In Berlin, where he was born in 1931, few would have foreseen much of a future, let alone a bright one, for Michael Igor Peschkowsky—better known today as Mike Nichols, the fastest-rising young director on Broadway and in Hollywood and the former first half of Nichols and May. Son of a Jewish physician who had fled from his native Russia to Germany, of all places, for sanctuary from Bolshevik persecution, he was bundled off to America on a refugee ship at the age of eight, soon after his grandfather, a vocal adversary of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, was executed by the Nazis. A few weeks later, he was reunited with his parents in New York, where his father resumed the profitable practice he’d abandoned in Berlin—and changed the family name to Nichols. “By the time I spelled Peschkowsky,” he explained, “my patient was in the hospital.” Mike was sent to private schools in Connecticut and Manhattan, where he learned English and earned good enough grades to get into NYU.
After “one depressing day” there, however, he decided to chuck not only the school but the living-at-home bit and signed up instead at the University of Chicago, 800 miles away, where, he says, “I thought I could cut classes and still pass.” Surprisingly enough, in view of its stiff scholastic standards, he did just that—despite a ponderous curriculum of pre-med prerequisites for a degree in psychiatry. His dreams of a tidy psychoanalytic practice were destined to dissolve, however, when he discovered that “in medical school you have to spend a lot of time with dead bodies; that didn’t attract me.” Live bodies being more to his taste, Mike began to hang around a campus theater group—and finally to win a few roles—between non-classes (“I thought it would be a good way to meet girls”). It was—but he hadn’t bargained for the likes of a disconcerting, dark-haired coed named Elaine May. It was from the stage, during a performance of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” that Mike first became aware of her—"staring cruelly from the audience through the whole thing.“ The next day, as he strolled across the campus gloating over his rave reviews, she trailed him darkly, finally sidled up, read the notices over his shoulder and uttered a shrill, contemptuous "Ha!” “I ignored her,” says Mike. (“He wept,” insists Elaine.) At any rate, it was the beginning of a long, lucrative and eventually affectionate relationship.
But their professional, as well as their personal, partnership was still a few years off. Dead serious by now about a dramatic career, Mike quit Chicago after his sophomore year and returned to Manhattan for a full-time course of study under Lee Strasberg, guru of the Stanislavsky Method. “He scared me,” Mike recalls. “I was very impressed.” Living in a boardinghouse broom closet (“My furniture consisted of a bed and a broom”), he mooched meals from three compassionate girls who roomed across the street, and made ends meet—though just barely—with a succession of odd jobs that ran the gamut from disc jockey (“I was the only announcer in radio who yawned during morning newscasts”) to horseback-riding coach. His briefest stint during this threadbare period—as a soda jerk at Howard Johnson's—ended the night a customer asked him to recommend one of the ice-cream emporium’s 28 famous flavors for a hot-fudge sundae. “How about chicken?” said Mike.
Unable after more than a year to find a single part that was “right” for him, in the opinion of any casting director within reach of a subway token, Mike finally threw in the towel and thumbed his way back to Chicago in 1955 to join the Compass Players, a small and impoverished improvisational group that performed for equally small and impoverished audiences of hip collegians in a South Side cellar “where everyone wore sneakers.” Modeled after the European cabaret theaters, it boasted—in addition to his best girl and worst critic, Elaine May—such then-unknown talents as Shelley Berman, Barbara Harris and Zohra Lampert, who, to the accompaniment of coffee and crullers, served up an extemporaneous potpourri of irreverent and often hilarious social satire unlike anything ever seen or heard before on an American stage. At first, Mike claims, he was lousy at it, but at length he and Elaine began to develop a spontaneous, almost, symbiotic rapport in their scenes together, and to display a brilliant flair for witty, withering insights into the battle of the sexes.
The word began to get around; audiences began to overflow the confines of their cellar theater, and before long Nichols and May found themselves not only a team but the toast of the tonier watering holes in Chicago and New York. Next came national exposure, in a series of widely acclaimed guest shots on such premier showcases as the Jack Paar show (earning them one critic’s dubious title as “TV’s undisputed eggheads benedict”), then the first of their five best-selling records, still collector’s items among the cognoscenti for their ruthlessly funny satire of everything and everyone from marriage and motherhood to Schweitzer and the Pope. Succumbing in 1959 to the siren call of Hollywood—unwisely, as it happened—they uncritically accepted a flood of big-money offers: among them a misbegotten headline appearance at the Mocambo that promptly folded, and the starring roles in a high-toned C. B. S. revival of that hoary operetta “The Red Mill,” which turned out to be both a rating disaster and a critical clinker. But when Desilu topped off this worst of all possible whirls by dangling a fat TV contract, says Mike, “we finally came to our senses.” They packed their bags and “laughed all the way back to New York,” where they drew off the cream of their comedy routines, shaped it into a tour-de-force two-hour “Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” and opened on Broadway with a cast of two. It was an S. R. O. hit for a year, then an equally successful LP. By 1961 they were almost as rich as they were famous; a letter addressed merely to “Famous Actor Mike Nichols, U. S. A.,” in fact, reached him at home in Manhattan without a day’s delay; it was from his long-lost paternal grandmother in Moscow.
