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Fresh Air Remembers Film And Broadway Director Mike Nichols

Nichols directed such movies as The Graduate and Birdcage and Broadway musicals such as Spamalot. He won nine Tony Awards. Nichols died Wednesday at 83. He talked with Terry Gross in 2001.




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Other segments from the episode on November 21, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 21, 2014: Interview with Alan Cumming; Obituary for Mike Nichols;


November 21, 2014

Guests: Alan Cumming - Mike Nichols



BIANCULLI: I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Alan Cumming, has been amazing as the star of Broadway's revival of the musical "Cabaret."


ALAN CUMMING: (As Emcee, singing in German, French and English) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome. Fremde, etranger, stranger. Glueklich zu sehen, je suis enchante. Happy to see you - bleibe, reste, stay. Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret. Meine Damen und Herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen! Guten Abend, bonsoir. Wie geht's? Comment ca va?

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming plays the emcee in a Berlin nightclub of debauchery called the Kit Kat Klub in 1929 and 1930 as the Nazis are slowly emerging and no one yet knows how powerful they will become. Only some people sense the danger. The role of the emcee was originated by Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 Broadway production, as well as the 1972 movie.

Each of the productions with Cumming was directed by Sam Mendes. Rob Marshall choreographed both American productions and also co-directed the new one.

Cumming has a new memoir called "Not My Father's Son." Let's start by hearing how Cumming sounds in the new production by the Roundabout Theater Company, the same company that produced the 1998 Tony award-winning production.


CUMMING: (As Emcee, singing in German, French and English) Meine Damen und Herren, mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen! Guten Abend, bonsoir, good evening. Wie geht's? Comment ca va? Do you feel good? Yeah, I bet you do. Ich bin eurer Conferencier. Je suis votre compere. I am your host und sage willkommen, bienvenue, welcome im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: Alan Cumming, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations, you're so wonderful in the show, it's so terrific.

CUMMING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you, thank you for coming. You've said, I think, that this revival was your birthday present to yourself. What does that mean? Did you initiate the idea of reviving it again?

CUMMING: No, no I didn't, but it was Sam Mendes who called me up a few years ago, and - I mean, there's been sort of various attempts to re-do it or to put it on since it ended. I mean, I finished - I did it for a year, from '98 to '99, and it actually finished, I think, in 2004 on Broadway.

But anyway, so a few years ago, Sam said, you know, I think it's a good time, kind of the rights are going to be up, and so therefore someone else will do it, and, you know, maybe - and the estate wants us to do our production again.

And I just sort of thought it would be - and the thing about the birthday is that I'm 49, and so I'll be 50 in January - January 27 next year - and so in my 50th year I am singing and dancing on - in a Broadway musical. And I'm dancing a kick line with, you know, girls who are 24. And so that was - that was kind of the birthday present to myself, that I would be hitting 50, doing things that I couldn't do when I was, you know, 25.

GROSS: Oh, that is nice. You couldn't kick like that, or they just didn't have the opportunity?


CUMMING: Oh, my God. I was so out of shape and unfit when I was 25. And I've kind of - and I think even when I did it 15 years ago, I wasn't as fit as I am now.

GROSS: So why do you love doing the role?

CUMMING: Well, I mean, just on a day-to-day, going to work and doing that, it's such fun. It's, you know, so kind of energetic, and it just takes up every single element of being an actor. It's - your body is used to its capacity both, you know, physically, vocally and emotionally, as well. But also in a kind of larger way, I think it's a really important show in that the reason it's done again - the reason we're doing it again is that it has something to say.

You know, it's about the rise of Nazism and the fact that if you're not incredibly vigilant, oppression of some kind can slowly creep up and take over.

And I think that the way that the show is, like, fun, and oh, it's sexy, and hilarious, and - and then you slowly - it slowly goes dark. You as an audience member have kind of become complicit in that, and that sort of mirrors the way that you see Nazism creeping in and people think, oh, it'll be fine, don't worry, nothing's - you know, it'll go away. And then slowly it doesn't, and it's too late.

GROSS: I would like you to describe your character physically - what you're wearing, what your hair looks like.

CUMMING: Ha. Well, initially - I have jet black hair right now, which is not natural, Terry, I'll confess.


