Authors: Mark Harris
When Arthur Jacobs showed up with his proposal for
, Fox was in the market for a road-show movie. The studio already had
The Sound of Music
in the works, but its release was still a year away, and Dick Zanuck knew he had to start thinking about another hard-ticket spectacular that could follow it, maybe in 1966. Zanuck liked the idea for
, he knew that Jacobs, with whom he had worked on
What a Way to Go!
, could deliver a movie, and he felt comfortable with the proposed budget: Although $6 million wasn't cheap, it was a long way from
On March 9, 1964, Jacobs met with him in Los Angeles, then flew to New York, where the following week he met with Darryl Zanuck at the St. Regis Hotel and finalized a deal for 20th Century-Fox to make the film.
Jacobs and the studio began to hammer out some early financial details: Alan Jay Lerner would, as the writer and co-producer, earn $350,000, the first $100,000 of which would come when he turned in a treatment; Rex Harrison would receive $300,000 (a 50 percent increase from
My Fair Lady
); Jacobs himself would take $100,000, plus $50,000 in overhead to set up shop for himself on the Fox lot. Since Lerner's longtime partner, Frederick Loewe, had decided to retire, an additional $50,000 to $100,000 was earmarked for a composer.
By May, Jacobs had found one: AndrÃ© Previn, who had written scores (and occasionally songs) for two dozen movies, agreed to compose and supervise
's music for $75,000.
On May 1, just two weeks before his six-month window of opportunity to make a deal was due to close, Jacobs nailed down an agreement with the Lofting estate. He now owned the exclusive movie rights to the Dolittle books, and Lofting's widow, Josephine, was to receive 10 percent of net profits from the film.
Fox's publicity department started drafting press releases immediately, trumpeting the involvement of Lerner, Harrison, and Vincente Minnelli and announcing that
is planned for world-wide release for Christmas 1966!âHollywood's Christmas present to the world! We visualize
as a classic international musical film which will be re-released in an orderly pattern every several years for many a year.”
Jacobs had only one thing to worry about: As the
deal was closing, one of the key members of his team was suddenly becoming a lot more famous. In May 1964, Alan Jay Lerner was making front-page tabloid news in New York City. The prospective writer of 1966's biggest fun-for-the-whole-family musical and his fourth wife, Micheline Muselli Pozzo diBorgo, were beginning a very public divorce battle that was about to provide local journalists with a year's supply of raw meat. He hired Louis Nizer. She hired Roy Cohn.
On the 20th Century-Fox lot, Jacobs settled in for preproduction. He had an office painted for Lerner and a parking space reserved for him.
He wondered when he would get a call or a cable from Lerner and hear his co-producer say he was ready to begin work on the script for
The call never came.
hen Mike Nichols sat down and started to read the copy of
he had received from Larry Turman, his first thought was that the story was “totally unoriginal.”
His second thought was that he was going to make it into a movie.
Nichols didn't know who Turman was, only that a producer had sent the book to his agent, Robert Lantz, and asked him to forward it. He had never heard of the novel. He had never directed a movie; in fact, only recently had he started thinking of himself as a director at all. Twelve months earlier, he had been an improvisatory comedian facing the demise of the creative partnership that had made him famous and utter bewilderment about his next professional move. Now, he had become, for the second time in four years, one of the hottest commodities in New York.
Nichols's first round of celebrity came in October 1960, when he was twenty-eight and his show
An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May
, directed by Arthur Penn, opened on Broadway. Nichols and May had met when he was a student at the University of Chicago. They started performing together with the Compass Players (which later evolved into Second City) in the mid-1950s. Though their backgrounds were dissimilar, the armature they had acquired along the way was oddly complementary. Nichols, born Michael Igor Peschkowsky, was an immigrant, the sickly child of a German mother and a Russian Jewish father who had escaped Europe just before World War II; he had arrived in the United States at the age of seven and been educated in New York private schools and raised in a European intellectual tradition.
May was born in Philadelphia to a family of Yiddish theater performer-directors; they moved to Los Angeles when she was young, and by the time she was nineteen, she was the divorced mother of a two-year-old girl. Both Nichols and May were outsiders who had endured stormy childhoods by sealing themselves behind walls of wit. Both had the ability to stand just far enough apart from the culture around them to observe it with the ruthless detachment of great comedians, and both had an astonishing gift for improvisation; May could lampoon, on the spur of the moment, the stylistic tics and affectations of writers she had never actually read,
and Nichols, who had read all of them, knew just how deeply he could tap his own intelligence without scaring the audience away.
