Mike Nichols Got His Juiciest Backstage Stories From Broadway

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Gordon Cox
·2 min read
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There are plenty of juicy backstages tales from both Hollywood and Broadway in “Mike Nichols: A Life,” the new biography of director-producer-performer Mike Nichols. And the juiciest of them, according to author Mark Harris, come from the stage.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

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“We think so often of movie star excess, and wild misbehavior on movie sets,” said Harris, speaking on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. “But the most lurid stories that I heard were all about theater, especially if you go back to the ’60s and ’70s — the really astonishing stories of misbehavior or eccentric behavior were all about the plays that Mike worked on. … The juiciest stories? In a theater-versus-movies context, theater wins that one.”

Nichols, who died in 2014, was an influential figure both on stage (“The Odd Couple,” “Annie”) and on screen (“The Graduate”), and a handful of his notable film projects — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Angels in America,” “Closer” — were based on plays. On Stagecraft, Harris explained how later in his career, Nichols arrived at a way of working on films that was heavily influenced by his time in the theater.

Many films don’t incorporate any significant rehearsal period, but according to Harris, “Mike did, in a couple of cases, not only rehearsals, but actual workshops. He got the four people in ‘Closer’ [Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman] together in New York many months before they were ready to shoot, just as a way of turning them into an ensemble and opening them up.”

Over the course of working on the book, Harris himself hadn’t expected it to become “a book about the process of making things and about the trying to unfold the mysteries of what exactly it is that a director does, and how a creative person like Mike Nichols sees his own mission and his own career differently at 30 and 50 and 70 [years old].”

He also came away with an appreciation for the collaboration that was a hallmark of Nichols’ work. “I would love it if directors [today] could look at his work and take away from it that you can create an extraordinarily distinctive and rich and witty and varied body of work, in different genres and different mediums, while also maintaining a real spirit of collaboration,” Harris said. “Creating a really distinctive body of work does not have to mean excluding the visions of the people that you work with.”

To hear to the full conversation, listen at the link above, or download and subscribe to Stagecraft on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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