CUMMING: And so I have jet black hair. So I have, you know, late 1920s kind of floppy on top, short at the back and the sides. And the first costume I wear is - I wear a leather coat, but I shortly take that off. And I've got this - I've kind of like a black dinner suit - trousers, but they're cut at the knees, a pair of big combat boots and this kind of strappy thing, kind of like suspenders, you know, almost like I'm topless, but I've got a suspender thing with a little bowtie at my chest, at my - what do you call that bit in the middle? The sternum.

And then it's almost like a cantilever system to hike up my manhood, if you will.

GROSS: Yes, your manhood is kind of like italicized in the...


CUMMING: It's in bold.

GROSS: It's in bold letters, yes.

CUMMING: It's sort of like a wonder bra for the male junk.

GROSS: What is your take on the host, the emcee that you play, and the club, the Kit Kat Klub that you're in? Do you have a back-story for him in your mind?

CUMMING: I'll tell you my sort of very slim back-story, is he was a rent boy, a boy from the streets of Berlin, who then kind of, you know, started working this club and was kind of funny. And so he got kind of - as he got a bit older, he got a job, and the Kit Kat Klub is basically, you know, a den of iniquity. It's got a little show, but there's kind of, you know, sex going on. There's drugs going on. It's a very low-life kind of place. So that's basically all my story for this man.

He used to be - you know, he has a background as a sex worker who then becomes - he can sing a bit. And I don't know his name. I don't know where - you know, I actually don't think that's important. I don't worry about that because there is a larger, broader, more overreaching thing about this character. He's kind of like this - he guides the audience. He's like a puppeteer almost or a - sort of a pied piper, if you like, who takes the audience on this journey, kind of tells them what to think at certain times, guides them into certain things and then ultimately, because he's got their trust, can betray that trust or also make them worry for him and for what's going on in the show.

So it's almost like sort of a Brechtian character of standing outside the story and commenting on it as it's happening.

GROSS: You've portrayed this character in three separate versions of this Sam Mendes production - first when you were 28 years old in 1993, then when you were 33 years old in 1998, and now when you're 49 years old in 2014. And...

CUMMING: And next time.

GROSS: And I've seen the new production, and I've seen excerpts of both of the other productions, and there's things that are very similar. One of the differences is that, you know, you've gotten older. And I think that changes the character. You know, the rent-boy-turned-emcee in this kind of seedy club at age 28 is different from that same character at age 49 because that character hasn't made it out of that club.


GROSS: He's still there at age 49. So in that sense he becomes kind of even darker.

CUMMING: I think that's absolutely true. I think partly because I'm older and because this sort of sex element of the show, the sensationalist - the thing that in 1998 when we came to America was so shocking and took up so much of people's perception of the whole show was this, you know, depiction of sexual freedom and hedonism and gay sex and bisexuality and all sorts of things.

That I think, in a way, took over a little too much. And now I think, you know, partly because of that production but partly because the world has changed, that is still an element. It's still fun. It's still very much part of what the story's about, but it doesn't overshadow everything. And also it has allowed the kind of darkness to come out a little bit more.

GROSS: You know, in speaking about the sexuality of this production, it's sexualized in a different way than, say, the movie "Cabaret," which I think a lot of people are familiar with. In the movie version of "Cabaret," Joel Grey starred in the role of the emcee - of the host. And I think he played it kind of - he's great in it, and I think he played it kind of like a ringmaster in a circus of sexual deviance. And I think deviants is what they would have been called at the time.

I'm trying to use a word from the period. And you play it like you are sexually seducing us into your kind of debauched world.


CUMMING: And I feel like - I mean, I do feel that. I feel like I'm saying, you know, the gesture I do at the very beginning of the show is my finger and going come here, come here, come here. And that's, I think, a sort of overriding metaphor for what I think that character does. And he's going come on, come on, you know you want to, and it's going to be fun. And then of course - and the audience does want to, and they do come.

And then, of course, that's when they become complicit in the whole horror.

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming speaking to Terry Gross in April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from April with actor Alan Cumming. He plays the emcee in the current Broadway revival of the musical "Cabaret," which has just been extended into 2015. And he's just written a memoir called "Not My Father's Son."

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alan Cumming, who is now starring in the revival of the revival of "Cabaret."


GROSS: So the character that you play in "Cabaret" is very sexual ambiguous, I mean, in terms of sexual orientation - gay, bisexual - who knows?


GROSS: Into everything as I think - whatever, he wants it.


GROSS: You came out as bisexual, I think, the same year that "Cabaret" was revived in the United States in 1998, with you starring in it. And you've been married for how long to - you have a husband.