Then, in 1963, for no particular reason other than a vague sense of self-dissatisfaction, Mike began, to nurture an urge to try his hand at directing. Though he’d never so much as issued a stage direction, “I just had a feeling I could do it,” he says without false modesty. It was a feeling shared, unaccountably, by the backers of a promising new comedy called “Barefoot in the Park,” who invited him to learn while he earned as director of their $125,000 property. “I told them,” he says, “that if I wasn’t any good at it, they could fire me and get somebody else.” To their immense relief—and profit—however, Mike’s inexplicable self-assurance proved more than amply justified: The show was a runaway hit. One comedy smash followed another in rapid succession—"The Knack,“ "Luv,” “The Odd Couple"—and suddenly an ex-comic named Mike Nichols, with four concurrent hits on Broadway, found himself the hottest comedy director in American theatrical history.
Predictably, at the height of his newfound notoriety, Hollywood beckoned once again—late last spring—but this time with a job offer to match the stature of the stipend that went with it: a cool quarter million to direct the film version of Edward Albee’s eviscerating domestic drama "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Without much soul-searching, Mike accepted the assignment, and according to advance word from those who’ve screened the rushes—including stars Taylor and Burton and Albee himself—he’s pulled it off with the skill and subtlety of a consummate cinematic artist. Though the finished film isn’t scheduled for premiere until the end of this month, news of his singular success has already precipitated an inundation of scripts. But so far he’s decided to direct only two of them: first, a modestly budgeted filmization of “The Graduate,” a Salingeresque comic novel about the misadventures of a maladroit, collegian; and then another blockbuster—the multimillion-dollar screen version of Joseph Heller’s best-selling nightmare comedy, “Catch-22.” Determined not to “go Hollywood” for keeps, he’ll be commuting to New York between productions for directorial interludes on the stage: Currently he’s considering LeRoi Jones’ first full-length play, “A Recent Killing,” and an all-star Broadway revival of “The Little Foxes.”
The following conversation with the 34-year-old jack-of-all-dramatic-trades took place in Hollywood early this spring during a brief break in his frenetic schedule. With interviewer C. Robert Jennings officiating, the first two of six tape sessions were held—"fittingly, somehow,“ said Mike—beneath a large, baleful moose-head in his Warner Bros. office, the others in the more relaxed atmosphere of his large, imposingly baronial home in suburban Brentwood. "The mood,” reports Jennings, “was friendly and prepossessing, infrequently broken by an off-putting, glacial stare from Mike that could shatter a producer’s sunglasses at fifty paces—and someday quite probably will.”
PLAYBOY: Was there any particular experience or aspiration that got you hooked on show business?
NICHOLS: No, I never thought about it. I remember there was a moment of joy for me the day I got to college, because, without being aware of it, I had assumed the world was frozen in the form of my high school class, that Greta and Laura would go out with me for all time, that Joyce and Sandra never would, that Dave and Al could beat me up and I could beat up Donald and that everything was fixed forever. The great discovery of college was that nothing was fixed and the world was wide open; through all the ups and downs, that’s been a source of happiness ever since. Show business just happened. I never planned or even tried to be an actor or a comedian or a stage director. I just did what came along next.
PLAYBOY: The latest thing to come along, of course, is your burgeoning career as a movie director—for which you’ve temporarily moved to Hollywood. Between pictures, we hear you lead a swinging social life out here. Is that true?
NICHOLS: Yes, and my favorite color is blue.
PLAYBOY: Seriously, are you enjoying life in Hollywood?
NICHOLS:: A friend of mine says Hollywood is like your senior year in college after you finish your exams. There’s that aspect. On a rainy day I came on the set and said, “Let’s just stay in the bunk all day and play Monopoly.” There’s a campus side to a studio that is very comfortable. But if I weren’t working, I couldn’t live here. While I’m working, though, I’ve been very happy here.
PLAYBOY: Why couldn’t you live here if you weren’t working?
NICHOLS: Because I don’t think man was meant to be that comfortable. I don’t want nice weather all the time. I want some snow and I want it to rain and I want the abrasiveness of a city like New York. People here literally drown in puddles—because they’re not used to it. I’m always reading about people slipping and dying in puddles.
PLAYBOY: If you’re comfortable working here, and you don’t think you ought to be that comfortable, how can you be happy in your work?
NICHOLS: When you’re working, these other things don’t really matter. I really don’t care where I am—whether in a cell on a cot or some idiot palace in California. But I prefer the life and the vulgarity of New York—of a city, where there’s a whole lot going on and maybe it’s not so clean.
PLAYBOY: How about San Francisco? Would you like to live there?
