Mike Nichols remembered

In 1996, director Mike Nichols tells Lesley Stahl what it takes to create iconic films like "The Graduate." Nichols died Wednesday at age 83

A special post by the producer of the 60 Minutes profile of Mike Nichols, Rome Hartman:

I remember being very nervous when we went to interview Mike Nichols. The crews were setting up, and I thought, "This man has made some of the greatest movies ever. He knows how to frame a shot and light a scene like none of us ever will. We'd better not screw this up." I'm sure the camera guys were thinking the same thing. When Mike arrived, he looked around, checked out the lighting and the settings and the backgrounds. And he did have some opinions about what we'd done, and a few thoughts on what we might want to change. But what was memorable was how generously and graciously he expressed his opinions. He wasn't trying to criticize, or take over ... he was trying to help us get it right. Very classy and kind.

The following is a script of "Mike Nichols" which aired on March 10, 1996. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent.

Has there ever been a show business career like his? After making his mark as a comedian, Mike Nichols took Broadway by storm, winning seven Tonys for directing, among others, "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple." Next, he tried his hand at movies, and again, it was one hit after another.

Mike Nichols: Movies are dreams, after all. You're sitting in the dark and you're looking at somebody's dream. And if it's your own dream, that's best of all.

In "The Graduate," Nichols didn't just make a movie. He made a cultural phenomenon, hailed as a masterpiece. And Nichols was hailed for precisely capturing the angst of an entire American generation.

Mike Nichols: Its jokes about sexual fumbling, about youth and about not knowing how you do everything yet, and where--as it were--where the noses go when you kiss.

Unknown actor Dustin Hoffman became a star. Nichols won an Oscar, and a lasting reputation as the director every actor wants to work with.

Mike Nichols: You know, when you have a scene where you're going to cry or be told that someone has died or get hysterical, nobody helps you. They don't say, 'All right, settle down, everybody.' Ju--they say, 'Come on. You, stand over there. Hold on. Wait a minute. Wait. Do something about her chin,' you know? 'Will you get it--look at that shadow. OK, action. Go. Cry.' They--nobody helps any of the actors, you know.

But Mike Nichols helps actors.

The very first movie he directed in 1965 was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for a role almost no one thought she was capable of playing.

Lesley Stahl: How did you get that performance out of Elizabeth Taylor?

Mike Nichols: Well, you know, she gave it. I don't do much. I loved her.

Lesley Stahl: I don't--if that were the only time that it...

Mike Nichols: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: ...ever happened, I'd believe you.

But it happened with Cher in "Silkwood." She'd never done anything like that before. Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl." Candice Bergen in "Carnal Knowledge."

Lesley Stahl: You have this whole list. So you must do something.

Mike Nichols: Well, I do something, but I don't know what it is, except I really like them. I like women. I like actresses a lot.

Lesley Stahl: Had you really done any important role before that one?

Candice Bergen: Ha! Certainly not.The important role was the one Mike Nichols gave Candice Bergen in "Carnal Knowledge."

Candice Bergen: Doing a scene with Artie Garfunkel in "Carnal Knowledge," he want--it was supposed to be a very awkward, ill-at-ease, uncomfortable scene. And--and we--I wasn't finding it, and he said to 'take off your skirt and do it in your slip.' So I stood there doing the scene with just my slip on. Well, it wasn't exactly risque, but it was enough to sort of throw me off base.

Lesley Stahl: Nichols' knack for getting actors to give their best in film after film made him one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. But he suffered from the Woody Allen disease: He just couldn't be happy.

After "The Graduate," you were the king of Hollywood.

Mike Nichols: For a minute, yes. Of course, I couldn't experience it. I was too young and weird to get any pleasure out of it or to feel anything. Where is it?

Lesley Stahl: Where's the joy?Mike Nichols: Where is it? Well, the answer is: It's not there. It can't be there. That part is for your mother. Your mother can experience it much better than you can.

Lesley Stahl: Anthony Trollope had a great quote: "Success is the necessary misfortune of life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early."

Mike Nichols: Oh, that's brilliant.

Lesley Stahl: You were too young to enjoy it.

Mike Nichols: I could not find it or taste it. Then--oh, then, "Catch-22," which was a big failure.

Lesley Stahl: And your first.

Mike Nichols: My first. It was my first failure. I liked it because I could experience it. It was mor--much more of an experience than all these successes. This, I understand. This is where I belong. This is quite comfortable.