CUMMING: I have a husband. I've been married to him for - hang on, since 2007, so seven years.

GROSS: So did you time coming out with the production of "Cabaret?"

CUMMING: It was all a huge press campaign.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: It was all a massive Machiavellian plot.

GROSS: (Laughter) Clever.

CUMMING: No, I am...

GROSS: That's the point of sexuality, actually.


CUMMING: Power - it kind of is. What I think you're getting at, I'll give you a little press here that I hope will answer your question. I've always felt I was bisexual. I used to be married to a woman. Before that, I'd had a relationship with a man. I then had another relationship with a woman. And then since then I've had, you know, relationships with men.

So I still would define myself as bisexual, partly because that's how I feel, but also because I think it's important to - I think that sexuality in this country especially is very - seen as a very black and white thing. And I think we should encourage the gray.

You know, I mean, I don't kind of go around in my life thinking, oh, my God, I'm going to have to have sex with a woman soon because I said I was bisexual.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: I just - I just - that's what I feel inside. It's like saying you're straight, or you're gay, or you're bi - it's just what you are. And whatever you're doing in your life is almost - it runs obviously parallel, but it's kind of secondary to how you are inside. And so that's how I've always felt, and I still do, even though, you know, I am very happily married to a really amazing man, and I wish to be so for the rest of my life.

The other thing is that the coming out thing, in 1998, when I came to America, there was such a huge explosion of interest in the show and in me, and I had never - I hadn't really - you know, I was kind of well-known in Britain, but I hadn't really ever discussed my sexuality in a public way like that. And because of playing this character, and I know all the kind of - it's like, you know, Puritanical shockwaves it was sending around America, a lot of people were just constantly, constantly, constantly asking me about it.

And so I decided to take matters into my own hand, and I did an interview and a cover story for Out magazine. And I thought that was a good forum for it to be discussed calmly and adultly. And so I did that. So it was kind of as a result of all the speculation and - but it was really funny. I remember people saying so - first question in an interview for some, like, weighty tome, would be so, are you gay?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And I would go why, do you fancy me? And then go oh no, just someone in my office was asking. And I'd say oh, really, well. You know, I thought really, is that the most important thing? And sometimes it is the most important thing because people can't - if people don't have a black and white answer, they can't get beyond that. And so you have to kind of - I think you've just to get it out the way, and that's what I did.

And it wasn't like I - it's one of those things. When you become famous, and people are more interested in your personal life often than your work, it's a weird thing because you think, oh, I seem to be sleeping with more boys now. Should I do a press release?


CUMMING: You know, it's a really difficult one to know when to announce.

GROSS: Were you afraid that if you didn't say something yourself that you'd be outed in a really nasty way by somebody trying to hurt you and not realizing - it's not really even like it's a bad thing, but people reveal secrets in nasty ways.

CUMMING: Yeah, I thought that I was actually - one of the other reasons, I was having a relationship with a man for the first time, I mean, well, aside from, like, someone at college. I was living with a man for the first time, and I was just really worried that he was going to - he and his family and my family were going to be harassed by the British press, actually.

So I had - because I had been harassed in the previous relationship I'd had with a woman. You know, I saw some really nasty things happening, and so I just wanted to avoid that again.

GROSS: So since you were out in 1998, when you first revived "Cabaret" in America, did it change your performance at all? Did it release something within you to be kind of publicly out as gay or bisexual because the character seems to be gay or bisexual and is very - it's a very sexual dance that you do in the show.

CUMMING: I mean, I felt very - I mean, I think when I came to New York, I felt more comfortable as a person. I definitely felt more comfortable with where I was in my life and the sexuality thing being a part of that and just - actually when I did it in 1993, I was crazy. So that was quite good for the character, as well. But there wasn't - it was more sensual when it came to New York, definitely, and I think that's partly to do with Rob Marshall's input into the choreography.

So I definitely felt, as a person and as a man and as an actor, as a sort of performer in general, much more open, and I think that really worked.

GROSS: You said that in the 1993 British production of "Cabaret" at the time that you were crazy. What did you mean by that?

CUMMING: I was crazy. I was - I actually had a nervous breakdown shortly after that.


CUMMING: Yeah, so I was pretty nuts. I had just played "Hamlet." I was exhausted. I was in the process of breaking up with my wife. I was - just a lot of things, it was like the perfect storm of horror. And yeah, it was a really bad time for me. And I - and it was actually the start of a huge series of events in my family and things about stuff that had happened in my childhood so that it was just, you know...

