“All of life is Chekhov… It’s one big miss.” These words I have carried with me for more than twenty years, and they have been informing me on how I see the world and the people in it, and how I assess my life and the lives of others— with an honest tragi-comic sardonic humor.
These words were spoken to me by my mentor, Mike Nichols, legendary director, comic genius, master storyteller. He passed away last night at the age of 83, and when I awoke to the news, the weight of it was immediate. It is the true end of an era.
We know his accomplishments, I don’t need to recount them. We know his work, I don’t need to discuss it. We know his life story, I don’t need to delve into it. What I know is that between scenes at his school, The New Actors Workshop in New York City, co-founded with master improviser and founder of Second City, Paul Sills, and master teacher George Morrison, who passed away in June, he would share cigarettes and stories of Hollywood— his love for the craft, and the absurdity of personality.
Mike’s mind worked in a way that few others can say. His ability to look at life and relationship and story with such acuity was truly remarkable. It allowed him to create honest moments in the theater and on film, to show us what was real.
He always said that the reason his film Working Girl worked so well was because of Melanie Griffith’s makeup. “We believed her because of her makeup.” This simple statement spoke volumes about the details he would think of to make a character genuine, honest, truthful.
After I had done a monologue from Harold & Maude for him in class, he liked it but thought I could take it further. “Who do you know in life that you live to torture?” In that instant, I got what acting was. How to connect to things that were not from my life and remain real in the moment of a fictional circumstance. One simple question, and I finally got it.
One of my favorite things about Mike was the way he would break down a scene with such laser focus, being economical with his language so every word he spoke was chosen carefully and deliberately. All for the purpose to create greater understanding. He would usually tell a story from his life, or about something he was working on, completely unrelated to what just happened on stage. It wasn’t until the last few uttered sentences that his story would be brought full-circle and make sense of not just the scene, but of life.
Mike liked the word “yous,” as in “yous guys.” He always spoke with this affectation which was charming, and I believe deliberate. It made him real. Not some iconic Hollywood figure. It made him Archie Bunker. Someone flawed, and of a different era than my own, but relatable.
I had the honor of not only studying with Mike, but getting to know him personally for a brief time after I graduated in 1994. I moved to Los Angeles, and he invited me to work on two of his films, Primary Colors and The Birdcage. But more than those little bits, he gave me— through his teachings about film, theater, and acting— insight on life and relationship. Understanding where and how we miss each other is to understand people, behavior, relationship, and how there is usually something oddly funny, always.
“All of life is Chekhov. Look at any relationship you have with anyone. Jealousy, envy, desire, lust, anger, death, and most importantly comedy. And all the feelings for all of these things are simultaneous. That’s what Chekhov writes about. The truth of life, and how life is one big miss. We miss each other all the time. Our intention is one thing, and it misses because someone is thinking about who they love or how they’re going to storm out of a room. It’s all one big miss.”
This from a great man who always hit the mark.