NICHOLS: No. I don’t like San Francisco, because it’s so nice and everything is so pretty and they keep asking me, “Don’t you like it better than New York?” San Francisco is so well worked out; cities shouldn’t be like that. San Francisco is a pretty place with careful food and it bores me to death. I prefer Chicago; it’s brawny. Why do you love any place? Because you’re happy there.
What Los Angeles really is a place that respects the images that people present. If you want to be society, you buy some silver and throw parties and you’re society. If you want to be difficult and talented, you ride around on motorcycles and let your hair grow. Everyone respects everyone else’s image here, because otherwise their own might be questioned. The danger in Hollywood is to think this is the world. To me there’s safety in thinking that this is just one of many different places. I used to have a friend who edited The Dry Cleaners Monthly, and it’s the same thing in the dry cleaner’s world. In that world there are leaders, too—dry cleaners whose names are magic, up-and-coming young dry cleaners. There are many worlds.
PLAYBOY: Your name is beginning to turn up regularly on lists of those considered “in” and “with it” by the international set. How do you feel about being so fashionable socially?
NICHOLS: Well, at first I thought, Jesus, I’m in. How do I get out? And then I realized all I have to do is wait ten minutes and it’ll take care of itself.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel about being put on Kenneth Tynan’s list of his few “close friends,” which appeared recently in The New York Times?
NICHOLS: I was pleased, because I like Ken. I would like to think of him as a friend, although it’s hard—he’s in England and I’m here. I’m pleased because the people he likes are not chic or smartass, but people whose work he is interested in.
PLAYBOY: Your friends say you’ve been reluctant to undertake “the social endeavor” here in Hollywood. Why?
NICHOLS: Everybody’s so nice here, and I’m very nice, too, and the reason we’re all so nice is we all want everybody to like us. So you have everyone being nice to everyone else all the time—and that can be very depressing. If I could have any wish, it would be to be free of caring about the opinions of others. Did they like me? Was I rude? But if I’m really concentrating on work, I don’t give a damn. Soon as the work abates, though, I’m at their mercy. I will myself to push on anyway, to be able to forget myself. But what is stronger here than any place I’ve been is—"I’ll tell you you’re a genius in hopes you’ll tell me I’m gorgeous.“ There’s nothing wrong with it, except you are constantly feeding yourself. The one drawback is you have to have more and more of it and there’ll never be enough. So you have to turn your back on it and say, I won’t play.
PLAYBOY: You seem uncomfortable in the role of a celebrity.
NICHOLS: I’m not a celebrity. Celebrities have crowds waiting for them or appear on panel shows wearing lockets. That’s not me.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you want public recognition for your accomplishments?
NICHOLS: Yes, but as soon as too much fuss is made about them, as has happened in my case, you’ve got to start thinking, It wasn’t much after all, was it? Once when we were rehearsing Luv, we had a very bad day and Alan Arkin said to me, "I’m sorry—it’s me; I can’t act.” And I said, “No, no, it’s me; I can’t direct. I can’t do anything.” And then we sat there for a long time and then Arkin said, “You know, it’s true; we can’t do anything. But we can do it better than some of those other guys.”
PLAYBOY: Isn’t it because you do what you do better than some of those other guys that you have become a celebrity?
NICHOLS: All right, look. When you get to a certain point in show business, every time you take an airplane a man comes running up and says, “How do you do? I’m Jerome Asskisser of this airline.” And he takes your bag and puts you in a private lounge and you say, “Isn’t this silly?” and if you’re with a girl you bitch a lot and you enjoy it a lot. But now suppose one day Jerome Asskisser isn’t there. “Where the hell is Jerome Asskisser?” you say. “What am I supposed to do, get on the plane all by myself like anybody else?” And then you catch yourself and get disgusted. I suppose I have the fear of saying to myself, “Where is Jerome Asskisser?” But of course the truth is, be glad as hell Jerome isn’t there—it’s good for your soul.
PLAYBOY: You seem ambivalent about success. Do you regard it as more of a curse than a blessing?
NICHOLS: Well, for a while I thought success is a great danger to sensation, to feeling. I went through periods of asking what’s the matter, why don’t I taste anything, why don’t I feel it? I suppose sex is one of the few things this doesn’t happen with. With all the other things, though, it does happen, for a time. I’ve come to think it has to do with growing older rather than with success. But I don’t experience this lack of feeling anymore, and that is a source of happiness. A girl once said a really stunning thing to me. I’d said, “Here I am with plays on Broadway and money and an apartment and why don’t I feel anything? Maybe I should throw it all away, turn my back on it.” And this girl said, “You know, all this bitching you do and toying with the thought of throwing it away is just a safety valve that allows you to keep doing it. You don’t have to throw it away; you just have to keep doing things that scare you.”
PLAYBOY: Do you mean doing things professionally that scare you?
NICHOLS: Yes. God knows there’s nothing Calvinist in my background, but the only good times I enjoy are those after a lot of hard work.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of good times, are girls more interested in you because you’re successful?
