I think he was always interested in that. I never really came across anything where he indicated that he was conscious of that. But yeah, I think if you look at where his heart is in anything, from Working Girl, to Silkwood, The Graduate, Angels in America, Mike was really attracted to people who had to work against long odds. He was also attracted to people who sometimes would fool themselves, or delude themselves, or who needed to create a sort of illusion about themselves in order to survive, and in doing that, maybe sometimes became their own worst enemy. So I think he had multiple threads of what he cared about. But yeah, underdogs was definitely one.
What about the projects that never were, or that almost were? I was surprised that he had worked on 9 to 5 for instance. That was interesting. I could see that being a Mike Nichols film.
He worked on 9 to 5 briefly. He worked on Melvin and Howard extensively. He turned down The Exorcist, he turned down Heaven Can Wait, and then there was a whole list of movies. I mean, at one time or another, he was going to direct A Simple Plan, and All the Pretty Horses. You could look at The Exorcist, I suppose, and say, “Gosh, I wonder what The Exorcist would’ve been like if Mike Nichols had directed it?” Imagine The Exorcist was a really a cute, cutting social comedy and commentary. [Laughs.] In most of those cases, I think you would have to say that he made the right decision for himself and possibly the right decision for the movie too.
You have the unique experience of having known your subject in real life. [Nichols directed the film version of Angels in America, the play by Harris’s husband, Tony Kushner.] Was that a help or a hindrance in writing the biography?
It was absolutely both. Certainly, I would not have gone into it if I felt that because I had known him, there were certain things I wouldn’t be able to write about, or certain things I wouldn’t be able to say. I never felt that.
You had interviewed him before for a previous book, right?
In Pictures at a Revolution, there’s some tough stuff about Mike, in the way he behaved on the set, in the way behaved toward the crew. And Mike really liked that book a lot, which meant, of course, the world to me. And he never once said, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t mentioned that.” The worst stories about Mike that I got came from Mike. And so, I knew that he would sort of theoretically be interested in an honest book.
Do you miss him?
I do. He and Tony worked together, and we stayed friends until the end of Mike’s life. It wasn’t like we were sort of bosom buddies who would trade secrets or stuff like that. Over 14 years, Mike was never anything but extraordinarily kind to me, supportive, encouraging, generous, warm, funny. He would write, when you did something he liked. Actors and writers will tell you this, too. When you did something he liked, the note you’d get, or the email you’d get, because he was a big email-er, was just like a gift you could bathe in. It felt really wonderful. And if you were ever able to make him laugh, which he really loved to do, you sort of felt like, “Well, okay, I just made Mike Nichols laugh. I’m going to take the rest of the day off,” you know?
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and context and condensed from the original conversation.
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