Director Mike Nichols at his home in Manhattan, N.Y. (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)
Reporting from New York — Mike Nichols is running scared.
"Here's the most mysterious thing to me," says Nichols, a performer and director with an almost golden touch on Broadway and in Hollywood over the past half-century. "I look back at those first plays I did and the first movies I did, and I only have one question, which is, 'What was I so confident about? Where did I get that?' It scares me because I'm not [confident] now at all. I'm anything but confident."
Contemplating the terrors of life seems both apt and incongruous in the course of an interview with Nichols. At 80, before he "hangs up his shingle," as he puts it, the veteran director is scaling what he considers the greatest American play: Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman, Linda Emond as his wife and Andrew Garfield as son Biff. In this 1949 epitaph to the American dream, which opens on Broadway on Thursday, a weary salesman clings to his stubborn pride and delusions of success.
As Arthur Miller once wrote of Loman, "Willy is a man who is trying to write his name on a block of ice on a hot July day." In the play, Willy is haunted not only by the specter of failure but also the ghost of his brother, Ben, who taunts him for having turned down his invitation to strike it rich in Alaska, as he did. The elusive dream — "like a diamond shining in the dark, rough and hard" — hangs in the air of the Lomans' modest Brooklyn home like a reproach.
However, Nichols is talking about fear of failing in the context of what most people would consider the epitome of American success. He is conversing in a cool, chic restaurant on the Upper East Side, a few blocks from the 5th Avenue apartment he shares with his glamorous wife, Diane Sawyer. For many years to many people, Nichols was Ben, with his shelves full of honors and tributes, including an Oscar, four Emmys and nine Tony Awards. Richard Burton, who starred with Elizabeth Taylor in Nichols' first film in 1966, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," wrote in his diary that the director was only one of the two men — the other was Noel Coward — who could change the world just by entering a room. "They're as bland as butter and brilliant as diamonds," he wrote.
Nichols doesn't see it that way. "I've been very lucky, but I feel so much the opposite.... It's so far from my experience," he says of any perception that he's grabbed the brass ring. "No sane person ever thinks, 'I'm it, man, they're nowhere as good as me.'"
Lustily tearing into lunch, casually dressed in rumpled khakis and a sweater over an untucked shirt, Nichols is hardly "bland." A bit more frail perhaps but robustly good company, a witty raconteur dispensing self-deprecating anecdotes. When Nichols hears Burton's description of him, he laughs. "I don't know what he's talking about." The idea that he comes to any project with anything other than questions and insecurities is unfathomable to him.
"Directing is mystifying," he continues. "It's a long, long, skid on an icy road, and you do the best you can trying to stay on the road.... If you're still here when you come out of the spin, it's a relief. But you've got to have the terror if you're going to do anything worthwhile. "
In fact, Nichols faced just such a crisis at the beginning of rehearsals for "Death of a Salesman" despite having assembled a stellar cast. The director had directed Hoffman before — in "Charlie Wilson's War," for which the actor was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, and in "The Seagull" in Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. He had been impressed with Garfield's performance in the film "The Social Network" and had heard good reports about his London stage performances from Scott Rudin, producer of "Death of a Salesman."
"Phil is a monster onstage, and so is Andrew, and Linda is such a real and startling actress," says Nichols. Even so, it was daunting to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and hero Elia Kazan, who had directed the 1949 production, a risk accentuated by Nichols' decision to re-create the original Jo Mielziner sets and use Alex North's original score. "I was unnerved on that first day and told them so."
Emond says that the admission had a salutary effect. "Mike doesn't compartmentalize his honesty. He's honest about absolutely everything," she says. "So it made it possible for us to be open, candid, raw in the best possible way."
The actors' reaction, Nichols says, was practical. They simply got to work. "There is not a trace of self-pity," says Nichols. A breakthrough came one afternoon while rehearsing the scene in which Biff punctures his father's pathetic grandiosity. "I'm a dime a dozen and so are you!" he screams. At that moment, Hoffman rapaciously kissed Garfield on the lips. Nichols recalls, "I thought, 'We're there. This is ours.' We found a physical expression for what is at the heart of these two guys, this love of father and son."