Nichols and May's partnership took them to New York City, where they began to gain a reputation with performances at the Village Vanguard and other clubs, television appearances, and
Improvisations to Music
, a 1959 comedy album of two-character vignettes spoofing everything from cold war spy thrillers to
(relocated to a dentist's chair). Nichols's talent for rooting out what he called “the secrets under the linesâthe secrets that aren't in the lines,”
and the almost flirtatious energy with which he and May could lob the ball back and forth, each raising the other's game repeatedly in the space of a four-minute routine, made them media favorites, and the cult began to grow. Their move to Broadway, at a time when Broadway success meant feature stories in
and exposure on
The Ed Sullivan Show
, was a smash, and the ease with which many of the show's language-rich routines translated to a hit LP helped make Nichols and May into nationally known stars. For its entire 306-performance run,
An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May
wasn't just a hot ticket; it was a showbiz magnet, attracting luminaries not just in New York City, but from Los Angeles, as studio chiefs and producers regularly made excursions eastward to scout new talent, and from London, where new directors, young actors, and pop singers were just beginning to assert their claim on America's attention. By the time the show closed in July 1961, the list of celebrities who had knocked at the stage door and paid their respects was staggering. Everyone wanted to know Mike Nichols.
Even when they were on Broadway, hunting for the laugh and then for the twist that would lead to the bigger laugh, Nichols and May had their share of rough nights and clashes; during one performance, they hit and scratched each other onstage as the audience, caught off guard, wondered nervously whether they were in character.
They were and they weren't. “We were both seductive and hostile people,” Nichols said later, “and we were both very much on the defensive.”
Perhaps inevitably, given the pressure to follow success with more success and the tension of working in so airlessly interdependent a dyad, their partnership took only a little more than a year to rupture after the show closed. Their rift, which Nichols called “cataclysmic,”
came soon after his agreement to take the lead role in May's play
A Matter of Position
in Philadelphia. The two fought furiously, and the transformation of their working relationship from that of collaborative performer-writers to one in which May did all the writing and directing and Nichols did all the performing was more than either could take. Nichols enjoyed being directed by Arthur Penn, but not by May. He quit, the show closed out of town, and although the two would eventually mend their relationship and work together again several times, Nichols was now on his own.
It was a producer named Arnold Saint-Subber who nudged him toward directing,
Nobody Loves Me
, a comic play about young newlyweds by Neil Simon that nobody, including Simon, thought was working particularly well. Nichols agreed to direct the play in summer stock. “In the first fifteen minutes of the first day's rehearsal I understood that this was my job, this was what I was preparing to do without knowing it,” he said.
Nichols discovered within himself a natural talent for drawing good work out of actors and for guiding playwrights through rewrites without making them feel threatened or trampled. He also found, to his own surprise, a kind of emotional comfort in being at the center of the action. “I think people try to become famous because they think: If you can get the world to revolve around you, you won't die,” he remarked to a reporter.
The comment typified the way Nichols handled himself with a press corps that was insatiably curious about his life with and without Elaine Mayâit was fast, funny, and so offhand that nobody could be certain whether it was self-revelation or just a good line.
Neil Simon, who didn't believe
Nobody Loves Me
was funny until he heard the audience laughing, came away flabbergasted by what Nichols brought to the table. His play, retitled
Barefoot in the Park
, opened in New York on October 23, 1963, to rave reviews that launched the careers of its two young stars, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, turned Simon into a brand-name playwright, and almost instantly made Nichols the comedy director at the top of every playwright's and actor's lists.
Larry Turman had been impressed by Nichols's work on
Barefoot in the Park
, which would shortly win him his first Tony Award. But when Turman sent him
and asked him to consider directing it, “I was really responding to the funny nervousness of his performances with Elaine MayâI felt some connection there. When you read
, you feel the way I felt watching him: You laugh, but you're nervous.”
Nichols laughed when he read
and wasn't nervous at all. He had loved
The Catcher in the Rye
and he saw Holden Caulfield's literary descendant, slightly more grown-up but still utterly baffled, in the pages of Webb's story. “I thought it was a good, old gag,” he says. “Kid, older ladyâthat's how everybody got started back then. It was a good subject. And I thought, I know how to do this.”
