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‘Mike Nichols: A Life’ Biographer Mark Harris on Writing an Honest Book About a Famous Friend

Adam B. Vary
·15-min read

When the American Film Institute announced that it was giving its 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award to Mike Nichols, the event instantly became the hottest ticket in town. As recounted in Mark Harris’ upcoming biography “Mike Nichols: A Life,” not only did just about all of Nichols’ most celebrated collaborators — Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, Nora Ephron, Emma Thompson, Warren Beatty, Natalie Portman, Cher — immediately agree to attend, but other industry luminaries with no direct connection to Nichols called AFI and asked if they could come, too.

“Steven Spielberg said, ‘I want to be there for Mike,'” AFI chief Bob Gazzale says in the book. “Oprah Winfrey said, ‘How do I buy a table?’ It had never happened before, and I don’t know that it will happen again.”

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Reading Harris’ meticulous, deeply engrossing account makes abundantly clear: We will never see the likes of Mike Nichols again. Drawing from three-and-a-half years of research and reporting, including interviews with over 250 people, Harris reconstructs Nichols’ singular life and career from his childhood as a German Jew immigrant coping with an inability to grow hair, to the day he died in 2014, at 83. In between, Harris recounts Nichols’ start as part of the pioneering comic duo with Elaine May in the late 1950s and early 1960s; his sudden emergence as the hottest director on Broadway, with four hit shows (including 1963’s “Barefoot in the Park” and 1965’s “The Odd Couple”) running at the same time; the one-two punch of his feature directing debuts, 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and 1967’s “The Graduate”; his sustained career in theater (1984’s “Hurlyburly,” 2005’s “Spamalot,” 2012’s “Death of a Salesman”) and film (1983’s “Silkwood,” 1996’s “The Birdcage,” 2004’s “Closer”); and, in 2003, a career-capping HBO adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning play “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, Harris’ husband of 18 years. Harris also assiduously documents Nichols’ low points, both professional — like his misbegotten 1973 flop “The Day of the Dolphin” — and personal, including repeated struggles with depression and drug use; and then how, again and again, Nichols found his way back to the apex of the industry.

A veteran entertainment journalist, Harris first wrote about Nichols in his debut book, 2008’s “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the five best picture nominees from 1967, including “The Graduate.” By that point, Harris had known Nichols for several years from his work on “Angels in America” — Nichols and his wife Diane Sawyer even attended Harris and Kushner’s commitment ceremony in 2003. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Harris since 2001, and we are friends.) But he says he didn’t consider writing a biography of Nichols until soon after Nichols’ death, when Harris’ publisher suggested it.

“I was intrigued, but I also knew that it was not something I would do without the consent of his three children and Diane Sawyer,” Harris says. “But they did all say yes, and they said it unconditionally. It was just a huge act of trust.”

Harris spoke to Variety about how he approached Nichols’ life, who was one of the hardest people to convince to talk with him (and who still turned him down), and the essential piece of Nichols’ early career that remains nowhere to be found.

What had your experience been of Nichols as a director before you met him?

Well, the first Mike Nichols work of any kind I saw, I’m sure, was “The Day of the Dolphin” when I was a kid. Probably the first work I saw when I was old enough to understand that movies were directed by people was “The Graduate,” which I saw in high school. And then I was lucky enough to see, in the 1980s, a couple of things that he directed on stage. The original production of “The Real Thing” with Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close and Christine Baranski made a huge impression on me because I don’t think that I had ever seen anything on stage as immaculate and beautifully precise. It had these turntable sets that gave way one to the next. And then “Silkwood” and “Working Girl” and any number of movies.

After you met him when he was beginning to work on “Angels in America,” how did he change for you between your first impressions and when you were able to call him a friend, or at least someone you’re well acquainted with?

I think I would have said somebody that I’m well acquainted with, but I don’t think I ever kidded myself that I knew Mike Nichols. That’s not something I would have said years into researching the book. I can barely say it now. I mean, at the time that I got to know Mike — which was the last 12 or 14 years of his life — he seemed to be one of the happiest people I had ever met, just someone who deeply loved his work and his life and all of the pleasures that life could bring and wanted to share those with other people. As I worked on the book, I came to realize that that version of Mike Nichols was incredibly hard won and was the result of 68 years of struggle and work and evolution. I came to understand that his journey to being that composed a person was a lot more complicated than I had understood before.

