Mike Nichols On "Creating the Event" Called Death of a Salesman

By Harry Haun
20 Apr 2012

Playbill cover for An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May

What do you admire about Kazan as a director?
MN: I admire the way that he did what one of those guys — Strasberg or Clurman — called "creating the event." That's what the director does. He creates the events that are not in the words. He was particularly good at expressing "the underneath of scenes." Just watching what he did was a lesson in expressing the things that can't be spoken.

It always struck me that you're listening under the words yourself. You find so many things that one wouldn't think were there on the printed page.
MN: They are there, of course. They're there in the set-up. One of the things I love most in our Salesman is the ball continually going over Hap's head while they're all three throwing that football. Hap is the one whose head it goes over with each throw, and it's the story of his life — that this powerful relationship between his father and his brother leaves him out. To be able to see it physically expressed — that's what doing a play is about.

The cast has a great naturalness about touching one another. The familiarity of family is very pronounced. How did you get them to that point?
MN: We had a monthlong workshop some months ago, then went away for three months to do other things and let the work we'd done sort of ripen, which I've done before. It has an enormously powerful effect. The stuff you've done becomes part of them while they're living their lives and thinking about other things.

You saw the original Salesman, with Thomas Mitchell because Cobb only did the role for three and a half months. Why, do you suppose?
MN: I think that it's just too hard on a guy. There's no way to fake it, and to go through that every day and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays is harrowing. I called Lee Cobb for a part some years after that when I was making movies. He said, "Mike, I'll tell ya: I got a sailboat now. I don't work that hard." I think it frightened him how much of him had to be exposed and used for that part. He was just exhausted."

I think Gene Hackman is there now — retired but not officially announcing it.
MN: I think that's been true for a couple of years. When he did "The Birdcage," I think it was clear — and to all our great sorrow because who's better? I love him so much. I've known him, like, 50 years. We miss him terribly, but he wants to take it easy. Who can blame him?

You've mentioned that you're a fan of George Stevens' work. He's my favorite director, and my favorite film is his: "A Place in the Sun."
MN: Me, too. We agree. I think it was a great movie, and there's everything to learn from it if you're going to direct movies.

You've never directed something on stage and then done the movie version.
MN: I never could. I mean, I couldn't for other reasons, but I still haven't seen a way to make The Real Thing into a movie because it's so much about how plays are made. If you're there watching the play and watching it being made at the same time, it makes sense. I couldn't figure out a way to do that on the screen, but I've never wanted to direct any of the plays as movies — like The Odd Couple and the various plays I've directed — because you gotta be excited. It's gotta be new. You can't be repeating something. You've got to be discovering it.

Do you see a lot of theatre?
MN: Not so much. I do see a lot of films. I don't go out that much. I still love working, but I also love being with my family. We have two new one-year-old grandchildren — twins — and nothing can compete with that.

I hope I see more directing from you. Are you planning a film or another play anytime soon?
MN: I'm not sure. I have some things I'm thinking about, and I'm getting a lot of stuff to read now, and I have not made up my mind about a lot of stuff. I'm working on a TV series that interests me. I'm not sure yet, but I'm getting interested. I love a good TV series because it's a whole new art form. Seeing characters over many years is a really wonderful thing.

Your directing career has always been equally divided between comedies and dramas. Most people think of you as a comedy person because of your beginnings with Elaine May, but you do such a beautiful work on dramas, too.
MN: To me, they're sorta the same, really. There's no great play that isn't funny, too. I find it hard to divide them. Yes, Barefoot in the Park is obviously comedy, but there are parts of it that you'd better take seriously or it'll just seem like summer stock, which has happened before. I don't think there is any value in dividing them into comedies or tragedies or whatever-the-hell. It's a play, and a play is about people — to whom funny things happen and sad things happen.

There was a period where your film career was really going strong, and it suddenly derailed with a movie called "Bogart Slept Here," and you didn't do another movie until "Silkwood." What happened?
MN: I couldn't find anything I wanted to do. We moved to the country, and I had children. I was perfectly happy with the children, and I raised some horses. I would occasionally do things like Annie and stuff, but I found nothing — no movie that I wanted to do until "Silkwood," and then I was very happy to do it. It was about her waking up and about me waking up. I liked that.

Well, I'm glad you woke up. Next year is going to be your 50th year as a Broadway director —
MN: Oh, my God! I didn't know that. You've been keeping track.

— and I was wondering how you were going to celebrate it.
MN: I think I'm going to celebrate it passionately by ignoring it.

Read about the original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman in the Playbill Vault.  

(This is an expanded version of an interview appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill.)