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November 9 2019
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Mike Nichols, photographed by his friend Richard Avedon, 1978.

ROBBIE LANTZ (agent): Saint [Subber, the producer] called and said, “I have a play by Neil Simon,” who had only written Come Blow Your Horn. He said, “Help me find a director. There are no comedy directors.” I read the play, which was called Nobody Loves Me. I believe to this day, Doc [Simon] starts all his plays calling them Nobody Loves Me. I read the play, and I said, “I think you should talk to Mike Nichols.” I said, “I think that would pull Mike back to life.”

My best recollection is he did read it. How quickly, I can’t remember. And then he said, “Yes, this is funny. I could do that, I guess. If I can direct at all.” And I said, “Well, you should go and direct somewhere. I’ll set it up for you. Go to Canada, do two plays. The important thing is you must pick plays you can’t trifle with.” He did Saint Joan and, I think, a Wilde. Every night at midnight he called and said, “Get me out of this. I don’t want to do this.” I said, “This is precisely what the doctor ordered.” He hated me, I think. But he did stick it out. And of course he realized all the practicalities because he’s so quick—what the problems are, and so on. I did not get the courage to go see those productions.

Nichols and Neil Simon during a rehearsal of The Odd Couple at the Plymouth Theatre in New York City, 1965. The show was an instant hit.

ELIZABETH ASHLEY (actress): I’d gotten a call from an agency: “I’m sending over this play. It’s an idea of a play. Ten pages are written. It’s by this television guy, Neil Simon.” He’d written for Sid Caesar, and he had one play, which was Come Blow Your Horn, which ran for a little while. “If you like it, he will write it for you, and Saint Subber will put the money into developing it.” I read it in the taxi going downtown to meet Doc Simon—he was Doc Simon then—at Saint Subber’s very grand house on the East Side. I liked it. I thought it was funny. Then Doc went out and wrote a draft of the whole play.

They were talking about who would play Paul and they said there was this actor who had just been in The Pleasure of His Company named George Peppard, who I didn’t know from Adam. I remember Doc said, “Yeah, but is he funny?” Saint said, “Well, that play was a big hit.” I said, “Well, what about my buddy Bob?,” meaning Bob Redford. Redford and I had the same agent. We made our Broadway debut together in a 1958 play by Dore Schary called The Highest Tree. Simon, I don’t think he knew who Redford was at the time, but he said, “Well, that’s interesting.”

Then they talked about directors. There were the Joe Anthonys and the covey of guys who directed hit Broadway comedies. Saint is the one who said, “Well, I want to put another idea out there. Mike Nichols wants to direct.” Now, Mike had not directed anything. Nobody was a bigger Nichols and May fan than me, because I’d seen their show onstage, and also on television and everything. That was the smartest, funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I didn’t know if he could direct traffic, but I didn’t care.

ROBERT REDFORD (actor): I had done some theater, but I was doing mostly television in California, and I was getting tired of it. For some reason, I had done an episode of a show called Breaking Point where I played kind of a psychopath, and Mike liked it and requested that we meet in New York, which I thought was kind of odd. This is a comedy. Why does he want to talk to me?

So I went in and met with him, and what I encountered was a guy who was beyond smart and extremely witty. But he had one other quality that was rather rare: He was psychologically astute. He could cut down into the heart of things.

NEIL SIMON (playwright): We sent Mike Barefoot in the Park, and he called or wrote back and said, “Love it, I want to do the play.” It wasn’t my idea, it was Saint Subber, the producer. I said, “But Mike’s a comic, he’s not a director.”

Judy Garland with Barefoot in the Park co-stars Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, 1963.

When I met him and sat with him in Saint Subber’s office on 63rd or 64th, right off Park, within 10 minutes I said, “He’s perfect,” because the intelligence came out. He pinpointed things within the script that I questioned myself even while I was writing it. I’ve never worked with anyone in my life nor will I ever work with anyone in my life as good as Mike Nichols.

The first day of rehearsal, we went to Saint Subber’s house, and Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, Kurt Kasznar, and Mildred Natwick came and sat around a table and read the play for me so I could know what to rewrite. I was so used to having actors at a reading laughing at the material, if it’s a comedy, because they’re hearing it for the first time, too. But there was not one laugh at the table. I’m saying, “Oh my God, this is deadly, just deadly.” I asked Saint Subber to cancel the play. It was just a horror.

“I’ve never worked with anyone in my life nor will I ever work with anyone in my life as good as Mike Nichols,” said Neil Simon.

Mike says, “Relax, Neil. It’s going to be all right.” I said, “Why? Nobody laughed.” He says, “They’re too worried about themselves. Robert Redford doesn’t want to do anything that looks like he’s trying to get a laugh.” I said, “O.K.”

It’s the only time I ever didn’t sit in the rehearsal room. I stood out in the hall, waiting, and suddenly I heard a roar inside. I said, Thank God, they must be up to a really good part. I went inside, and it was Mike telling them a story during the break. Then we went back to the play: no more laughs.