NICHOLS: I hope so. I remember a cartoon in Playboy showing a girl in bed saying to the guy next to her, “It’s morning, Mr. Petroff—time for my screen test.” A girl actually quoted this to me once and we laughed a lot. Girls don’t say, “You’re just using me because I’m intelligent and interesting and so much fun to be with.” They say, “All you want is my body.” I suppose a successful man could say, “all you want is my success.” If it’s true, it’s not a bad bargain. If a good-looking girl at a party wants to use me, she’s perfectly welcome.
PLAYBOY: As a bachelor, you’ve been linked in the gossip columns with several attractive young ladies. Whom are you taking out these days?
NICHOLS: Several attractive young ladies.
PLAYBOY: A friend of yours says you have always been hung up on “man-destroying women.” Is this true?
NICHOLS: Well, I’m not destroyed, as we see. You might say what doesn’t destroy me strengthens me. I think you could say possibly that I’m hung up on strong women, women who don’t just wait at the door with pipe and slippers, because I think they’re more interesting. Women’s intelligence fascinates me. They have something to tell us; they know different things. One of the things contained in Virginia Woolf that I really believe is that the only thing a woman doesn’t forgive in a man is letting her get on top. They beg us in so many ways not to let them, and if you don’t, they’re happier and you’re happier. Women have a kind of wisdom that can be helpful. The wish to say to a woman: Keep me from drinking, keep me from screwing around, you be my world, is very strong. But I find that ultimately it’s not a question of teaching a woman or learning from her, but that you must just say hello to her.
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk a bit about your feelings, related to your new film. Did you ever discuss Virginia Woolf with Edward Albee?
NICHOLS: When I first saw the play, I called him and told him how very much I liked it. He said, “Thank you.” Recently, when he saw the film, he called me to tell me how much he liked it. I can’t think of anyone whose approval of the picture would please me more.
PLAYBOY: You were very careful that your players paid the strictest sort of attention to each word in the script; yet you and Elaine used to improvise freely. Why the switch?
NICHOLS: The words in a play are only the top of a large iceberg, and since there is so much beneath the surface, I think it’s important to be accurate about the portion that shows. If you have a good play, the playwright’s ear should be trusted.
PLAYBOY: What’s the theme of the play?
NICHOLS: Leave me alone.
PLAYBOY: Won’t you summarize it briefly as you interpret it?
NICHOLS: OK, maybe partly the theme is the decline of the West. Albee quotes Spengler in the play: “And the West, encumbered by crippling alliances and weighed down by a morality too rigid to accommodate itself to the swing of events, must eventually fall.”
PLAYBOY: Anything else?
NICHOLS: The things I find most interesting in the play are the things that are opposite to the apparent: mainly, that the two main characters love each other. Like the Ibsen onion, you peel a skin and peel another skin and when you get to the core you find they love each other and love the truth. They can’t make it; they can’t tell the truth, but they keep on trying.
PLAYBOY: A writer in the Ladies’ Home Journal said that all the characters in Virginia Woolf are so consumed with self-love they have none left for each other.
NICHOLS: Bullshit. George and Martha suffer for each other. They yell at each other and don’t call each other sweetheart and don’t hold hands in front of other people, but they’re deeply important to each other. They can’t speak without mentioning the other’s name. Their friends Nick and Honey are nothing but pleasant to each other—until that’s broken apart—and solicitous and loving, and they don’t like each other at all.
PLAYBOY: As the father of a two-year-old daughter, do you agree with those who feel that a failed marriage should be held together “for the sake of the children”?
NICHOLS: Anybody who leads his life with only his children in mind is taking a chance, as you have no idea what influences children anyway. I’m not at all sure people aren’t what they’re going to be anyway. Children survive extraordinary things and fail to survive literally tiny details. People who say, “I’m staying to hold the family together” are really saying, “My children are the only things that touch me and I’m not going to leave their presence.” I love my child and she touches me, but she’s not the only thing that touches me, which is better for me and definitely better for her.
PLAYBOY: What is the significance of the child George and Martha invent in the play?
NICHOLS: There are many ways of looking at the child. One is that the child is simply what the manuscript is in Hedda Gabler: something that two people have made out of their imagination that is a metaphor for what they are together, made up of the things that people say to each other late at night, the games they play, the things they imagine that ultimately can become a weapon they use against each other. The other way of looking at the child is from the viewpoint of the child; who says he’s imaginary? He can be looked at as a metaphor for the way parents lavish love on a child until, again, it becomes a weapon. When it’s no longer useful as a weapon, they dismiss it. In the play, George “kills” the child as a way of setting both it and them free, since it has become only a baseball bat. It’s like the Pirandello thing that Elaine and I did on Broadway, which was suggested by Edna Millay’s Aria da Capo. In Millay’s play, two shepherds are sitting in a pasture and one of them says, “I’m bored, let’s play a game,” and the other says, “OK.” And the first shepherd says, “We’re at war and that’s the dividing line; you and your sheep have to keep on your side and I and my sheep have to keep on mine.” And the other shepherd says, “That’s a good idea.” Then this one shepherd says, “Hey, wait a minute. You have water on your side—that’s not fair.” And the other shepherd says, “Tough. You should have thought of that before.” It gets away from them and they end up killing each other. This idea of the game that gets away from you is a central theatrical idea, and I think it’s something we see working in our own lives.
