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Mike Nichols in 2005 (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Looking back on the 40-year film career of legendary director Mike Nichols, it almost seems he could do no wrong. Nichols, who passed away one year ago this November, is the man behind such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, and The Birdcage, and was racking up awards well into his 70s. However, he did have some major career regrets in his lifetime — like not directing The Exorcist. In the October issue of Vanity Fair, which features a collection of reminiscences from Nichols’ famous friends, film and music mogul David Geffen told the story of how Nichols passed on the 1973 horror-movie sensation.
According to Geffen, Nichols was urged to direct The Exorcist by then-Warner Bros. studio chief John Calley, who told him it would be “a giant, giant hit.” Nichols’ response? “Well, I suppose so, but I can’t see how to make a movie out of this that I would be interested in making.” The job went instead to director William Friedkin. But later, Nichols experienced a pang of regret, when he got a first-hand look at how eager audiences were to see The Exorcist.
Watch ‘The Exorcist’ trailer — and imagine what the Mike Nichols version would’ve looked like:
“Mike is driving in Westwood, and he sees the longest line he’s ever seen in his life — literally, he said it was blocks long — and he follows the line to the theater, and it’s The Exorcist,” Geffen told Vanity Fair. “And he calls [his friend and frequent collaborator Elaine May] on the phone and he says, Elaine, I am such a schmuck. I just passed the longest line I’ve ever seen for The Exorcist, and you know I was offered it and turned it down. And she said, ‘Don’t worry, Mike, if you had made it, it wouldn’t have been a hit.’”
To make matters worse, Nichols had his own movie in theaters in December 1973: The Day of the Dolphin, one of his biggest bombs (which he’d later refer to derisively as “the fish movie”). Though he suffered from depression during this career slump, he was back on his feet by the 1980s, when he made one of the biggest hits of his career: Working Girl.
- According to Eric Idle, Nichols was so insecure about directing his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, that he called up legendary director Billy Wilder the night before filming began and asked, “What shall I wear?”
- When the raunchy, obscenity-laden Virginia Woolf (released in 1966) faced opposition from the Catholic Church, Nichols came up with an ingenious way to head off the controversy. “They were fighting the censors. The Catholic Church was going to ban the movie,” Tom Hanks told Vanity Fair. “And so he brought Jackie [Kennedy] along for the screening with the monsignor or the bishop - whoever was going to pass judgment. And as soon as it was over, Jackie leaned forward with her head in between the monsignor and Mike and said, ‘Oh, Jack would have so loved your film.’”
- Paul Simon told the magazine that Nichols hastened the breakup of Simon and Garfunkel. The director cast Art Garfunkel — but not aspiring actor Simon — in Carnal Knowledge, and Simon was the last to find out. “[Garfunkel] said, ‘I was afraid that if I told you that you would stop working on [the 1970 album] Bridge Over Troubled Water,’” said Simon. “And I thought, I don’t want to deal with this. And so that was the last album we made together.” On the other hand, Nichols gave the duo’s career a significant boost by having them score The Graduate — and suggesting that Simon title a song-in-progress “Mrs. Robinson” instead of “Mrs. Roosevelt” in order to better suit the movie.
- Meryl Streep said that the only direction she ever remembered Nichols giving was “surprise me.”
- According to Streep, who heard the story from “a witness on the set of Working Girl,” Nichols convinced Melanie Griffith to do a scene where she vacuumed a room in her underwear by saying, “Meryl would do it.”