“I’ve always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of
people, you find them saying one thing, doing another and wishing they were
doing a third.”
In a directing career that spanned just more than six decades and embraced theater, film, and TV, Mike Nichols won just about every award available. He’s one of a handful of people to win at least one Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy. And over the years, he won more than once in several of these categories for everything from The Graduate and Silkwood to Spamalot and The Death of A Salesman.
A profile by Bruce Weber in “The New York Times” captured some of the highlights of his long, colorful life and underscored some of the qualities that made Nichols such a revered director — someone who seemed to seamlessly bridge the divide between commercial and artistic success. Here are some of the strengths that he brought to his projects that we can bring to our own:
He remained stage struck all his life: Theater, films: Whatever the theme or the medium, he invested tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and inventiveness to his work. He was revered by actors for his ability to find a way to say something afresh and to enliven a scene, moment by moment.
He applied lessons learned: In reflecting on the value of his years as an improv artist, Nichols said, “But what I really thought it was useful for was directing, because it also teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”
He preserved his outsider’s point of view: Having arrived in America from Berlin at the age of 9 knowing virtually no English, Nichols didn’t really find a niche until he went to the University of Chicago. While he went on to gain insider’s status in theatre and film, when it came to his work,he managed to hold on to the creative distance that being an outsider at a critical time in his life had given him. Instead of being a source of alienation, he transformed into an artistic advantage.
He mixed it up: Over the years, Nichols worked on a bewildering array of projects, some funny, some tragic, some stunningly successful, and others, flops. Whatever the theme or style, he was willing to take it on and play with it. He brought a comic sense of timing to dramatic moments and a sense of drama to light-hearted scenes. This ability to delight and surprise an audience is widely admired as one of his hallmarks: taking care of an audience was a role he took seriously.
Every day, we face decisions, small and large, about improving our craft and taking risks. Let’s take courage and inspiration from the insiders-outsiders
who’ve paved the way for us — and write on.