PLAYBOY: What do you think Albee means at the end of the play when George sings, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Martha, with terror in her face, says, “I am, George. I am.”? For many, it’s the most moving moment in the play, but they can’t say why.
NICHOLS: It’s moving partly by virtue of not being explicitly stated. If I ask you what you’re afraid of, you could give 50 answers and still be talking around it.
PLAYBOY: Is there hope for George and Martha at the end?
NICHOLS: Hope for people is a confusing idea for me, because I’m not sure where hope lies. If hope means Martha will start coming downstairs in a pretty little dress for breakfast and make interesting dishes for George and ask what happened in his classroom, there is no hope of that. But if hope is being alive and touching each other and not being alone and having it really mean something when you make love, then there’s hope for them. But what I think of George and Martha and Nick and Honey and the child is contained in the movie—at least I think it is; if it isn’t, then nothing I can say is going to be of any further use.
PLAYBOY: What do you feel are Elizabeth Taylor’s signal qualities as an actress?
NICHOLS: She’s a film actress. By that I mean you can see in her face what she’s thinking. She has a very good instinct for the causes of a character’s behavior. Once I had cut three pages of dialog and Elizabeth hadn’t read the play for at least a year. When I got to that spot, she said, “I can’t get into this. I can’t get Started.” I knew it was for a very good reason; namely, that I’d gotten cut-happy and taken out her transition. She has that kind of instinct. Also, she has absolutely no vanity—which is a pleasure in an actress and keeps you from wasting a lot of time.
PLAYBOY: Did you find this surprising about her?
NICHOLS: It didn’t surprise me, knowing her. We were once sitting somewhere in Switzerland and some people were bugging her. Someone came up and said something about her being so beautiful and she said to me she was interested in what it would be like when the beauty went. I think she literally said, “I can’t wait for it to go,” and then she could just live. You could see it while she was working on the picture; you could see it while we were choosing her costumes. She preferred a particular blouse because, as she pointed out, it scrunches up and you can see her middle. She was thinking about the character and didn’t give a damn about how she looked. She took immense care with her make-up, which sometimes got to be a pain but in reverse. She took extra time letting the mascara run and smearing lipstick in the corner to match the last shot. That’s more than being professional. That’s hard to find.
PLAYBOY: What else do you admire about her?
NICHOLS: Fifty percent of acting is putting oneself in a state where you don’t know what happens next. Elizabeth Taylor can do that.
PLAYBOY: In the course of shooting the picture, did you ever feel intimidated by the Burtons—by their power or their prestige?
NICHOLS: They were no more intimidating than any other talented and dignified people, no more than Sandy Dennis and George Segal, who played Honey and Nick. The Burtons are immensely powerful. If they want to come on the set at 12:30, there’s very little you can do but yell and scream. But luckily, they didn’t choose to exercise their power. There were times when I wanted Elizabeth to do retakes. She could have said no. Instead, she’d say, “Goddamnit, do I have to do that whole thing again?” I’d say, “Yes, I screwed up,” and she would. I liked her for being irritable about it and doing it anyway. Because she could have been sweet as hell and not done it.
PLAYBOY: Did she make any comments about her performance during the rushes?
NICHOLS: She never said anything except, “I prefer such and such a take.” Usually we agreed. If I didn’t agree, I’d tell her why and she would accept it. She doesn’t exert any of that sort of power some stars do—where the key light should be, where the camera should be. She leaves it in your hands.
PLAYBOY: Did Taylor and Burton criticize each other’s work?
NICHOLS: They don’t get into each other’s performances. I know from having had a partner, that’s a great danger when working together. The Burtons are very good about it and leave each other alone.
PLAYBOY: After seeing your film-editing cuts, did either of them have any objections?
PLAYBOY: In view of the fact that George is supposed to be a weak man and Martha a sleazy middle-aged housewife, some felt that Burton’s dramatic power and Taylor’s beauty might present problems in portrayal. Did they?
NICHOLS: No. Function determines character. A weak man doesn’t necessarily have to look like Don Knotts. Whether they’re weak or powerful is determined by what characters do. I think they’re both extraordinary in the roles. Naturally, I’d be likely to think so, since I was there every day and we didn’t stop doing takes until I was pleased and they were pleased. Others may not be. It’s how it strikes you. It strikes me as terrific. Burton said he was worried because of his own strength, and I had my own fears that he was too powerful and that Elizabeth was too beautiful and special. She’d played nothing but rich girls and princesses and heiresses. She’s so beautiful you know she isn’t the shopgirl around the corner. But you make up her eyes a certain way so they aren’t the world’s most beautiful eyes but those of a tired woman of 45 who drinks a great deal, whose lipstick smears and mascara runs. A messenger at Warner’s snuck into the projection room and watched her in one entire scene and then asked, “Do you have any film on Elizabeth Taylor?” And her secretary once looked over some pictures of her in the role and said, “Who is that?” But nothing has any meaning until it’s released, and the audience decides.