He told the cast, “We’re doing King Lear. You don’t act it funny, you do it real.” He said, “If we trust the play, the audience will come along with us.” Mike always looked for the reality.

So we got into Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and we did a dress rehearsal in front of the ushers. They just stood there gaping, and about two hours after that we were going to do the first performance. I’m saying, “This is deadly, Mike,” and he’s saying, “Let’s wait and see what happens.” I mean, the calmness was extraordinary. He may have been having as much nerves as I was, except I was the one complaining about it.

ELIZABETH ASHLEY: One of the biggest regrets of my professional life was, by that time, I’d done The Carpetbaggers and gotten involved with George Peppard. I had him in one ear saying, “Mike is giving the play to Redford.” At one point, my insecurity just got so huge that I remember just breaking down and crying to Mike in a rehearsal break. I said, “I don’t know who to be. I don’t know this character. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Mike said, “Well, it’s something that you’ve never been allowed to play before. Everything you’ve played, you’ve been something extreme. This time, you’re a girl that’s madly in love with this guy that you’ve just gotten married to, and you’ve found this place to live, and every dream of yours has come true. But you’re just a girl.”

He said, “Do you know why Doc wrote this play for you?” I said, “I have no idea.” Mike said, “It’s because you’re so pretty, and pretty girls have never been funny.” So he did two things. He gave me the kind of compliment that when you’re that young and stupid gives you confidence, and he made it O.K. that I was coming apart at the seams.

Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park, 1963. Midway through rehearsal, Redford nearly quit acting altogether.

ROBERT REDFORD: After the tryout in Bucks County, I hit a dark zone in my life, where I wasn’t sure that I wanted to act anymore. But I had to, because it was contractual, so I tried to get myself removed from the play. I would lie down, and I wouldn’t perform.

Mike saw that I was in a dark place, and I think probably some part of him could relate to that. He started to work on me, and it became a contest. The more I tried, the harder he kept me in. I said, “I’m telling you, I’m not good. I shouldn’t be in this.” But he wouldn’t listen to me. We went to New Haven for a tryout, and I just performed horribly, and the reviews were terrible for me. They said the rest of the cast was good, and if it wasn’t for this guy, this would really be a good play. Mike took me for a series of meetings in the afternoon. He was trying to work me, and I decided, O.K., I’m going to battle him. I would go on the next night and be even worse. But still he kept me in.

Finally, he said to me, “Listen: You want to lie down, you can lie down. I’m not going to fire you. On opening night, you can lie down on the floor. I don’t care. But let me tell you something. You seem to be somebody who carries something secret within you. Some part of you wants to hold something back for yourself.” I’d never heard that before. I had not been in psychoanalysis, so I didn’t know what to make of that. And he then said, “Look, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you use that, carry a secret knowledge of some kind and use that so it creates a kind of mystery?” I got really intrigued with that.

“I tried to get myself removed from the play,” said Robert Redford. “I would lie down, and I wouldn’t perform.”

So that next night I came on the stage and I just whistled. Of course, it drove the rest of the cast crazy, because I wasn’t saying my lines. What I was saying was, I’m carrying a secret. And then, suddenly, something broke, and I just came alive. I had the chance to try to sabotage this, but I wasn’t allowed to, and then finally I accepted the fact that this is what I should do, and, therefore, I’m going to really do it. From that point on we went forward, and I had the best relationship I could ever have with any director, because of how he handled me. It was so psychologically astute.

There was some darkness there, way down deep, where he had witnessed some pain in his life. You didn’t know what that was necessarily, but he had experienced something that left him in a much deeper, darker place. But he overcame it with comedy. He incorporated that darkness into his comedy.

Odd Couple Art Carney and Walter Matthau assist Nichols in sweeping supermodel Veruschka off her feet.

ELIZABETH ASHLEY: Mike and Redford, I can’t think in my entire career of a more perfect marriage between director and actor.

My regret was that George got in my ear. I never stopped trusting Mike, but I was convinced Mike didn’t really like me, that I wasn’t the good one in the play, that Redford was the genius. I was convinced after a while that Redford didn’t like me much, either. I never did anything bad to Bob. I always just felt inferior to him.

ROBBIE LANTZ: I went to see the first performance, I think alone. My wife was too afraid. I came back at four in the morning, and I said, “The era of George Abbott is over”—of that kind of caricature comedy. It was real, it was human, it was affectionate. He had enormous affection for every character in that play.

NEIL SIMON: While we were still doing Barefoot—I think we were still in rehearsal—we were walking along the street, and I said, “I have another idea for a play, Mike.” And he says, “What is it?” I say, “Well, it’s these two guys who break up with their spouses, and they move in together and they have the same fights with each other as they had with their spouses.” And he said, “I’ll do it.” That was it. I said, “Really?” He said, “It can’t miss.” He trusted me that I was going to write it right, and he promised me to do it, and he did, and bang.

All quotations from Robbie Lantz and Neil Simon are courtesy of the John Lahr collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University.

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