Film and theater director Mike Nichols doesn't talk — he sells.
"The producers want us to sell, sell, sell," Nichols tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "That's my little joke. That's what we do by day; by night, we're artists."
The joke is that, these days, Nichols is selling Death of a Salesman. He's directing a Broadway revival of the Arthur Miller classic — with Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as the salesman himself — that's set to open on March 15. According to Nichols, Death of a Salesman is about a central relationship of American life — the one that exists between fathers and sons. He says it's central to our culture and it's central to lots of movies, "most of them with Robert Duvall."
Nichols' own father, Igor Nicholaievitch Peschkowsky, was a German-trained doctor and Russian Jew who escaped the Nazis by fleeing with his family to New York (he took the name Nichols from his Russian patronymic). Once in the states, Igor sent Mike and his brother to live with a patient while he set up his practice.
The elder Nichols' marriage was, by his son's account, one marked by discord and infidelity. Then, when Mike Nichols was just 12, his father died. It sounds like a troubled father-son relationship, but Nichols doesn't feel that way.
"Here's the thing," he says. "If you're fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 and you're a Jew, you don't think so much about relationships. People didn't have a lot of divorces during the Holocaust, for instance. And I never thought of it as anything but a great relationship."
Besides, Nichols says, as a kid, he wasn't so aware of what was going on at the time. He says his first memory is of his father coming to meet him and his family when they arrived in New York. Nichols remembers spotting a deli that had a neon sign with Hebrew letters on it. "And I said, 'Is that allowed?' And my dad said, 'Yes, it is here.' "
After that, it was all Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola.
"We'd never ever had food that made noise before," Nichols says. "We were very excited."
Digging For The Story
Mike Nichols can do serious, but he can also do shtick. He went from being part of the comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May to directing both on stage and in the movies. He's directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Barefoot in the Park, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, The Birdcage, Working Girl, Closer, Spamalot, and the list goes on.
Now 80, Nichols attributes part of his success to something he learned as the little refugee kid who only spoke German, the kid whose whooping cough medication in Germany left him bald for life. (Today he uses toupees and fake eyebrows.) Nichols was different, an outsider.
"The thing about being an outsider ... is that it teaches you to hear what people are thinking because you're constantly looking for the people who just don't give a damn," Nichols says.
"It's probably why I'm in the theater, because I could hear an audience thinking when I was in front of them, which was a terrific advantage a) in improvising, because I knew where to go, and b) in confidence, because you can make them like you."
But the job of a director, working behind the scenes, is another matter.
"You find what's happening under the words," Nichols says, "the story that is not in the words. Plays, especially great plays, yield their secrets over a long period of time. You can't read it three times and say, 'OK, I got it. I know what's happening.' "
According to Nichols, that hidden story is just as integral to Death of a Salesman as it is to the Monty Python musical comedy Spamalot. He remembers working on that musical in Chicago, just before bringing it to New York City, and realizing that while it was meant for laughs, it still needed some rudimentary story. So at the very end, they had King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake fall in love and live happily ever after.
"We put it sort of in the last three minutes and, by God, it was very moving and it was a story. You can do it in the very last few moments," he says. "Our need — our desire — for a story is so powerful that it'll still work."