PLAYBOY: During production, you fired two technicians from the film. Why?
NICHOLS: I work hard and I’m not patient with people who don’t, nor am I guilty about it. I don’t go out of my way to be a bastard and sometimes I go out of my way not to be. The two guys I fired weren’t harmed by it, but the picture was helped. If there weren’t some people who said I’m a bastard, I would worry, because it would mean I have no very strong purpose. At one point I had a fight with someone on the picture and he said, “Oh, I’m no match for you, you always end up winning. I can’t fight that way.” There’re two kinds of people: those who win by losing—"You go to the seashore and have a good time; I’ll stay here and do the dishes"—and those who win by winning. We all contain both, but I’d rather win by winning. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me. If someone is constantly trying to please me, I can’t stand it. Sam O'Steen, the cutter on the picture, will say, “It stinks, please take it out,” and I love that. I may not always take it out, but I like to listen to what he has to say. I’d damn well better listen. It’s fun if somebody challenges you; you challenge them back. If you yell and scream and fight because you want something another way, the other person likes it, really. If you don’t fight, the pushed gets the pusher’s contempt in the end. Besides, battles keep everything vivid. I like them.
PLAYBOY: You seem to have a tough hide. Do you ever get your feelings hurt?
NICHOLS: All the time. But much less in the last few years. You learn to protect yourself, and I guess the best thing you learn is that people are not that concerned with you; they’re thinking about something else anyway. In adolescence that’s supposed to be a shattering discovery, that no one cares—but I love it. It means that no one is responsible for what you do but you yourself, and I find that a great freedom. No one likes to be disliked; certainly no one in show business likes to be disliked. I don’t either, but I’ve discovered I’d rather be disliked than try to please.
PLAYBOY: While directing Virginia Woolf, did you have to fight to keep the reins of the film in your hands?
NICHOLS: Yes, sometimes. There’s no democracy in this kind of work. I have to have final authority—not because I’m so terrific, but because the picture has to be informed by one vision. Right is might, but whether I’m right or wrong, it all has to be built around one central idea.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel when it was all over?
NICHOLS: I was sad.
PLAYBOY: Do you always feel that way at the end of a project?
NICHOLS: Yes. It’s a mixture of sadness and relief. It’s like leaving a home you’ve been happy in.
PLAYBOY: Was the experience of directing a movie more or less as you expected it to be?
NICHOLS: Well, I was surprised to find that it is not this smoothly functioning, well-oiled machine. It pleases me, because this makes it comprehensible—it’s as half-assed as anything else. Master cameramen can put the little dial on the wrong number by mistake and great million-dollar labs leave film in the bath too long and overdevelop it.
PLAYBOY: What do you find is the hardest thing about making a movie?
NICHOLS: Getting up in the morning.
PLAYBOY: Anything else?
NICHOLS: You can’t let it grow as you do a play. You have to do it now, before lunch, and then go on to something else. I work through a process of erosion, but that has to be immeasurably speeded up for a movie.
NICHOLS: I mean, in rehearsing a play we’ll do a scene and after a week I might say, let’s add this or that. A week later I say, let’s take these lines out, or the actors find something to add and I find something to add to what the players found, and the next week the playwright says, “Listen, as long as you’re doing this, let’s have him do so-and-so.” There’s a very reassuring feeling that you have time.
PLAYBOY: It’s been said that the most dangerous period in the life of any film occurs in those weeks immediately preceding its final cut, because of the director’s aesthetic fatigue, which has been described as a state of hypnosis in which he might cut all the wrong things; and because of the producer.
NICHOLS: That’s absolutely right. One valuable thing I learned working with Elaine was to trust your first instinct. You do something out of instinct, but then you say, let’s move this piece to here and put that piece in there; by the time you’re through, it’s logical and neat, but it has no life at all. The producer can also be a problem. A picture belongs to the people who made it; there’s a danger of someone coming in at the end. They tend to fasten on certain things without being aware of the thread that runs through it all. They get hung up on minutiae. For instance, you will go to see a disastrous production trying out in Philadelphia and you can hear the producer in the back of the theater saying to his secretary: “Her earrings are all wrong.” I’m much more concerned with the core and the rhythm of a picture while I’m cutting it than with particular details.
PLAYBOY: How would you define a director’s job?
NICHOLS: A director creates behavior.
PLAYBOY: In what way?
NICHOLS: I once saw a very rich man standing with his beautiful wife and maybe three or four other people. He was leaving his apartment and giving instructions to the maid; and as he was doing this, he held the maid by her right breast. What interested me even more than the fact he held her by her right breast was that everyone, including his wife and the maid, acted as if he weren’t. And I thought, the things that happen between people casually while they’re just standing around are so extraordinary that if I can create that kind of behavior—I don’t mean simply bizarre, but unique and revealing of character—if I can do that, I’m a director.
