At age 80, director Mike Nichols has won eight Tony Awards, and is a frontrunner to add another with Death Of A Salesman. The revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 groundbreaking play is up for seven Tony Awards including Best Revival. Nichols chose Philip Seymour Hoffman for Willy Loman, the world-weary salesman on the downside of the American dream; Andrew Garfield as son Biff; Finn Wittrock as son Hap; and Linda Emond as Linda Loman. The show just became the rare straight play to crack $1 million for a week’s worth of performances, through the Memorial Day holiday. That is the seventh time the limited-run play broke the house record for the Barrymore Theatre. The limited run ends Saturday. Here, Nichols discusses a play which wears out its cast nightly but clearly has reinvigorated its director.
DEADLINE: Give me a second while I start the tape recorder.
NICHOLS: Tape recorder? I thought this interview was going to be off the record.
DEADLINE: This is one that should be on the record. Your production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman might be the best received version since the very first in 1949. At the risk of betraying myself a cultural cretin, yours was the first Salesman I saw, and so for me the title was a real spoiler.
NICHOLS: Because it told you what was going to happen? The very first producer they went to thought that and wanted them to change it but he wouldn’t. So they had to go to the second producer.
DEADLINE: Why take on The Great American play?
NICHOLS: Several things. Most great plays of the past lose their grip on immediacy; on application to our lives right now. That is the opposite of the case with Salesman. Take, for instance A Streetcar Named Desire, which is one of the reasons I’m in the theater. I had a girlfriend who got us the very fancy theater tickets when I was in high school. Believe it or not, we saw it the second night. We were so stunned by it we didn’t get up to pee, we didn’t talk; we just sat poleaxed for the three hours or so. And to this day I still remember it as the only thing I’ve ever seen that was a hundred percent real and a hundred percent poetic at the same time. And then about sometime later, maybe a year later, we saw Salesman. It was no longer the number one cast. Lee J. Cobb was already out of it. He only did it three and a half months because it’s a part that just kills the actors.