LOS ANGELES — If it hadn’t been for a girlfriend’s mother, Mike Nichols might never have become one of the few artists to earn Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy awards — much less the 38th recipient of the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, which is being presented Thursday night at a gala ceremony at Sony Studios.
The teenage Nichols and his then-girlfriend Lucy were given tickets by her mother to see a new play on Broadway: Tennessee Williams’ seminal 1947 drama “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and directed by Elia Kazan.
“I saw it on the second night,” recalls the 78-year-old director of such classic films as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Graduate” (for which he won an Oscar), “Carnal Knowledge” and “Working Girl,” and the Emmy Award-winning TV miniseries, “Angels in America,” during a captivating, free-wheeling phone interview from his home in New York.
“There had never been anything like it, I know that by now,” says Nichols. “It was, to this day, the only thing onstage that I had ever seen that was 100 percent real and 100 percent poetic. Lucy and I weren’t exactly theater buffs, but we couldn’t get up at the intermission. We were just so stunned. Your heart was pounding. It was a major experience.”
It was the catalyst that lead Nichols, born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, to turn to the arts. Nichols, who had fled Europe with his German Jewish family to the United States when he was 7, earned a scholarship to the University of Chicago.
“I had lived in Chicago a long time after college,” says Nichols. “I was an announcer on a classic FM station. But I kept thinking about what I had seen in Kazan and the newest Kazan, which was ‘Tea and Sympathy.’ I kept thinking what we were doing in Chicago was just saying the lines. What they do in New York is that they create life. I wanted to learn how they did it.”
So he went to New York and studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. “Yesterday, there was the graduation of the students in the acting school where I teach a master class. What I tell them in the end is how amazingly they have changed, how true and interesting they have become as an actor and that they now know the secret (to acting), which is there is no way to do it. You just do it your own way.
“All the theories that acting is reacting to imaginary circumstances as though they are real, and directing is turning psychology into behavior, those are all stabs at something that can’t be taught. All the great actors can’t talk about what they do, and they don’t want to begin to talk about it. They just do it.”
So how does Nichols, who has directed such actors as Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis to Oscars, and countless others, including Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Cher and Kathy Bates, to Academy Award nominations, achieve so much success with actors?
“You spend time together, you and the actors and the writer — God willing, the writer is alive — and the designers in different segments. You spend some weeks together to begin with just finding the answers to several questions — What is this about? And if it is about X, what is X really like in life?”
When the questions are eventually answered, “then you can either build the set or prepare the things to get the movie made. This is the thrill you never get tired of.”
For actors, working with Nichols is an unforgettable experience. Hoffman recalls Nichols taking him aside one day on the set of “The Graduate” and asking him whether he was tired. Hoffman said he was because he had been spending his nights learning his lines.
“I remember vividly he said, ‘Well, I know you are trying hard, but this is the last time you are ever going to have to do that scene and it’s going to be on the screen for the rest of your life.’ That is him being a great coach.”
Robin Williams, who worked with Nichols onstage in “Waiting for Godot” and on-screen in “The Birdcage,” fondly recalls the director’s amazing laugh.
“He laughs so big,” Williams notes. “In ‘The Birdcage,’ when Gene Hackman was doing that story about the leaves and the fall and it’s so boring and so hysterical, Mike would be laughing so hard during the takes that eventually they put a blanket over him to try and see if they could shut him up.”
After his stint with Strasberg, Nichols returned to Chicago and became a member of the improv group the Compass, which was a precursor to Second City. That is where he met Elaine May, who became the most important person in his life at the time, both professionally and personally.
“Elaine and I found the whole world of comedy together. ... That is to say, our way of seeing things and doing things meshed,” says Nichols.
After leaving Chicago, they headed to New York in the late 1950s. They weren’t unemployed for long. They auditioned for manager Jack Rollins, and two days later they were opening for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard. “Two weeks later, we were at the Blue Angel together with Carol Burnett.”
Their sharp, satiric comedy made Nichols and May one of the top draws in TV, theater, nightclubs and records, culminating with the award-winning 1960 Broadway show “An Evening With Nichols and May.” In 1961, the two officially broke up the act when the play May wrote, “A Matter of Position,” in which Nichols appeared, closed out of town in Philadelphia. They eventually reunited with May writing the screenplays to Nichols’ films “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors.”
Nicholas recalled how one of their best sketches dealing with a phone call between Nichols and his mother, played by May, was born during one performance.
“This is how we worked,” Nichols says. “My mother called and said, ‘Michael, this is your mother, do you remember me?’ I said, ‘Mom, can I call you right back?’ Then I called Elaine and said, ‘I have a piece for tonight.’ I told her the line and she yelled with laugher. That is all we ever said. Then we showed up that night and got on the stools and we did the scene as it was. Each of our mothers thought it was the other one’s mother we were talking about. That is what happened with Elaine and me. We thought enough alike and differently to have these things happen.”
Nichols, who has been married to ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer for 22 years, says he was thrilled when he learned of the AFI honor. Over the last four decades, the American Film Institute has given the award to such directors as Orson Welles, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, David Lean, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Clint Eastwood, Robert Wise, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas
But he also feels shame “that the friends that you love so have to drag butt out one more time and do speeches,” says Nichols with a sigh. Among the stars attending the event, which will be telecast June 26 on TV Land, include Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Streep, Cher, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Hoffman, May, Emma Thompson and Williams.
“It’s embarrassing,” he adds. “You don’t want to be a pain to the people you love.”
Still, he says, “it’s a wonderful life ...”