Mike Nichols (1931-2014) was an Oscar- and Tony-winning filmmaker and stage director heralded for his collaborations with some of the leading actors of our time, in such classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Silkwood” and, on Broadway, “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” and “The Real Thing.”
In this excerpt from his new biography, “Mike Nichols: A Life” (Penguin Press), author Mark Harris writes about the director’s search for the perfect actor to star in his groundbreaking 1967 film, “The Graduate.”
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It came down to a screen test, one that dragged through an entire day in such slow-motion embarrassment and humiliation that after every take, Nichols looked at Hoffman and thought, I can’t do it. This will never work. Without knowing why, he had gradually been moving away from the notion that Benjamin and his parents should be what Buck Henry called “the Surfboards” – tall, lean, hard, blond, all-American. Originally, “Mike and I never thought that a short, dark guy with a big nose” should be the lead of “The Graduate,” Henry said. “Sand in the genes, the roar of the ocean. Robert Redford and Candice Bergen, the ideal couple – that’s what we were thinking.” Redford wanted the part badly, and he and Bergen tested together. “It certainly would have been a different way to go,” she says, laughing. Afterward, Redford went over to Nichols’s rented house in Beverly Hills and got the bad news over a game of pool. “You can’t play a loser,” Nichols said. “Look at you. How many times have you struck out with a woman?”
“And he said, I swear to you, ‘What do you mean?'” said Nichols. “He didn’t even understand the concept. That’s how I learned Benjamin can’t be a winner.” Nichols also tested Tony Bill, a handsome, dark-haired actor who was known as a Warren-Beatty’s-younger-brother type, and Charles Grodin, whose quiet, deadpan style felt close to what he wanted. And he considered Alan Alda, but Alda was thirty-one and looked it. Nichols had already cast Anne Bancroft, who, at thirty-six, was a decade too young for Mrs. Robinson; he and Dick Sylbert, who would again serve as his production designer, were planning to put a gray streak in her hair and use makeup to create the leathery tan of a middle-aged woman whose empty days left her with too much time to lounge by the pool. But Benjamin needed to look credibly postcollegiate, and Hoffman came close enough that Nichols thought he was worth flying out to Los Angeles and testing with Katharine Ross, a young actress with a few years of television experience who reminded him of his first wife.
“I didn’t want to read for it,” Hoffman says. “I reacted against it: I was right, Nichols was wrong, I was not in any way right for that part. I thought, Are these people having a breakdown?” Things were going well for Hoffman in New York; after years of striving, he was landing steady work off-Broadway. “I’m not going to screw it up by making a Hollywood movie and being miscast,” he recalls thinking. “I said, ‘This character’s so WASPish.’ And Mike said, ‘Maybe he’s Jewish inside.'”
A few days later, Hoffman found himself in a makeup chair, being blended and daubed and cleansed and trimmed while Nichols peered at him as if he were an art project, and said, “What can we do about his nose? What can we do about his eyebrows?” Hoffman was so nervous, he started to perspire before he walked onto the soundstage, which was empty except for a bed on which he and Ross were to do a ten-page scene that he had barely memorized. “I couldn’t get through it,” he says. “I remember at one point patting [Ross] on the back and saying, ‘Come on,’ and giving her a gentle little pinch on the tush. And she went, ‘Don’t you ever do that.'” At the end of the day, Hoffman reached into his pocket and a handful of coins flew out. A stagehand retrieved a subway token from the floor and said, “You’ll need this.” It is safe to say that no one involved thought they would see him again.
Not until the next afternoon, when Nichols watched the screen test on film, did he know he had found Benjamin. “He had this thing I’d only seen in Elizabeth Taylor, and that I’d certainly not seen in any of the other tests,” Nichols said. “That secret. That deal with Technicolor where you do nothing and it turns out you were doing everything. He was compelling and hilarious and impassive. It was startling. That’s what a great movie actor does. They don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know how they do it, but the difference is shocking.”
Hoffman flew home to New York, waited a few days in the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Anne Byrne, and then, on a Sunday morning, called Nichols. “He said, ‘Well,’ pause, ‘you got it,'” says Hoffman. “I didn’t say Maybe ‘Oh,’ or ‘Thank you.’ There was another pause, and he said, ‘You don’t seem very excited.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, yeah, thanks.’ All I knew is that I was working with the greatest director around, and that he was about to make the biggest mistake. I hung up, and I looked at my girlfriend and I said, ‘I got it.’ There was this terrible sad moment. And she said, ‘I knew you would.’ It was heavy. Laden with potential regret that that was going to break us up.”
In everything he had directed until “The Graduate,” Nichols had succeeded on the basis of his ability to create a warm, director-as-nurturing-papa gestalt with his actors, an approach that inspired them to do their best work for him. The success of “Virginia Woolf” had hinged on his decision to form an us-against-the-world bond with his cast of four, taking their hands and promising to lead them safely into unknown territory. But as production of “The Graduate” neared, Nichols retreated into himself. On this film, there was no studio to strong-arm him; unlike Warner Bros., Embassy was merely a distribution company without design, sound, or music departments, and Joe Levine was a proudly crass financier and salesman who would have nothing to say until he watched the first cut, at which point he offered Nichols his highest praise: “I smell money.” Free to make his own choices, Nichols brought aboard the two “Virginia Woolf” alums he trusted completely – Sylbert and Sam O’Steen. They, along with Buck Henry and the crusty cinematographer Robert Surtees, would collectively serve as a kind of cabinet for Nichols. But more often, he kept his own counsel. During preproduction, he spent mornings alone in his house, mapping out shots, annotating each line of the script, and listening over and over to “Sounds of Silence,” the Simon & Garfunkel album that his brother, Robert, now a doctor, had sent him, until one day he came in and told his team he had found the music for the movie.
From “Mike Nichols: A Life” by Mark Harris. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Mark Harris, 2021.
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