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Why Mike Nichols was a generation's hero

By Charles Kaiser
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charles Kaiser recalls two encounters with legendary director Mike Nichols
  • He says Nichols understood the role of performers because he had been one himself
  • Kaiser: Nichols held a brilliant mirror up to baby boom generation with "The Graduate"

Editor's note: Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 In America" and "The Gay Metropolis." His new book about the French Resistance, "The Cost of Courage," will be published in June by Other Press.

(CNN) -- One morning about 25 years ago the telephone rang at home.

"Is this Charles Kaiser?"

"Yes."

Charles Kaiser
Charles Kaiser

"Oh. Well, this is Mike Nichols, and this is one of those weird Sunday morning phone calls. You gave such a great speech at Luis' funeral. I just wondered if we could have lunch sometime."

"Yes we could!" I replied.

Luis was Luis Sanjurjo, a remarkable character and a good friend of mine who had been an agent at International Creative Management. When he died of AIDS in 1987, Sanjurjo's clients included Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Kopit, Wallace Shawn and Benjamin Netanyahu. Before that, he had been Nichols' executive assistant. Apparently Mike had never had a chance to say a proper good-bye to our mutual friend; our lunch would be sort of a stand-in for that missing farewell.

A luncheon invitation from one of the most exciting people in show business was irresistible. This was a man who had been a star of stage and film continuously since he had helped to inaugurate an eye-opening decade in 1960 with his celebrated two-person show with Elaine May on Broadway. Eventually he would win nine Tonys for his theater work, plus various Oscars, Emmys and Grammys.

A few weeks later, I biked over to Nichols' house on the East Side and we went around the corner to a little Italian restaurant--and stayed there from 2 o'clock until 6 o'clock. Mike bummed one cigarette after another from the waiters, as we talked above love, sex, drugs, show business and our friend Luis.

His romance with Diane Sawyer was still new, and he explained how they had met over the Atlantic on the Concorde. Sawyer was then a correspondent for "60 Minutes," and she had called him a week later to ask if she could profile him for the TV show. "No," said Nichols. "But we could have dinner." And then they were off.

The prolific director of theater and film was especially pleased when I told him how much I had loved "Streamers," the David Rabe play about young men going off to Vietnam that he had directed at Lincoln Center 10 years earlier, and "The Real Thing," Tom Stoppard's great play about love and marriage, which won Nichols one of his Tonys for its direction.

As he was for so many people my age around the world, he had been my hero since he had held up a brilliant mirror to our generation with "The Graduate" in 1967 (for which he won an Oscar) and before that with his astonishing debut as a film director, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"-- "a directing debut like few others in the history of American film," as Frank Rich wrote on Thursday.

"Did Elizabeth Taylor give her finest performance in 'Woolf' because she was playing herself?" I asked, over the rigatoni.

"Oh no." Nichols replied. "She's not a person! It's not her fault--she's been a movie star since she was 10!"

The strange thing about our lunch was, Luis Sanjurjo was gay, and I was gay, and Nichols knew that. But he peppered the conversation with odd, homophobic remarks like, "Most gay people you know aren't really all that smart." When we finally said good-bye after four hours of repartee, I felt I had to challenge him.

"I didn't really appreciate all those homophobic remarks," I said. "Well," he replied, with that permanent twinkle in his eye, "I could have made a pass at you instead."

"Well," said I, "that would have been much worse!"

After that I ran into him here and there--most recently at Nora Ephron's funeral--and he was always friendly. But we never had lunch again.

Fast forward to the Golden Theatre last July. This was where Nichols had opened half a century ago in "An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May." In this partly improvised tour de force, the two of them imitated everything from a mother pillorying her scientist son for neglecting her to a clueless nurse in a feverish emergency room.

This time he was there to be interviewed onstage by Broadway director Jack O'Brien for an HBO documentary being produced by Frank Rich.

O'Brien and Nichols had already done several hours of filmed interviews, but without an audience, and there hadn't been much sparkle. Only when he was in front of the packed theater did the director with the soul of a performer suddenly come alive.

Nichols looked thin and rather frail, but his words were mesmerizing, and for an hour and a half his audience was spellbound. He picked up where we had left off at lunch, telling amazing stories about "The Graduate" and "Virginia Woolf": how Simon & Garfunkel had become the soundtrack for "The Graduate" because his brother happened to give him one of their albums while he was filming it, and he suddenly realized that several of the songs were a perfect fit for some of the scenes he had already shot.

Eventually he told the singers they would have to write one song just for the movie. They demurred for just a moment, then launched into a rousing version of "Mrs. Robinson."

"How did you do that?" Nichols asked.

"Well," Paul Simon replied, "I'd been working on a new song: Here's to you, Mrs. Roosevelt!"

Nichols said he had only realized late in life that the plot of "The Graduate" was really "Ph├Ędre," the 17th century masterpiece by Jean Racine: "a story that comes back in every generation."

He had also decided that there are only three kinds of scenes in any drama: "seductions, negotiations and fights."

He had had to fight Jack Warner, who wanted "Virginia Woolf" to be made in color. But Nichols knew it had to be black and white. The most important lesson he had learned from the first movie he made was "how beautiful black-and-white is. It's not literal. It's a metaphor automatically, already saying, this is not life, it's about life. I was excited about that."

He said one reason he had never written anything about his life was that he only knew how to print; he had never been able to write script. But he was always happy to be interviewed about his many accomplishments.

When I got home that night I sent Nichols an email: "Having had that experience once before for four hours, I knew you would be amazing. But you were more than amazing this evening. Not just a once-in-a-lifetime night in the theater: a lesson in life."

I was delighted when he wrote back: "Thanks, Charles, for your extremely kind words. It was tricky talking about self but Jack was so generous and loving he made it ok. Glad you enjoyed it."

It turned out to be his final performance.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles Kaiser.

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