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'Mike Nichols: A Life': Mark Harris Chronicles Mike Nichols' Complex Life and Brilliant Career

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Mark Harris
Mark Harris

By any standard, Mike Nichols was a brilliant auteur who worked with everyone from Richard Burton to Meryl Streep. The catalog of both plays and films for the large and small screens that he directed is long and impressive--though most times, in reviewing the list, you might find yourself saying "Mike Nichols directed that?" He was prolific and versatile. He was also a truly complicated man whose life was fascinating for both its triumphs and successes and its sorrows and challenges. Mark Harris is the author of a new book about him, Mike Nichols: A Life. It is a compelling story for anyone who appreciated Mike Nichols--and, in some interesting ways--even for those who are as yet unfamiliar with his work.

Highlights of the interview with Mark Harris

On Mike Nichols' childhood
It seems to me that Mike had, in some ways, a kind of exemplary representative 20th century life and, in other ways, really a unique one, and it starts in Germany. He's born in 1931 and in 1939, just as all Jews are really trying to get out of Germany, he, at the age of seven, and his brother who was four, are sent from Berlin to New York City on a boat. Their father is already there. He was trying to set up a medical practice. Their mother who was supposed to accompany them is not there because she is hospitalized for a long-term illness. So, his story begins alone on a boat at the age of seven and arriving on foreign shores. It's fascinating to me that some of his first memories are not as a little German boy, but as a foreigner in a country where he doesn't speak the language where everything is unfamiliar to him, where he and his brother are put in a foster home while his father tries to set up a household, and where he's really different from all the other kids...because Mike had an allergic reaction to a childhood vaccination when he was four and lost the ability to grow hair. So of course, he was ostracized. He was bullied. He didn't know English. He was, in the description of one person who knew him, about as far and as much of an outsider as you could possibly get.

On the way he decided on a college
It's really almost that the college chose him...You know, there was nothing about him that suggested future immense creative success, and although he was a very ambitious person, I don't think he was particularly ambitious about being famous. That was not a goal. So, it's really interesting to me that so much of his life is a kind of happy accident. He ends up at the University of Chicago around 1950, but at the very last minute, he was not intending to go there and suddenly he got a late acceptance. I guess he came off a waiting list, and raced to Chicago and shows up the first day. And then he does this completely counterintuitive thing, which is that even as he starts enrolling for pre-med classes, because what he at first thinks he's going to be is a doctor like his father and his grandfather worked. He does two things that are really surprising. One is he gets very interested in psychotherapy, in being a patient. In fact, you know, at a time when there was real stigma attached to that for a lot of people of, of his age, he took advantage of a deal by which undergrads can get free psychotherapy from psychoanalytic trainees. And he was very open about it. So, there's clearly already something in Mike where he wanted to know himself better. And the other thing he does, as you say, is do the least expected possible thing, which is get interested in acting and put himself in a position where other people that are going to have to look at him, which is really not his nature, but he does it anyway.

On the exhaustive research he did to write the book--and telling a captivating story
I spent three and a half years researching it part of the time, a lot of the time, in the library, and a lot of time reading and watching the movies, but also interviewing 250 people. And it was all in the service of what you just said, which is trying to make sure that it is not just a chronological sequence of events, but it is in fact, a story. And the only way that I knew I would be able to make it a story was if I understood, really understood for myself, why things happened in the order, in which they happened, how one thing led to the next. And I thought, if I can unlock that code, then I will be able to tell this as a story, not just as a list of credits or as a sequence of years.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.