Director Mike Nichols adds AFI career honor to his Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy prize roll

By David Germain, AP
Friday, June 11, 2010

Director Nichols adds AFI honor to long prize roll

CULVER CITY, Calif. — Julia Roberts hurled a four-letter word at Mike Nichols to get things rolling for the American Film Institute’s life-achievement honor for the director.

“Mike is one of the few people in the world who’s an ‘egot,’” Roberts, the star of Nichols’ films “Closer” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” said Thursday night to open the star-studded tribute. “It means he’s won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.”

Roberts actually was shortchanging Nichols. Along with his best-director Academy Award for “The Graduate” and his Grammy for a comedy album with former partner Elaine May, Nichols is a multiple winner for the top honors on television and the stage — four Emmys, eight Tonys.

“What doesn’t Mike do?” Roberts told the audience, filled with such Nichols collaborators as Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Emma Thompson, Harrison Ford, Shirley MacLaine and Natalie Portman. “Everything about Mike makes everything about everything just better.”

The dinner honoring the 78-year-old Nichols, held in a Sony Pictures soundstage where part of “The Wizard of Oz” was filmed, featured clips from his movies and TV programs, a highlight from his and May’s 1960s comedy act, musical numbers and speeches overflowing with hilarious anecdotes and bottomless affection from his collaborators.

“I remember on ‘Silkwood’ once, you said to me, ‘You know, directing is like making love,’” Streep told Nichols. “And I said, ‘Eww, I don’t even know him that well. Why is he telling me this?’

“‘Because,’ you went on, ‘you never know if you’re doing it right or as well as the other guy,’” recalled Streep, who besides “Silkwood” also starred in Nichols’ “Postcards from the Edge,” ”Heartburn” and his Emmy-winning miniseries “Angels in America.” ”I just found that insecurity so completely disarming, and, well, you know, I started to fall in love with you over and over and over again.”

Introduced by Streep at the end of the evening, Nichols gushed thanks for his costume designers, cinematographers, script supervisors, makeup artists, composers and other associates.

“If I thanked everyone who contributed importantly over the years, we would be here until Miley Cyrus’ AFI award,” Nichols said. “All of you made me feel I got away with it. I love the process of making a movie, and doing it with all of you was — despite the fear, the pressure, the budget — happiness.”

The tribute to Nichols airs June 26 on TV Land.

“Heartburn” co-star Jack Nicholson, whose films with Nichols include “Carnal Knowledge,” ”The Fortune” and “Wolf,” had the audience in stitches with his cryptic but loving remarks about the filmmaker.

“I have to say, remember, Mike, even oysters have enemies,” Nicholson enigmatically told Nichols.

Dustin Hoffman recalled how he felt he was too small and Jewish to play the tall, athletic, WASP-ish lead in “The Graduate,” and that Nichols told him, “well, maybe he’s Jewish inside.”

The role was a career-maker, earning Hoffman his first Oscar nomination.

“I thank you for casting this short, 29-year-old unknown actor with a prominent nose,” Hoffman told Nichols.

In Nichols’ honor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang “Mrs. Robinson,” one of their tunes from “The Graduate.” Eric Idle, Nichols’ collaborator on his Tony-winning “Spamalot,” sang “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” — dressed as an angel with towering wings.

Thompson — the star of Nichols’ Emmy-winning “Wit” and a co-star in his film “Primary Colors” as well as “Angels in America” — and Robin Williams, who worked with the director on “The Birdcage,” devoted time to analyzing the filmmaker’s laugh.

“That’s the most wonderful thing, to get a laugh from you,” Williams said. “Because it’s a great laugh. It’s a combination, it’s like all of a sudden, a little boy erupts out of this brilliant man.”

Thompson related the first time she heard Nichols laugh, during a rehearsal for “Primary Colors.” She said Nichols went from a wheeze to a deadly sounding cough, then back to a wheeze before tears began streaming from his eyes, and she worried, “Is he dying?”

“I realized that this kind of laughter was nothing to do with mere humor,” Thompson said. “This laughter was like good sex in a way. It existed to atomize the world, which then perforce had to reconstruct itself in a slightly improved form. And I feel whenever we laugh like that, that somewhere or other, fascism and humbug die a little.”

Nichols, a Jew born in Berlin in 1931, fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s with his family and emigrated to America.

From his earliest days, films have been one of his principle pastimes, he said.

“As a little kid in a sometimes hard place, I went to the movies as often as I could,” Nichols said. “Movies — making them, seeing them — is not something that could ever lose its pleasure for me. That puts them on a short list of things that eternally give me joy — love, family, food, movies.”


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