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Who’s Afraid of Mike Nichols?

Published: November 20, 2014

Mike Nichols with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Mike Nichols with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1965. From The Saturday Evening Post, October 9th, 1965

His name would be familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1960s. Mike Nichols was the hip, laid-back comedian with a martini-dry delivery frequently seen on TV with his co-comedian, Elaine May. (The duo picked up a Grammy for Best Comedy Performance in 1961.) In 1966, though, he steered his career in an entirely new direction when he directed the screen version of Edward Albee’s grueling Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

The riveting film fed viewers through an emotional wringer and was nominated for 13 Academy awards, including Best Director. Nichols followed up his success by directing Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate the following year — this time taking home the Oscar for his direction, before moving on to other films, television dramas (winning four Emmys), and Broadway productions (scooping up eight Tonys).

In “All for the Love of Mike” (The Saturday Evening Post, October 9, 1965), author C. Robert Jennings interviews the two leads — Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were married at the time — of Nichols’ Hollywood directorial debut and its director on the closed set at Warner Brothers Studio.

The relationship of the trio is almost inordinately warm. “Mike’s a very disturbing man,” says Burton. “You cannot charm him — he sees right through you. He’s among the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, and I’ve known most of them. I dislike him intensely — he’s cleverer than I am. But, alas, I tolerate him.”

And with unabashed sentiment, Liz adds: “I adore Mike, and I could talk about him for hours.”

Miss Taylor calls Nichols “Chicken Fat.” He calls her “Betty,” and he breaks her up — as when he mimicked a classic directorial banality (“Let’s have a nice little scene now with lots of feeling”) by announcing prior to the shooting of a scene: “Let’s have a nice little scene with no feeling.”

Once when Mike forgot to give his players their cue. Liz said, “I can’t act until you say ‘action.’”

“A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ac-ac-ac-action!” Mike stuttered insanely, shattering Miss Taylor’s professional calm.

Similarly, when Liz fell off a fire-engine-red bicycle, which she rides between the set and her dressing room, Mike carried the bruised star back to work in his arms. “You have to carry me every day,” said Miss Taylor, who was encouraged to put on extra pounds for her part. “I’ll have to get into training,” returned Mike recklessly.

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  • Thank you Jeff, for your article above, and making the wonderful 1965 POST article available so easily. Mr. Nichols made thought provoking, spellbinding films for intelligent people who find the story and the actor’s ability to convey the character being portrayed with no gimmicks; no crutches in the form of near constant pyrotechnics, gunfire, and all the other garbage justified in virtually every film now when everything is centered around “a race against time” with the “actors” strictly there as gimmicks themselves only to serve as a foray into the next done-for-the-billionth-time scene.

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is particularly spellbinding in every nuance and sequence; with even the most subtle facial expressions being very important. You also have to be able to listen and comprehend the brilliant writing and acting. Not for the least intelligent at all, as sadly most films are today.

    I remember the great interview the one-and-only Lesley Stahl did on Mike Nichols in 1996, and in fact just watched it again today. In some ways it was kind of a sequel to the 1965 POST feature, leaving Mike Nichols as the common denominator between the POST and ’60 Minutes’.