Actors loved him, but Nichols also had a reputation as a prima donna on the set. And he had a difficult personal life off the set, with lots of women and lots of wives.

Mike Nichols: I feel like I've changed very much.

Lesley Stahl: In--from what to what?

Mike Nichols: I think I've changed from an unhappy man to a happy man, from a vindictive man to a r--nicer man. But most of all, I changed to a married man.

Married, for the last nine years, to journalist and 60 Minutes alum Diane Sawyer. He was married three times before. He has three children, and he has just become a grandfather.

Lesley Stahl: How old were you when you met Diane?

Mike Nichols: I was 53.

Lesley Stahl: Did you think that you were ever going to fall in love at 53?

Mike Nichols: Absolutely not. I was positive that it would never happen again.

Lesley Stahl: How did you meet?

Diane Sawyer: We met, given the probabilities of my life--guess--in an airport. And I had been traveling all night, and I had jet lag circles under my eyes and fried chicken stains down the front of my shirt.

Lesley Stahl: Sure, Diane.

Diane Sawyer: I did.

Lesley Stahl: Oh!

Diane Sawyer: I did. And I was going to get him, as you know, to do an interview on 60 Minutes. And after about 12 lunches, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the lunches weren't about a negotiation for an interview anymore. And so, we kept having lunch and forgot the interview.

Mike Nichols: True love made Pinocchio a real boy. That--we all sort of feel a little bit like we're contraptions, like we pasted ourselves together--a little bit from here, a little bit from there--and then, if you're very lucky, along comes someone who loves you the right way, and then you're real.

Lesley Stahl: She knew you and loved you.

Mike Nichols: Knew me and loved me. I thought, 'Oh, then I'm real.'

Diane Sawyer: Right away. It was, like, 'Oh!'

Lesley Stahl: Both sides? Both sides?

Diane Sawyer: I think so. 'We're there.'

Getting there meant a very long journey for Mike Nichols.

Lesley Stahl: You were born in Germany?

Mike Nichols: I was.

Lesley Stahl: What was your name? Was it Michael?

Mike Nichols: It was Michael. It was Michael Igor Peschowsky, and my father was a doctor, and he was Russian. And when we came to this country, he said that by the time he spelled his name, the patient was in the hospital, so he changed it.

Michael Igor Peschowsky was just seven years old when he fled Hitler's Germany.

Lesley Stahl: Do you remember it? Do you remember it as a painful time?

Mike Nichols: Not painful. You know, kids accept anything.

Lesley Stahl: Yeah.

Mike Nichols: I remember having some kids in black uniforms take my bike away. I remember going to a special school for Jews. I must have noticed a lot, because when we landed here, right on the docks in New York, and there's a deli with a neon sign with--with the Hebrew letters, and I said to my father, 'Is that allowed?' So I knew something.

Lesley Stahl: What snapshots did you see, do you think, that--that said to you, 'Ah, this is America'?

Mike Nichols: I remember my brother and me getting all excited about Coca-Cola, Rice Krispies and things that fizzed and popped and crackled and--and seemed alive; and gum. I remember my father gave me the first--my first Chiclets, which I sucked and then swallowed, because I didn't know... you were supposed to chew it.

Nichols was only 12 when his father died, leaving the family destitute, and Mike was picked on and bullied by other kids.

Lesley Stahl: I read a story about you, about a kid who held your head underwater for a long time.Mike Nichols: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: And then?

Mike Nichols: Eddie Pompidor.

Lesley Stahl: You remem--of course, you remember his name.

Mike Nichols: Oh, I remember Eddie Pompidor.

Nichols couldn't forget Eddie Pompidor, even after he'd become famous.

Mike Nichols: I remember somebody tapping me on the shoulder, and, just with my peripheral vision, I saw him. I hadn't even turned around yet. And he said, 'You don't remember me, but'--and I said, 'Oh, I remember you very well. You're Eddie Pompidor. And you were a son of a bitch.' And he looked sort of surprised. And I said, 'What are you doing now?' He said, 'I'm selling used cars.' And I said, 'I'm really glad.'

That wicked sense of humor is really what's at the core of Mike Nichols. Go back 40 years, and you can see it when he teamed up to do comedy with Elaine May.

Nichols and May were comedy pioneers, improvising sketches on the spot in front of an audience.Their Broadway show was sold out every night for a year.

