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'Mike Nichols: A Life' Charts A Lonely Outsider's Path To Hollywood's Peak

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Boy, Mike Nichols glittered. His name was in lights on Broadway as a great theater director, on movie marquees as a filmmaker, a striking creative force from his time at the Chicago improv stage with his partner, Elaine May, as in their classic funeral home sketch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELAINE MAY: (As character) Would you be interested in some extras for the loved one?

MIKE NICHOLS: (As character) What kind of extras?

MAY: (As character) Well, how about a casket?

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

NICHOLS: (As character) Isn't that included in the funeral?

MAY: (As character) No.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: His incisive powers of observation were sharpened by his experience as an outsider. The 8-year-old German boy who had to flee Nazism developed a rare allergic reaction that marked him for life. He was left hairless. And his father died when he was just 12. Mike Nichols would grow up to become a true American glitterati, direct Neil Simon and Chekhov plays and breakthrough films like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "Carnal Knowledge" and, of course, "The Graduate."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GRADUATE")

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

ANNE BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson, laughter).

HOFFMAN: (As Ben Braddock) Aren't you?

SIMON: Mark Harris has now written a milestone new biography, "Mike Nichols: A Life." Mark Harris joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You knew Mike Nichols in a particular and personal way, didn't you?

HARRIS: I did. In 2001, he started working with my husband, Tony Kushner, on the HBO adaptation of "Angels In America." So that was the first time I ever met Mike. I think, in fact, the first time I ever met Mike might have been on the set while he was working.

SIMON: What did you see in his life and art that made you want to tell his story?

HARRIS: I was fascinated, of course, by the fact that from very humble origins, you know, his beginning as a refugee who was really ostracized by other kids because of the way he looked, he built this extraordinary career. But I was also fascinated by the uniqueness of that career. I mean, there's no other director who had parallel half-century runs in movies and in theater. And to have both of those careers preceded by being a famous performing artist who really changed improvisational comedy really felt like a life I would never get tired of exploring.

SIMON: Yeah. For someone who became known as a great actor's director, he didn't play well with others as a little boy, did he?

HARRIS: Well, he didn't. But I would say that was probably the fault of others more than of him. You know, Mike was bald, as you said, because of this childhood reaction to a vaccine. He was an immigrant, didn't sound like other kids, didn't look like other kids. And so he really learned to watch and observe and try to figure out from looking at other kids what an American boy sounded like. And I think all those observational skills were really, in a way, his first improvisations. I mean, he was working out how to be a person.

SIMON: Meeting Elaine May really changed his life, didn't it?

HARRIS: It really did. It was - you know, a lot of us have had those sort of magical you meet someone in college and you're fast friends and it lasts forever, but rarely on the level of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They met each other when they were only 20 or 21 and just instantly connected both as people and as scene partners. And their development of what really became a new style in American comedy started right then when they were both barely out of their teens.

SIMON: Tell me about "The Graduate" because I get the impression that the film wouldn't have been made without him.

HARRIS: It was supposed to be Mike's first movie, not his second. It was a novel that Mike had had his eye on as a movie for a long time. And then "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" came along and the chance to direct Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But "The Graduate" was not considered a huge film for Mike. It wasn't even a studio movie. No major studio would touch it. It starred someone, Dustin Hoffman, who nobody had ever heard of at the time. And it was really not a movie that anybody, I think including even Mike, expected would end up the third highest-grossing movie in history.

SIMON: And depression did play a lifelong role in his life, didn't it?

HARRIS: It did. It really wasn't something I was aware of because by the time I had met Mike, so many of his demons were put to rest. He really was living in the most contented period of his life. So to learn how early he struggled with depression and how frequently it recurred was really startling to me and quite moving.

SIMON: Did he sometimes seek out help in all the wrong places?

HARRIS: Mike was not immune to the lure of substance abuse, as so many artists were, but often the way Mike dealt with his depression was through work. You know, when he felt himself really withdrawing from the world, he would over and over again try to throw himself back into something that meant something to him. And I think that's a pretty heroic way to struggle.

SIMON: What made him a great director, stage and screen, do you think?

HARRIS: Mike Nichols's gift with actors was really unique, perhaps because he had started as a performer himself. He developed not one language to speak to actors but a whole series of languages. He had a real gift for looking at someone who was struggling with a performance on stage or on screen, figuring out exactly what they needed, whether it was a firm hand or friendship or anecdotes about his own life. He was just remarkably able to tell actors what they needed.

And I think his other really special gift was to bring reality into the most unreal and unlikely of situations. Mike often said that the two jobs of a director were, one, to answer the question, what is this really like, and two, to answer the question, what happens next? And that first question, what is it really like, was really a Mike Nichols signature, to find those little moments of human behavior that you could recognize from your own life, even in the unlikeliest of situations. That was the Mike Nichols touch.

SIMON: Mark Harris - his book "Mike Nichols: A Life" - thank you so much for being with us.

NICHOLS: Thanks again for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.