My Memories Of Mike Nichols

My friend Mike Nichols died today. He was 83. I met him in 1994, when I was writing a profile for The New Yorker of our mutual friend, Cynthia O’Neal, and the invaluable organization they founded, Friends in Deed. By that time, I had interviewed plenty of famous people, but for some reason I was nervous of meeting Mr. Nichols. He put me immediately at ease: a light repast had been prepared for us (Mr. Nichols loved food, sometimes to the chagrin of his widow, Diane Sawyer), and I was happy to indulge because I knew it would get me a better interview.

I had grown up listening to “An Evening with Mike Nichols & Elaine May,” the recording of the show he did with his brilliant longtime collaborator Miss May. Their names were so intertwined to my parents’ generation that many people assumed they were married. Mr. Nichols treated this misunderstanding as he treated most inanity: with wit. He recounted the time a woman once stopped him on the street:

Woman: You’re Mike Nichols, aren’t you?
Mr. Nichols: Yes, I am.
Woman: How is your wife, Elaine May?
Mr. Nichols: Elaine May is not my wife.
Woman: And do you have children?

I confessed to Mr. Nichols that his recording with Miss May had me convinced, at age 8, that I was Jewish. Years later, I told him that an uncle of mine had delved into the family ancestry and it turned out that I did, in fact, have Jewish ancestry. Mr. Nichols chuckled and said, “Was there every any doubt?”

A sense of the absurd was key to getting on with Mr. Nichols. Though he worked with some greatest crafters of one-liners – he directed four plays by Neil Simon, starting with “Barefoot in the Park,” in 1963 – his own sensibility was more biting than Borscht Belt. Once, as we were walking down Madison Avenue, Mr. Nichols spied a woman he knew approaching. It was too late to cross the street so he whispered to me, “For God’s sake, let me do the talking.” He expertly guided us through the obstacle. As soon as we were out of earshot, he said, “Humor to that woman is as a cross is to a vampire.”

In 1996, Cynthia O’Neal and I and our friend, Robert Levithan, were in London to see Mr. Nichols perform, with utter relaxed immediacy, in the premiere of Wallace Shawn’s play, “The Designated Mourner.” (Mr. Nichols’ final professional act was to take part, last Friday, in a reading of Shawn’s new play, “An Evening at the Talk Club.”) After the performance, we piled into Mr. Nichols’ car and went to The Ivy, a London establishment that is more club than restaurant. As we were entering, Mr. Nichols spotted Joan Collins at a table. He leaned toward me, conspiratorially, and said, “I fucked her once.” “You have just gone down three notches in my estimation,” I said, laughing. He parried: “But I also kept company with Jackie Kennedy.” “Reputation restored,” I conceded.

I will leave it to other critics and commentators to assess Mr. Nichols’ work. My favorite of his movies: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and “Silkwood,” with Meryl Streep. I told him once that no one, not even Mrs. Burton, could “approach the ferocity” of Uta Hagen, who originated the role of Martha on Broadway. “Yes,” he laughed, “and no one could approach Uta BECAUSE of her ferocity, either.”

With Streep, there was no levity only love. (He was doing his final project with her, “Master Class,” about Maria Callas. Will someone else finish it, or will Maria be abandoned tragically once more?) Occasionally, I would attempt to get Mr. Nichols to share a few secrets about his collaboration with Streep. But he would never take the bait. That’s how you know that a person’s affection for someone is profound: he needs always to guard some secrets for himself. Happily, the relationship between Streep and Mr. Nichols is up there on that screen.

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