Mike Nichols – A roundabout, reductive story that says it all.

November 20, 2014 — Leave a comment

Mike Nichols (1931-2014) on the set of CATCH 22

There’s an indirect and reductive story about Mike Nichols in Frank Langella’s wonderful book, Dropped Names, that speaks to all the things that have been said and will be said about the supremely talented, prolific and enduring Nichols. The story – as told by Langella — is about a conversation he had with Stella Adler. Ms. Adler was attempting to illustrate for Langella the wisdom and insight of the brilliant author and critic, Harold Clurman, by relating something Clurman had said about Nichols many years ago. This must have happened in the late 1960s.

Ms. Adler said to Clurman, “Harold isn’t it remarkable how successful Mike Nichols has become?” Clurman replied, “He is not a success.” Adler was stunned and suspected Clurman might even be a little jealous so she protested, listing Nichols’s resume — Barefoot in the Park, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, The Graduate — and citing his Tony awards and Oscars. Clurman stood firm, “He’s not a success.” Adler pressed, “Why not?” “Because,” Clurman said, “he hasn’t had a failure yet.”

With apologies to Mr. Langella and his publisher for lifting this story, here’s the capper in Langella’s own words:

When I (Langella) told Mike that story recently, shortly after his eightieth birthday, he ruminated for a moment, then said, “Absolutely correct.”

I love the Adler/Clurman story. But I really love Nichols’s affirmation that Clurman was right in his assessment that it takes a few failures for someone to become successful. This idea speaks to the importance of the long view of life. Taking the long view, reserving judgement until the story is done, is a theme that Nichols wove into 2007’s CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) in the prescient “we’ll see”-scene between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Hanks at the conclusion of the film. Well, we have the long view of Nichols’s career now and I think it’s safe to say that Nichols was a success in every professional category in which he worked.

Nichols had great taste and versatility, he had a great eye for talent and an refined ear for words and music. He was a boy genius who defied the odds that tragic death, career burnout, or artistic irrelevance would end up in the first paragraph of his obituary. He aged beautifully into an elder statesman who never seemed to abandon the scrappy work-ethic of his Eastern European immigrant roots. Alas, the obituaries and eulogies are now being written and read across the world. Thankfully, this time, they are for an artist for whom we do not have to wonder what might have been. We can be sad, we can grieve — but in Nichols’s case we do not speak of unfulfilled potential or unrealized dreams. We celebrate and cherish the fullness of his life’s work – even as his family and friends celebrate the fullness of his life.

If Harold Clurman were alive today I have no doubt he’d be writing that Mike Nichols was an undisputed, well deserved success.


Frank Rich wrote a personal remembrance of Nichols that was posted on Vulture today. I think you’ll be glad you took the time to read it.



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