I gathered reading that there was a surface-level Mike Nichols story that you became pretty quickly familiar with, and then as you researched, you got into deeper and more complicated areas. What most surprised you in that process?

The reason that I start the book with him not being born but crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a boat at the age of 7 is that was the first thing about himself that he ever turned into a story. I tried in those first two pages to make it clear that this was both a thing that happened to Mike and a thing that Mike liked to recount. Because I wanted people to know right from the beginning that there were versions of Mike Nichols that he himself composed for public consumption, and that those were not always to be trusted.

The big discovery for me was how much pain and struggle lay beneath that fierce effort to be who he was. As he says in the book at one point, I think to George Segal, “It takes me three hours to become Mike Nichols every day.” Well, imagine that when you’re not Mike Nichols, the famous person who everyone wants to know, but when you’re a kid, or a teenager, who is putting on a wig and eyebrows every day, and hoping to blend in as an immigrant, and struggling with the loss of your father and with a mother with whom you have a very stormy relationship, and with not really knowing what you want to do with your life, or whether you could possibly do it. There’s a lot of happiness in the book, but it’s a sadder story than I thought it was going to be when I started working on it.

I had been told in the mid-2000s that Nichols didn’t have any hair as a piece of gossip, something that wasn’t well known. But reading your book, it felt like at least within the industry it was relatively well known.

Within the industry, it certainly was. It was something that Mike would strategically share with people as early as the early 1960s. It was almost a way of saying, I trust you with this. He trusted Elizabeth Taylor with it and she was the one who connected him with a really good wig maker for the first time. And I was surprised also to see it show up in gossip columns as a kind of just a fact about him as early as 1975. So, yes, it was out there. He very, very rarely talked about it in the press. And understandably, it was a subject of sensitivity. But no, it was not a secret to the people he worked with.

His crack cocaine use has already made headlines after the first excerpt of your book ran this month. I didn’t know myself how widely known that was about him, but you rolled your eyes just now, so I imagine you’re not thrilled that people have focused on that.

It’s in the book, so I can’t complain about that. It certainly wouldn’t be my headline out of the book, and I hope it isn’t for other people. I mean, guess what? The 1980s happened. A lot of people used cocaine, and a lot of people used crack. And a lot of creative artists struggled with substance issues, far more painfully, quite honestly, than Mike had to, and with far graver consequences. So yeah, it was there. That was not a shock to me. Because he was quite candid about that once he was well past it. Without going through the whole list of sources, that information was amply backed up by at least five people I can think of.

One aspect of the book that stayed with me was this idea that Mike Nichols was truly a unique figure within the industry. He was such a product of a specific time in the 20th century, and developed such a bespoke set of skills, between improv and comedy and theater and filmmaking. Do you think that the current American entertainment industrial complex could produce or sustain a figure like him today?

If we were to just say that the thing that was unique about Mike Nichols was that he sustained parallel 50-year careers as a movie director and as a stage director, and was genuinely not more one than the other, that alone is something that I think we would struggle to find a contemporary parallel for. But then when you add to that the idea that before either of those careers began, he had this amazingly influential career as a performing artist that kind of reshaped comedy for decades to come, it’s very hard for me to think of a parallel figure and hard for me to imagine someone else doing that. I mean, for Mike to make the pivot from, as he called it, the less talented half of a comedy team, to being a director was still in 1963 really shocking. One way that it was more possible than it is now is that costs were not so staggeringly high. There were many, many more shows on Broadway every season. They were cheaper to produce, even accounting for inflation. Tickets were much, much cheaper, even accounting for inflation. Theater was a more popular art. And movies were cheaper, too. So in that sense, there was a little more room for people to roll the dice on someone like Mike Nichols that there might be now.

After “The Graduate,” Nichols became one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood, insofar that he got pure final cut in a way that no filmmaker of his generation had. Do you think that was ultimately helpful for him, to become that powerful so quickly?

