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

By Harry Haun
April 20, 2012

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman made an impression on a young Mike Nichols circa 1950. The director is paying homage to the classic with a new Broadway production.



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An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, in which two brilliant laser wits fenced furiously for 306 performances in 1960-61, marked Mike Nichols' only sustained Broadway appearance. On Oct. 23, 1963, Barefoot in the Park took him to the other side of the footlights, where he has remained for almost a half-century, directing 20 and producing six of the Main Stem's finest. With the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in 1966 he started varying the mix with movies and television, amassing seven Tonys, four Emmys and one Oscar, all the while making stars of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jonathan Pryce, Stockard Channing, Andrea McArdle, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons and Gilda Radner. His latest are Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock, Broadway-bowing as the sons of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond in his meticulous, much-cheered revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, now at the Barrymore Theatre. The play comes from the dark ages before "dysfunctional" was a word — 1949 — and Nichols counts it The Great American Play. When he saw it at the tender age of 18 — in close proximity to another Elia Kazan-directed, Pulitzer Prize-winning work (Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire) — the seed was planted. Now 80, Nichols takes a rare look back.

You've wanted to do Death of a Salesman for a long time. Why now, though?
Mike Nichols: It just seems to be, more and more, about right now.

You and Philip have done a film ("Charlie Wilson's War") and a play (The Seagull) together so you know he does rage and he does suicide — the perfect combo for Willy Loman. You must love working with him.
MN: Very much, as much as anyone ever. I thought he would be great in the part, as indeed he is. He does everything great. He doesn't fake it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman.
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Some people felt Philip was too young to play Willy Loman, but actually he's six years older than Lee J. Cobb was when he originated the role.
MN: Not only that, they forget that for half the play he's exactly Philip's age. The question about that is: Which age do you want to get wrong? They're like some 15 or 20 years apart. It's so weird that people would say that. Also, show me a 60-year-old man who can do that play for two hours and 45 minutes — and survive? How old was Dennehy? [Turns out Brian Dennehy was 60-and-a-half when he opened in Salesman in 1999.]

Andrew Garfield was an unexpected choice for Biff. How did that come about?
MN: I knew — both from seeing him in "The Social Network" and from what [producer] Scott [Rudin] told me of having seen him over the years at the National Theatre and on the stage in London — that he has enormous emotional equipment. And, again, people don't understand what a quarterback is. He's exactly right for a quarterback, and if you're talking high school — again, pull yourself together.

I think you got a terrific performance from Finn Wittrock. Happy's a role that's often overlooked.
MN: Yes, he's remarkable. I saw him in the revival of The Illusion, the [Tony] Kushner play. He's two years out of Juilliard, a brilliant kid.

It was wonderful to hear Alex North's original music for Salesman again. I remember he also wrote such haunting music for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
MN: There were two reasons I wanted his music. One is that it really adds a great deal to the play itself — it's so wonderful and right for it — and the other reason was "Virginia Woolf." That was my first movie, and I liked him so much, working together. [North passed away in 1991.]

It was an unexpected theme for "Virginia Woolf." I always thought it was scored to that lazy, drunken walk George and Martha do on the way home at the beginning of the film.
MN: Well, secretly, it was about two people who fit each other and love each other. It's a love story, "Virginia Woolf" — that's the joke — and Alex knew that. Therefore, what he did added to it greatly. The score for Salesman is sort of a secret kinship with Aaron Copland and the great states of the West — things that Willy dreams of that his brother conquered — you know, "amber waves of grain." And that's all in the music — the loss of that, and Willy feeling his mistake that he didn't explore those things that Ben held out to him.

Read more about Mike Nichols' Broadway career in the Playbill Vault.  

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.)