They first met at the University of Chicago.

Mike Nichols: She was on a bench. I said, 'May I sit down?'She said, 'If you wish.' And we got into this sort of spy improvisation. It was--our first conversation was a gag.

Lesley Stahl: Your first conversation was from--from...

Mike Nichols: First time we ever spoke...

Lesley Stahl: ...hello.

Mike Nichols: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: You're doing shtick.

Mike Nichols: Yes. First time.

Lesley Stahl: Was it an instant click?

Mike Nichols: Yeah, instant click.

Lesley Stahl: Was it romantic?

Mike Nichols: F--briefly.

Lesley Stahl: Briefly.

Mike Nichols: Well, we--it w--yes. I was sort of obsessed with her.

Mike Nichols: It was Elaine. She was like no girl I ever met. She was amazing.

They were amazing together, able to understand and make fun of America. Their sketches were daring for the time. Like the one about two hormone-driven teenagers in the backseat of a car.

Mike Nichols says to this day, Elaine May has had more influence over his career than anyone else.

Diane Sawyer: You know when I--when we first were going to get married, I had a relative who called everybody we knew and said, 'Did you hear Diane is marrying Mike Nichols and Elaine May?' And I thought, 'I should be so lucky,' I mean...

Lesley Stahl: Explain that rela--do you understand the relationship?

Diane Sawyer: It's beyond understanding, but it's sort of like great jazz players. They don't talk. It's a riff.

Diane Sawyer: And they're not just improvising words, they're improvising some music that they hear.But in 1961, in the midst of a smash run on Broadway, Nichols and May split up.

Mike Nichols: Yeah. We were sold out when we quit, which is fairly unusual, but Elaine had enough. And I--I now think it was partly because I pushed her around and kept telling her what to do. I think I bugged her, and it turns out what I was really trying to do was direct her.

He was terrified at the thought of working without Elaine, but discovered that he was good at what he'd been trying to do with her: Be a director. He had found his calling...and his fortune.

Lesley Stahl: I heard that you made something like half a million dollars a year in the early '60s.

Mike Nichols: I don't--I don't remember things like that, but we made a lot of money.

Lesley Stahl: That is like 5 million dollars a year today.

Mike Nichols: It is.

Lesley Stahl: I mean, this is Diane Sawyer money we're talking.

Mike Nichols: Big bucks.

Lesley Stahl: Big bucks. You were--you were Imelda Marcos. You--you w--you had horses, you had houses, you had cars.

Mike Nichols: But worst of all, the most humiliating part, I had a Rolls Royce for a while when I was in Hollywood. I was a real schmuck.

Lesley Stahl: Do you think you were a little bit like Scarlett--'I will never be hungry again'? I mean, d--because you had been poor.

Mike Nichols: I suppose. I--I--I didn't think of Scarlett, I'm happy to say, but...

Well, whatever he was thinking then, Mike Nichols is more settled today. And one reason is that, 35 years after they split, he and Elaine May have revived their comedy partnership. She wrote his new movie, "The Birdcage."

Mike Nichols: It was, again, like discovering directing. The second we sat down to work on it, we both thought, 'Hey, what have we been doing all this time?' You know, we're...

Lesley Stahl: Why haven't we been together all this time?

Mike Nichols: Why haven't we been together? Why haven't we done this together? Because we're more together than apart. And it was--it was pure joy.

And a very funny story, in which a gay nightclub owner, Robin Williams, tries to teach Nathan Lane how to act straight. People are saying it's the funniest movie Nichols or May ever made. Mike Nichols says he and Elaine May have already decided on their next project, and the next one after that.

Mike Nichols: (On set) Cut.

Lesley Stahl: You've got your next movies lined up liked the planes at La Guardia?

Mike Nichols: I have the next four or five, yeah.

Lesley Stahl: You do? How old are you? You're six...

Mike Nichols: I'm 64.

Lesley Stahl: You're 64 years old.

Mike Nichols: Mm-hmm.Lesley Stahl: And you've got your next four or five movies lined up, ready...

Mike Nichols: Mm-hmm.

Lesley Stahl: ...planned out. You're acting like it's the beginning of your career.

Mike Nichols: I feel like it. I don't know why. You know, there's that guy who screams every time he looks in the mirror because he's forgotten--over and over he's forgotten he's 60-something or 50-something, and looks in the mirror and screams, because he thought he was in his 20s. I am that guy.