Word Count: R.I.P.
A few years back I had to write an article no longer than 1,000 words about Mike Nichols. There would be lots to absorb. At the Lincoln Center library I asked for the Nichols’ clippings files and received three boxes bursting with newsprint and magazine pages. Most harked back to the time when 5,000-10,000-word profiles were assigned routinely, especially for celebrity subjects. And besides-–he was a beguiling interview.
So I set to work, poring over the folders, xeroxing what was relevant. There was so much more than I needed, but it was fascinating stuff. I read on. All of it. When the library closed, I knew everything about Mike Nichols, from his birth in Berlin through his refugee’s voyage with a name tag pinned to his coat and only two sentences of the language he would one day master: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.” Then, how he first made them laugh in Chicago with Elaine May. How he later had four hits running simultaneously on Broadway. How, after his Hollywood debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he moved on to The Graduate and just kept going until there were over two dozen films with A-list royalty before he was done.
He could act, too: he was offered the part of Iago (to Richard Burton’s Othello), and Hamlet (for Tyrone Guthrie), but turned them down. Later his brief appearance in The Designated Mourner in London moved Newsweek to declare it “…a revelation in its unnerving mix of anger, despair, perverse wit and emotional force.” How he won a lot of awards and also made a lot of money. And how he met Diane Sawyer in an airport and married her (“…she had her own constituency and her own checkbook.”) It was a brilliant life, lived to the hilt by a man of huge and protean talents.
But here’s the most amazing thing about it: in all of those hundreds of interviews and their thousands of words, except for the two sentences/eight words he spoke on his way to America (they alone appeared everywhere), Nichols never repeated himself; not a line, not a quote, not an anecdote. It was a stunning achievement and the first and last time I’ve researched anyone of whom it was true.
In the end, struggling with impossible choices to maintain the assigned wordage, I cut the sentences, figuring they’d already appeared everywhere, and too tired to realize that they’d appeared everywhere because they’d remained etched in Nichols’ heart since the day he stepped off the boat.
Promised approval of the final version, he wrote “It’s a lovely bio,” but requested firmly (and beguilingly) a single change: to include “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me” in the first paragraph. Afterwards, I was told, he’d added, “Otherwise it seems to be fine. Very nice in fact.”
May his judgment be my epitaph.