It’s interesting that the minute he had that power, he makes his first failure, which is “Catch-22,” a movie that cost more than his first two movies put together. You know, I think that Mike probably would have said that what helped him at that point was not having final cut but having a failure. I think, in a way, like the most important part of that experience for Mike was, he suddenly realized that he could survive it, that he could make a flop, that he could have a wave of bad reviews, and that it wasn’t going to literally kill him. And right after that, he did what he often did after a failure, which was turn to something much smaller that was material he completely loved: “Carnal Knowledge.”

You interviewed over 250 people for this. Was there anyone who was difficult to get to yes?

Yes! It took a long time from the first time I asked to talk to Elaine May to the time Elaine May and I talked. She doesn’t do a ton of interviews, and it’s not like Elaine May is going to be susceptible to my wheedling or persuading. There are some movies where if one actor doesn’t talk to you, another actor will talk to you, or the writer will talk to you. But there wasn’t like a viable Elaine May substitute. So, she was incredibly helpful.

Are there people that you wish you had a chance to talk to that you couldn’t get to say yes?

Other than the ones who died long before I started the book — that’s always the biggest regret that, like, I couldn’t talk to someone like Neil Simon, or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, although, happily, they left a lot of words behind — probably on this one, Jack Nicholson. Just because he and Mike worked together several times. That would have been a really interesting range of experiences, from really positive to really negative, to discuss. But that was a really firm no. Jack Nicholson has not done interviews about his work in in quite a long time now.

Whoopi Goldberg also struck me as somebody that you would’ve wanted to talk to, given his instrumental role in discovering her and launching her career.

Yeah. I never got a no, but I never got an answer. I just could not make that happen.

At least on the record, you did not talk with Diane Sawyer or his children, right?

Right, they chose not to talk, which was not in any way a betrayal of a promise or anything. Mike’s children live quite private lives, and I just completely understand that. And I also absolutely understand Diane [not talking] — it’s asking an awful lot of someone to participate on that level in a book that they’re not going to see in advance.

Was there anything from your research that you really liked that for whatever reason didn’t make it into the book?

There are million anecdotes that I didn’t include because they were too similar to another anecdote or because they didn’t quite check out or because they were more about the person who was telling them than about Mike. There’s much more material that I have about almost every play that Mike directed. I was aware that I’m writing about something people can’t see for themselves, as opposed to the movies.

I was particularly sad that I couldn’t see the legendary sketch Nichols and May would do at the end of their act every night, the Pirandello, where they would tear into each other in a way that kept the audience unsure if it was real or an act. As you write, there’s no record of it anywhere?

There is none. I had to reconstruct what that was from various written accounts of it and from talking to Elaine May, who was incredibly helpful in taking me through each beat of it. But as far as I know, there’s no film or audio recording of it. It’s not on the album, “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” which is highlights of the Broadway show. It’s nowhere. I looked, believe me.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about how you chose to write about Nichols directing “Angels in America,” which, as we’ve already discussed a bit, you lived through with your husband, Tony Kushner. In the book, your voice doesn’t change at all — you don’t acknowledge your place in that story, or that you’re married to Tony. What was it like to approach that section and have to wear these different hats that you just didn’t have to worry about otherwise?

Interviewing Tony was not hard. Weirdly, by the time I actually made him sit down and do it, it just felt very businesslike, in a way. But [when] I got to the point of writing the chapter on “Angels,” I had a dozen different questions. Am I going to interrupt the narrative with an author’s note and explain who I am? Am I going to start calling him Mike rather than Nichols, because that’s how I think of him? Am I ever going to go into first person because there were things that I experienced?

Ultimately, I felt like, well, I’m not concealing that I am married to Tony, because it’s right on the jacket flap for anyone who wants to look at it. And I do think it would be good to be forthcoming in the acknowledgments and explain I did get to know Mike initially through “Angels.” But it felt like in the book, the best thing to do for a reader was just keep going. I will be really curious to see how people react to that, because it just ultimately felt like if you don’t have to break the fourth wall, then don’t.

How are you feeling about it now?

I feel fine about it. But if people’s reaction in general is, Oh, no, he should have instantly said who he was or he should have switched to first person here, then I’ll take that in. But I felt like ultimately, this is Mike Nichols’s story and I want it to work as well as it can for a reader who doesn’t give a shit about me or who I’m married to. That has to be the standard for how I tell this story. So that’s the standard I stuck to.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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