approval from the Catholic office. I’m going to ask my friend Jacqueline Kennedy to attend the screening with all of the priests and bishops on the board, and when it ends, I’m going to have her say very audibly, ‘Oh, what a wonderful movie! Jack would have loved it.’ And then Monsignor What’s-His-Name will have no choice but to approve it.” And that’s exactly what happened.

RE: (laughs) I wish all filmmakers had that kind of power. 

MH: Or inventiveness!

RE: And friends like Jackie Kennedy. 

Q&A

RE: We have a lot of questions; let me just start pretty much first come first served. We have a question that asks, “With two comedic powerhouses involved, Nichols and Buck Henry, how does one explain the calamitous Day of the Dolphin (1973) and why didn’t they make it a comedy?”

MH: (laughs) Well, it was based on a novel that was a very, very serious, and the dolphins talked a lot more, by the way, than they do in the movie, like in long complete paragraphs. I think Mike himself was really enchanted by dolphins, at least in theory, and thought there was something touching about this story. He had a little girl and maybe he wanted to make a movie that she could see. 

But collaborations between talented people are no guarantee of success. And this movie was made in some ways for a bad reason, which is that Mike owed one more movie to the financer Joe Levine, who had made The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge. So it’s conceivable that he just jumped at the wrong thing. Although The Day of the Dolphin does have some fun moments in it, and a few Mike touches, Mike himself was not a fan at all. Anytime he brought it up, he would dismiss it as “the fish movie.”

RE: You talked before about how important casting was to Mike. And he was not afraid to fire people—even big names. He fired Mandy Patinkin, he fired DeNiro, he fired Gene Hackman. So the question is “What were some of the casting mistakes he made and do you know the thoughts of those actors or have they made any public statements about having been axed?”

MH: I talked to Robert DeNiro who was fired from a movie that Mike ended up walking away from himself after he had started shooting, Bogart Slept Here. It was never completed, although it was kind of then rewritten from head to toe and became The Goodbye Girl (1977). DeNiro certainly did not talk about Mike with any great resentment. He said it was a very painful experience getting fired and a very painful experience feeling that he was not good enough. This was in the mid-Seventies, when he was just becoming really successful as an actor, and he sort of said that he might’ve approached that whole project differently from the beginning. 

Gene Hackman was fired from The Graduate in rehearsals. He was supposed to play Mr. Robinson, Anne Bancroft’s husband. Some people said it was because he was too young, or because he didn’t memorize his lines, or because Mike didn’t think he was funny. But Mike really liked him as an actor, and in fact they ended up working together three more times: in the play Death and the Maiden, and on film in Postcards from the Edge (1990) and The Birdcage (1996). So there was obviously no bad blood there. 

But I think the Mandy Patinkin firing on Heartburn (1986) was lastingly painful. I don’t know the degree to which that was ever healed or not, but I know that at the very end of his life, when the revival of Death of a Salesman that Mike directed with Phillip Seymour Hoffman was on Broadway in 2012, Mandy Patinkin came backstage to congratulate the cast and Mike sort of snuck out of the theater, he said, so that Mandy would just have his time with the actors and wouldn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable seeing him. So I think Mike was very aware of that. 

Firing someone is a painful thing. You’re levying a really harsh judgment in some ways, even if it’s a judgment about your own decision to cast them in the first place. You’re potentially depriving them of an opportunity. So it was rough. He certainly didn’t brag about firing them, but he did want to say, “I fired some of the best actors in the business.”

RE: One of the most difficult stories to read in the book is the experience that everyone had on What Planet Are You From? (2000), where Mike had gone in with a lot of respect for Garry Shandling comedically and then they found their styles didn’t mesh at all. Like many people, these are two of my favorite comedic figures, so it’s hard to read about how awful it was.

MH: That was just a really misbegotten project from the beginning. By everybody’s account, it was really not Mike at his best at all. He seemed to have a kind of personal animosity toward Shandling that he later said stemmed from the fact that something about Garry, his performance style and neediness and insecurity, reminded him of his earlier self in a way that just triggered something awful in him. Also, that was a movie that Mike arguably made for the wrong reasons. He got a huge paycheck for it, but that huge paycheck turned the whole film away from what the people involved thought it really should have been, which was a small, indie-style, offbeat comedy, something that someone like Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze might have directed. It became a big budget studio movie that was just kind of too large-scale for its own good and for its thin, silly, funny premise. 

RE: Apropos some of the questions here in the chat box, I wanted to ask you briefly a little bit about Mike’s personal life, which was famously lavish in terms of how he lived. There’s the great story in the book where he’s having a meeting in his apartment in Manhattan with a cinematographer or someone, and by way of demonstrating what he means, he says to his assistant, “Bring in the small Picasso.”

MH: (laughs) From the time he started making a lot of money, which was even before he started directing, in the Nichols & May era, he always liked to live to the edge of his financial capacity and that did get him in trouble at some points. One of the first things that Mike did when he had money was buy a triplex on Central Park West, in the Beresford. He had a big house in Connecticut with a fantastic horse farm on it, and a big ranch in Southern California. Mike grew up in a sort of middle-class household, but a household that after his father died—which happened when Mike was quite young—slid very quickly into poverty. So I think that really shaped his relationship with money…..the feeling that no matter how much you made it could all go away, and also that you’d better spend it while you have it, you’d better enjoy it. So he liked living well, for sure.

RE: I don’t begrudge him at all. He earned every penny and brought great joy to a great many people, and great insight into the human condition…..and so does your book.

*********

Photo: Nichols in 1966. Credit: Sam Falk/The New York Times

Thanks to Mark Harris, Juliana Kiyan, Kai Bird, Thad Ziolkowski, Ben Shenkman, Tom Hall, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. 

MARK HARRIS is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which was a New York Times notable book of the year, and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. He is currently a writer for New York, where he often covers the intersection of culture and politics. A graduate of Yale University, Harris lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.

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