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How Hollywood’s Best Chronicler Tackled Mike Nichols (Guest Blog)

Mark Harris’ biography of the prolific director’s life is filled with Hollywood history, on-set stories, and gossip

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Mark Harris has written two remarkable books, both about important moments in Hollywood history. The first, “Pictures at a Revolution,” dealt with the Oscar race of 1967 and how that year’s Best Picture nominees represented the past, present and future of the industry. Then there was 2014’s “Five Came Back,” about the A-list directors who left their careers behind to take part in WWII — and how their work changed upon their return.

Now, Harris has written almost 600 pages about one man only, and it may be the best biography of an artist in a very long time. That man is performer-turned-director Mike Nichols, the winner of one Oscar, two Emmys and eight Tony Awards. “In the last two books, I had the luxury of going back and forth between main characters,” said Harris, who titled his work “Mike Nichols: A Life.” “In this one, I had no one else to cut to.”

Well, unless you count all the people who were in Nichols’ orbit, including Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Avedon, Emma Thompson, Nora Ephron, Julia Roberts and countless others. And then there was Elaine May, with whom Nichols started improv-ing in Chicago in the late 1950s, a collaboration that led to best-selling albums and beloved Broadway performances. In Harris’ account, she comes off as the love of Nichols’ life.

Not in the romantic sense: Nichols had four wives, plus relationships with Gloria Steinem (“I almost killed myself for her”), Mia Farrow, Jacqueline Kennedy and others, and finally, newswoman Diane Sawyer — with whom he found joy for the last 25 years of his life. But May was the one he ultimately, and professionally, trusted most and leaned on whenever a project needed help.

Diane Sawyer with husband Mike Nichols (Photo: Getty)

Harris started his research four and a half years ago and conducted 250 interviews. “I could have spoken to 100 more people,” he said, “but I had to start writing.” Who didn’t talk to him? “There are always those who got away,” he says. In this case, Jack Nicholson, with whom Nichols did three films; Alan Arkin, (who starred in Nichols’ 1970 big-screen flop “Catch-22”) and Mandy Patinkin, whom he fired five days into production on 1986’s “Heartburn” (and replaced with Nicholson).

Diane Sawyer was not interviewed but gave Harris the all-important go-ahead. “I would not have done this without the consent of Diane and Mike’s three children,” he said. Harris said he was most grateful to Nichols’ first wife, Patricia Scot, for her candor. “She knew him before he was famous and as he was getting famous,” Harris said.

The book is filled with details about Nichols’ style of direction: He often had his male and female stars lie down together at some point, and read the entire script aloud. He regaled casts with countless stories from his own life to help them find their characters. There were the challenges directing drug addicts like Melanie Griffith and alcoholics like George C. Scott. “He directed Scott five times,” Harris said. “Why? He was considered the next Brando, and Mike was always attracted to real talent.”

There is high-end gossip aplenty (including two references to rumors of bisexuality), as well as who was snubbed, or who passed, on major film roles: Gene Hackman was fired from “The Graduate,” Debbie Reynolds wanted the part Shirley MacLaine got in “Postcards From the Edge” and Tom Hanks turned down “Primary Colors.” And the book is full of memorable lines said by — and to — Nichols over the years. (When Orson Welles left the set of “Catch-22” he warned the young and hot director about success: “Better late than early.”)

Nichols, the son of Jewish parents who escaped Nazi Germany at age 7, seemed to have lived a charmed life. But an allergic reaction to a whooping cough vaccine as a child cost him the ability to grow hair — including eyebrows. And Harris detailed the director’s many bouts of depression and occasional drug abuse. (“Self-loathing had never been far beneath his painstakingly composed surface,” he writes.) Nichols would show that side to close friends like author William Styron and his wife, Rose. “He came over once and said, ‘I’m done, will you take care of the children, I’ve lost it,'” Rose Styron told The Wrap. “But then he would recover.” Nichols constantly went back and forth between stage and screen and took the failures hard. When he made three big-screen bombs in a row, he wouldn’t direct another film for seven years.

He could be cruel at times. “You’re a good actor, but a bad man,” he told Walter Matthau, while staging “The Odd Couple.” He yelled at Garry Shandling, “Why don’t you come in prepared?” during his worst film experience, “What Planet Are You From?”

Tony Kushner and Mark Harris (Photo: Getty Images)

Is it a sympathetic portrayal? “I hope it’s an honest one,” Harris said. “He was a complex man and I didn’t leave anything out that would make him less so.”

Still, Nichols inspired almost unanimous praise — and loyalty — from those who knew and worked with him. “He was the most fun guy to dish with,” said writer-director Andrew Bergman, whose play “Social Security” Nichols directed on Broadway in 1986. “He was a total yenta, and also the smartest human I ever worked with.”

Judith Ivey, part of a star-studded cast in David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” — and the only one who won an award for the production — added, “I never worked with Mike again, but he came to see everything I was in.”

One of Nichols’ last, and greatest, achievements was the HBO film adaptation of “Angels in America,” based on the plays by Tony Kushner, who happens to be Harris’ husband. The couple work in separate locations at home in New York City but have a system for sharing their work with other. “I read each chapter aloud to Tony when I finish it,” Harris said. “He’s a great listener. He doesn’t edit, but he might say, “‘OK, I have three thoughts.’ He lets me read his plays when he has completed a draft.”

Harris’ reputation is stellar among those who have been interviewed by him. “Mark is an extraordinary researcher and storyteller,” said George Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute founder and an award-winning producer. “He discovered telling bits of World War II history in my father’s papers at the Motion Picture Academy that no one had previously found.”

Interestingly, one of Nichols’ close friends and occasional collaborators, playwright Tom Stoppard, is also the subject of a biography (by Hermione Lee) coming out this month in the U.S. (Both books share the same title: “A Life.”) “I can’t wait to read it,” said Harris, who has no idea what he will write next.

Michele Willens is a bicoastal journalist. She writes a weekly theater report -- Stage Right Or Not -- for an NPR affiliate.