PLAYBOY: Do you have any glory dream for yourself or for Virginia Woolf, such as being eternalized in cement at Grauman’s Chinese or getting a rave notice in the London Observer?
NICHOLS: I would like Virginia Woolf to be hailed as the greatest work in the history of Western civilization.
PLAYBOY: OK, Mike—pull yourself together.
NICHOLS: OK. I’ll compromise. What I want for Virginia Woolf is for people to be excited by it and be moved by it and laugh at it. I want it to work. Your footprints in Grauman’s is not why you do it—though I’d prefer to say no to an invitation rather than not getting the invitation. But that sort of gratification is only about five percent of one’s life.
PLAYBOY: Let’s get back to moviemaking. Who are some of the directors you most admire?
NICHOLS: In the theater, Robbins, Guthrie, Kazan. In movies, Fellini, Truffaut, many others.
PLAYBOY: Few Broadway productions in recent years have created the stir of Kazan’s staging of After the Fall by Arthur Miller. What did you think of it?
NICHOLS: The play seemed to make a morality out of psychoanalytic thought. It seemed to say, “If you understand me, you’ll judge my actions differently.” I figure your actions have to be judged by you, and by others, in themselves—and if you want understanding, you toddle off to your analyst.
PLAYBOY: What’s wrong with Broadway, in your opinion?
NICHOLS: You can never get a cab.
PLAYBOY: We hear that Fellini’s 8½ is your favorite film. Why?
NICHOLS: Anything I immensely admire, it’s because it seems to relate to me and the people I know. 8½ is a very complex but a very simple thing, too: It’s about how to make a movie. Fellini takes the specifics of one life and says, “This is it.” If you’re ruthless enough about your own life, and accurate enough, you can reach others. If the wine she drank was this wine and the shawl she had on was this shawl, someone somewhere in another country will look upon her and say, “I knew her, too.” It’s the antithesis of the business aspect of Hollywood; trying to find out what most people like rules out the possibility of any one person saying, “Oh, my God, that’s me.” The only way you reach a person is to reach into yourself. Fellini has it over anyone; most of us are busy sifting scripts and finding properties—and he just makes movies that come out of himself. I think that’s the most enviable thing in a director, an element almost nonexistent—namely, a powerful view of life.
PLAYBOY: Do you have such a view?
NICHOLS: I’m not sure. My talent isn’t necessarily the one I would have chosen, but people have no choice. They have to go on as themselves.
PLAYBOY: Your next picture, The Graduate, is a light comedy. Do you direct comedy any differently than you do a serious play?
NICHOLS: No. The whole thing I try to do is not make that separation. People think comedy is people running around slamming doors and talking very fast, and a serious play is kings standing around talking on the staircase in their own homes. I’m excited about The Graduate for the same old reasons: It’s part of my experience. It connects with things around me.
PLAYBOY: Was Virginia Woolf part of your experience; did it connect, too?
NICHOLS: I felt a connection with it. I never treated my wife that way, nor she me, but to some extent, Virginia Woolf was us. It is possible to have a model marriage and still have those people be you, because they’re so tightly interlocked and so worthy that yon can connect with them. I don’t know anyone like Lear, but my father can be contained in Lear. Your own experience informs what you see. It’s very important that Flaubert did not say that Emma Bovary is the woman down the block. He said, she’s me. Well, if she’s him, she has a chance of being us.
PLAYBOY: But the characters in Virginia Woolf are tearing each other apart. Do you relate to that?
NICHOLS: Not having done things doesn’t mean we don’t know about them.
PLAYBOY:Do you identify Martha with either of your ex-wives?
NICHOLS: I identify myself more with George than I do either of my wives with Martha.
PLAYBOY: Do you believe in monogamy?
NICHOLS: I don’t think so. It hasn’t worked for me. It hasn’t worked for many people I know. For some it seems OK.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever known promiscuity to work?
NICHOLS: Sure. I think promiscuity is like anything else comparatively unselective: It works as long as you keep it going. For me, the things that work best are the ones that contain change. I like loafing if I’ve worked hard; I like to go out in the sun if I’ve been where there’s snow; I like a drink if I haven’t had one. If promiscuity goes on too long, I get lonely and I want someone to belong to. I don’t propose this as a philosophy, but each of these states contains the wish for the other.
PLAYBOY: To go back a bit, how did you lose your virginity?
NICHOLS: I’m afraid it wasn’t very colorful. I was 14 years old and I was in the Cat-skills and I went with some guys to a whorehouse, which to my immense relief was closed. Driving back, they were all bitching, but I was so damned glad. When we got back to the hotel where we were working as busboys, I met this nice girl who was 18 and I took her up under a tree behind the hotel. I was a big reader and I expected to be disappointed, as in all the novels; but to my surprise, it wasn’t disappointing at all. The girl has since become a psychiatrist; make of it what you will.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever get inside a whorehouse?
