I thought he’d live forever. Maybe because he should have. Or maybe because wherever and whenever I encountered Mike Nichols, this genius elf was always the most the alive person in the room — his wit at the ready, his eyes dancing with wicked mischief. Of course, you feel Nichols’ ineffable spirit in his award-winning work: an Oscar for directing The Graduate, a Tony (one of nine) for Monty Python’s Spamalot, an Emmy for Angels in America, a Grammy for Best Comedy Album with his partner Elaine May. (Yup, he’s an EGOT.) He’s won them all, including my own special award for his film acting debut in 1997’s The Designated Mourner. Don’t know it? Rent it. Stream it. Thank me later.
Mike was his own ever-in-progress work of art. One day at lunch at Manhattan’s Four Seasons, he schooled me in the questionable pleasures of drinking a Bull Shot — a mix of vodka, Tabasco, Worcestershire and three ounces of beef bouillon. “I know, it looks like piss,” Mike said, grinning demonically. “Drink up.” His intelligence could be intimidating. His knowledge extended to a world beyond the usual Broadway/Hollywood axis. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Germany until his family fled the Nazis and came to New York, Mike (born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky) was a third cousin twice removed of Albert Einststein. Clearly, brains ran in the family.
Though Nichols was known for his buoyant touch with romantic comedy — Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple on stage, Working Girl and The Birdcage on film—he could be trenchant, even harsh, on the topics of sex (Carnal Knowledge, Closer) and politics (Primary Colors, Charlie Wilson’s War). In private conversation about those subjects, he’d go even further. Once, washing our hands in the restroom at New York restaurant, Mike offered a dissertation on Hillary Clinton that could only be called poetically foul-mouthed. It was followed, of course, by the Nichols laugh, a great roar that you couldn’t help sharing. Mike didn’t lord his smarts over you. He made you feel that you were as intelligent as he was, a true fantasy.
With Mike Nichols, in art and life, it was all about the timing. His gift as a director came in shaping performances, in teaching actors how to add impact to a line by underplaying it. My favorite experience with Mike came in 2005 when I hosted a tribute to his work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Before the interview there was a screening of The Graduate, arguably the film that his fans hold closest to heart. Mike and I sat in the back, and for two hours he talked me through every scene, whispering asides — sometimes obscene, always insightful — about what transpired on set the day each scene was filmed. It seems he and Anne Bancroft, as the infamous Mrs. Robinson, conspired to get just the right humiliated reaction out of Dustin Hoffman in the sex scenes. Onstage, Nichols took questions from young actors in the audience. Many were his students at the New Actors Workshop, eager to cheer their teacher and challenge him as well. They were playing with him. He loved it.
It was a night to remember, just like any time spent with Mike Nichols. The loss is surely immeasurable to former ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, his wife of 26 years, and to his children, Daisy, Max and Jenny, and four grandchildren. The rest of us have the legacy of his work. Having won his most recent Tony award for directing Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman — the star of his last film, 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War — Mike was prepping a production of Terence McNally’s play Master Class for HBO with his favorite actress, Meryl Streep. He went out with his boots on, in the flush of creativity. Impeccable timing, as always. Cheers, Mike. The next round of Bull Shots are on me.