Last week we lost Mike Nichols and deservedly the discussion about him has been loud. I watched Whoopi Goldberg attempt to make the announcement of his death the morning he died but her intense love for Mike overwhelmed her and she was unable to speak. He turned her talent into a Broadway show, that I went to, and the night I went, I met Mike in a funny way. In my audition for Biloxi Blues I said to him, “Can I tell you my Mike Nichols story?” and he answered with this boyish enthusiasm; “Yes! Tell…!” So I did. And he laughed with such a warm hearty laugh I remember feeling; “I really just entertained this guy!”
Mike fought for me to get that part. Neil Simon wanted someone else but Mike held out for me, and I can’t help but think it was because of my silly story. He gave me my first trip to the majors and I arrived terrified, but Mike knew that. Mike knew everything. He’d walk in to a scene with 7 actors and say something different, and in a way specific to each of us, and get what he wanted on the next take. Once, he said to me, “You could walk faster” which made me spin why I’d walk faster in my head over and over until it hit me; “I’m anxious to get there because…!” If he had just said “remember, you are eager to get there” I would have walked faster, but I wouldn’t have thought about why, and Mike knew that. He set me on course to find the why, not to simply please the director.
Time with him was like a class in how to be a better artist and a class act. He always let us know how lucky he felt to have us, and the script, and the budget to do something as outright fun as shoot a movie. He created a mood where the most that was at stake was a potential lost opportunity to be better on the next take. He also relied on his crew to be perfect so we could be creative. I remember him yelling between takes “It’s too damn loud in here! These guys have to work! Remember, we are the dog not the tail.”
One night we all went to dinner and Mike couldn’t shake his headache so he ate very little and got up to leave early but he pulled out enough money to cover the whole check. We all objected, he always paid for everything, but he insisted and when we asked him why he said, “Because I have the most money,” like it was a universal rule. Then there was the time he came to the set totally humbled after watching Full Metal Jacket saying, “Stanley is so good, he’s intimidating…I don’t know how he does it.” Then there was the day my Mother flew down for Mother’s day and he insisted she sit in his chair and watch the shot through his monitor while he stood near by. Then there was the time late in the shoot a background performer walked up to him and said “Hey Mike, I was thinking of going to New York to become an actor. Can you help me with an agent and all the stuff you need to be an actor?” A very matter of fact Mike said, “I have no idea how that’s done. I really don’t. I’d be no help at all.” It showed me just how easy Mike was to approach.
The downside of working with Mike this early in my career was that he ruined me for all other directors that weren’t in his league. And there are very, very, few in his league. He gave me evidence of what was possible if your director knows what he’s doing and creates the environment that we are there to make these words come alive and tell a story, and we are lucky to be doing this, today, together. I have since been on many sets since where the totality of the project’s success was lifted on the backs of the actors in the next shot, as if this one shot would make or break the whole show. Right after Biloxi I was cast in a play and the Director asked me a question about the character and I thought; “Wait, that’s a question I would ask you if I needed to, why are you asking me? Don’t you know?” and I realized she didn’t. Mike would have known, and Mike would have known that I knew, so the question didn’t have to be asked.
I am now creating my own show now, a web series, and as the producer of a low/no budget show, the usual course is to beg and pray to get folks to work with you. But that’s not what I did. I used what Mike taught me; I asked people to join me in making something based on the idea that we are all going to make this show because we all want to be working on something together. There is no salary to lure them, it has to be about working on a show that has a story they want to tell, in an environment that values their work and reminds them it’s damn fun to shoot, together, today. That’s all I have to offer so far with this web series and it has worked. We shot three episodes so far and the days were fun, the show looks good, and everyone has agreed to shoot more. Which we will do in a month.
I was lucky to know Mike, I am lucky to have had his influence. I want to think it makes me better at what I do. (This was taken on a day off when we went to Blue Ribbon Downs, a horse racing track. Pictured with us are Mike’s kids Max and Jenny and of course Christopher Walken.)