NICHOLS: Once. I went to a colored whorehouse in Indiana Harbor, a place you drove to from Chicago. I picked out my girl and followed her upstairs, and as I was following her, another girl was coming down. “Are you through?” asked the girl coming down. “I’m through after this ‘un,” said mine. I remember I was very depressed because she wouldn’t take her sweater off. And that was it—my first and last time in a whorehouse.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever had any problem with homosexuality?
NICHOLS: No. My only problem with homosexuality is I’m getting a little sick of hearing about it. It used to be “the love that dare not speak its name,” and now it won’t shut up.
PLAYBOY: Is the sexual revolution of any consequence, in your opinion?
NICHOLS: I think sexual freedom is very important and I’m behind Playboy’s crusade to change the masturbation laws, and so forth; but it’s perhaps frivolous to talk and write about it as a “daring” subject, the way many people do.
PLAYBOY: One unpleasant aspect of the sexual revolution, in the opinion of some commentators, is the emergence of “epicene people,” men and women psychologically devoid of any real sexual identity. How do you feel about it?
NICHOLS: That question bugs me, because I’m so sick of Englishmen coming over and saying it on The Jack Paar Show, but I guess what screwed everything up was sexual enlightenment. For the Victorians, sex was for the men, and the women gritted their teeth and looked at the ceiling and never spoke of it—though of course they enjoyed it, too. And then those books started asking things like, “Is your foreplay adequate?"—and put men in the ridiculous position of wondering how they were doing. Once you start worrying how you’re doing, you’re in trouble. Sex is like anything else: If you enter into it completely, you’re likely to please the other person. If you’re worried about pleasing the other person, forget it. This terrible worry was started by these idiot manuals. Your grandfather didn’t worry about that for a second, and it was just fine. Sex is, after all, the last refuge from all this crap about how am I doing, and now they’re trying to change that.
PLAYBOY: Do you agree with those who view modern man not only as sexless but as loveless, emotionally alienated and spiritually bankrupt?
NICHOLS: Gosh, the kids in my bunch don’t seem to be.
PLAYBOY: Another director, Michelangelo Antonioni, has asked: "Who’s a hero under the atom bomb? Or who isn’t one?” Do you think the bomb is to blame for man’s current nonhero status?
NICHOLS: The bomb is just another name for death. Everybody dies and always did.
PLAYBOY: Richard Burton admits to fearing death and being forgotten more than anything else. What is your own deepest fear?
NICHOLS: I don’t care about being forgotten. I fear getting to the end of my life and feeling I’ve wasted it. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and think I haven’t tasted enough and touched on other people enough and had a good enough time.
PLAYBOY: Would you call yourself a hedonist?
NICHOLS: Well, a critic of a little magazine once said Elaine and I were Dionysian rather than Apollonian. I had never thought of it in quite that way, but I guess you could call me a Dionysian who gets tired easily.
PLAYBOY: What was the nature of the relationship between you and Elaine? Were you in love with her?
NICHOLS: I was in love with Elaine, and I still love Elaine, and if I were lying with a broken leg and everyone was stepping across me, I’d hope Elaine would come along.
PLAYBOY: A friend of yours told us you’re essentially an unhappy person. Is he right?
NICHOLS: Maybe that was true up until a couple of years ago, but things have changed and I’ve changed. My whole adult life has been a process of changing. When I was in college I slept 18 hours a day and never went to class. I couldn’t get a job, and when I did I couldn’t hold it, as I couldn’t get up in time to hold it. But things have changed. I’m pretty happy with my life and myself. I suffer in my work. I really do get scared about the next day and I worry about the next scene and if it’s any good and if I could do better—but it’s a kind of suffering I enjoy. If it came too easily, that would be the time to worry. I certainly don’t suffer in my personal life, though.
PLAYBOY: According to reports, you don’t suffer at all on your six-figure income as a director.
NICHOLS: Well, I do like it, and obviously I spend it. I don’t find it necessary to say I’d be just as happy on $100 a week, because I wouldn't—but I’d survive.
PLAYBOY: How much did you earn last year?
NICHOLS: I don’t know, but I spent about $300,000, including taxes and alimonies; my accountant came and told me that. I laughed for about an hour.
PLAYBOY: The last time we met, you were driving a Lincoln Continental to work—do you still?
NICHOLS: No, I have a Rolls S-III.
PLAYBOY:Do you have your initials engraved on the door or pressed on your license plates?
NICHOLS: No, I have a sticker on the front that says, “Batman is coming.”
PLAYBOY: But Batman is here.
NICHOLS: Yes, more’s the pity.
PLAYBOY: In the parlor game of metaphors, John Gielgud has been called grouse out of season, in aspic; Laurence Olivier, beefsteak tartare; Claire Bloom, a soft-boiled egg, peeled—etc. What are you?
NICHOLS: I might be a kreplach.
PLAYBOY: Which is …?
NICHOLS: Sort of a dumpling with some meat inside.