A few nights after he got the book, Nichols told Turman he was interested. The project and Nichols's involvement were announced in
The New York Times
on March 15. Soon after, the two men had lunch at the Plaza Hotel with William Hanley, who had completed a draft of the screenplay for
, been paid his $500, and was now moving on to considerably more lucrative work on action films. “I thought the book was terrific,” says Hanley. “Charles Webb's dialogue couldn't be improved onâit was pointless to try. All the script needed was structure.” At the lunch, Nichols expressed his desire for changes in a new draft. “I didn't want to make them,” says Hanley. “I just knew it wasn't going to work with us, and I said to Larry Turman, âI'm gonna back outâyou need Mike Nichols more than you need me.'”
With Hanley gone, Turman needed a new screenwriter who would be willing to take Nichols's notes, but Nichols was in no rush to find one. He was flooded with offers to direct plays; moreover, he told Turman,
would have to be his second movie, not his first. Nichols had no desire to make a film version of
Barefoot in the Park
or of anything else he went on to direct in New York. “I couldn't! What would I do? They were dead for me,” he says of the first four plays he staged. “There was nothing to discover. Unless I can be terrified and mystified and feel, âI'm lost, this is the one that's going to destroy me, how could I have made this mistake'â¦that terror is the life of it.”
But he did think that adapting a play to the screen might make for a logical first footstep into Hollywood, and he'd found a property he liked:
The Public Eye
, one-half of a pair of one-acts called
The Private Ear and the Public Eye
by British playwright Peter Shaffer that had opened on Broadway two weeks before
Barefoot in the Park.
Universal had announced that Nichols would direct the film, and Shaffer had recently begun to work with him on a screenplay for the three-character piece.
That bought Turman a little time, not only to get a viable screenplay drafted, but to use Nichols's name to lure a studio. Given all the buzz around his director,
's future looked bright.
Over the next six months, every studio in Hollywood turned the film down.
On April 13, 1964,
Hollywood took its annual Monday off for the Academy Awards. There had been no frantic winter campaigning season; the Oscars, though they drew a reliably huge television audience, were in some years a take-it-or-leave-it affair, even for the nominees. This spring, studio traditionalists were in a particularly glum mood: Twelve of the twenty acting nominees were from the United Kingdom or Europe; one company, United Artists, had dominated the major nominations, just as it had done for the last several years; and it was becoming apparent that, for the first time since the 1940s, the Best Picture Oscar was not going to go to an American pictureâthe winner would be Tony Richardson's raunchy smash
“Wonder why we hate ourselves,” Hedda Hopper snapped in her column.
The answer was evident: Even by its own declining standards, the Hollywood studios had mustered an embarrassing lineup of films in 1963 and then failed to nominate the best of them, Martin Ritt's
Two of the year's Best Picture nominees, Fox's
and MGM's slow-moving Cinerama omnibus
How the West Was Won
, had been scorned by critics and were clearly the beneficiaries of bloc voting by the large roster of studio employees that, at the time, made up much of the Academy's membership. It was not a year for Hollywood to celebrate its own accomplishments. Some young starsâSteve McQueen, Tuesday Weld, Julie Andrews, Jack Lemmonâshowed up as presenters, along with veterans like Edward G. Robinson and Ed Begley. Warren Beatty was in the audience with Leslie Caron; his sister, Shirley MacLaine, was also there, and up for Best Actress. But overall attendance among the nominees was sparse; three of the four acting winnersâ
's Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas and veteran British character actress Margaret Rutherford for
âdidn't even show up.
The fourth winner did, and provided the evening with its headline. Sitting in the audience, a nominee for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier, his palms sweating and his tension increasing with every category, thought, “I'm never going to put myself through this shit no more.”
Poitier knew that all eyes were on him, that his win would provide a moment of genuine meaning for black Americans and an occasion for an avalanche of self-congratulation within his industry. He had been here before, five years earlier, when, as the costar of
The Defiant Ones
, he had become the first black man to be nominated for Best Actor. Now, he could be the first to winâa moment that he knew would make history and yet change almost nothing.
The movie for which Poitier was nominated,
Lilies of the Field
, was a sweet, thimble-size parable in which he had played a wanderer in the Southwest who stumbles across an isolated convent and helps a group of nuns from Germany build a new chapel. They don't share a culture, a homeland, or even a language, but they learn mutual respect through working together. Almost nothing of Poitier's character is revealed in the film's script; he is a holy stranger who arrives, helps, teaches, learns, and leaves. Poitier accepted a salary cut, taking just $50,000 plus a percentage of the gross to play a role that his friend Harry Belafonte had rejected.
Shrewdly handled by United Artists, which missed no opportunity to hard-sell the mild little movie as a beacon of tolerance and cross-cultural understanding,
had become a minor success.