GROSS: Did you say bad stuff that happened in your childhood?

CUMMING: Yeah, yeah, about my father and things like that, which I'm detailing in my forthcoming memoir. But it was just, you know, it was a really - I mean, it kind of was interesting because the role was very complex, and, you know, certainly "Hamlet" is very complex and dark and deep.

And then, of course, coming to do the emcee after that was really - but I was - I was, you know, I was not in a healthy place. I was in a weird place. And I think that was, in a way, kind of going and doing that show every night was really good for me. It kind of took me out of my depression a bit.

But, you know, I wasn't - I had a sort of eating disorder. It was terrible. And then shortly after that, as I say, I kind of just really had to go away, and, you know, let things have their course and kind of have a bit of a breakdown.

GROSS: So let me just ask you one other question about sexual orientation. You described yourself as bisexual. Does that make some people angry, like, no, you have to decide. You're really gay, aren't you? Or do you know what I mean? People want (laughter)...

CUMMING: Yes, I think it does. I mean, I think there's that - I mean, I think it's slightly - I mean, and sometimes I just say I'm gay, sometimes I - you know, if I'm having a conversation with an adult like you, an intelligent person like you, I try and talk about it in this way, and I explain why I sort of define myself in that way.

But I - if I'm called gay or queer or something all the time, I'm perfectly happy with that. But when I have my druthers, that's how I would describe it. I mean, I think the idea that people say oh, you're just really gay, you're afraid to say it, that doesn't apply in my case. Hi, I'm Alan Cumming, I'm gay. There you go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: That - really for me, I think, I want to push the idea that, you know, bisexuality is not something that is just a transitionary state to becoming homosexual or, you know, that you help out when they're busy sort of thing.


CUMMING: I'm glad you got that. Not many Americans get that, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming speaking to Terry Gross in April. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


CUMMING: (As emcee) So you see, everybody in Berlin has a perfectly marvelous roommate. Some people have two people.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, dee!

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, deedle dee, beedle dee, deedle dee, dee!

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Two ladies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Two ladies.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) And I'm the only man, ja.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) I like it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) They like it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) This two for one. Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Two ladies.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Two ladies.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Und he's the only man.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Ja.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing together) Beedle dee, dee dee dee.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) He likes it.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee dee dee. We like it. Beedle dee, dee dee dee. This two for one. I do the cooking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) Und I make the bed.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) I go out daily to earn our daily bread, But we've one thing in common.


CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) She...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) Und me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (Singing) The key.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Beedle dee, dee. The key.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Singing) The key.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Singing together) Beedle dee, deedle dee, deedle dee, dee. Ooh, aah. Ooh, aah.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) We switch partners daily to play as we please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (Singing, together) Twosies beats onesies.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) But nothing beats threes. I sleep in the middle.


BIANCULLI: Coming up - what Alan Cumming learned about Berlin nightlife by talking with poet Stephen Spender and with Christopher Isherwood, the author of the stories on which "Cabaret" is based. Cumming also will tell us about meeting Liza Minnelli for the first time in his dressing room. And we listen back to excerpts of our interviews with director Mike Nichols, who died Wednesday at the age of 83.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's April interview with actor Alan Cumming. Cumming has just written a memoir and currently stars in a Broadway revival of "Cabaret" - the third time he starred in that show as the emcee. Here he is from the 1998 cast recording performing the song "Money."


CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Money makes the world go 'round, the world go 'round, the world go 'round. Money makes the world go 'round. It makes the world go 'round. A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound, a buck or a pound, a buck or a pound, is all that makes the world go 'round. That clinking-clanking sound can make the world go 'round.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) If you happen to be rich, and you feel like a night's entertainment. You can pay for a gay escapade. If you happen to be rich, and alone, and you need a companion, you can ring-ting-a-ling for the maid. If you happen to be rich and you find you are left by your lover, though you moan and you groan quite a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money. Money money. Money money. Money money...

CUMMING: (Singing) You can take it on the chin, call a cab, and begin to recover on your 14-carat yacht. Money makes the world go 'round, the world go 'round, the world go 'round. Money makes the world go 'round, of that we can be sure - on being poor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Money money money, money money money. Money money money, money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money.

CUMMING: (As emcee, singing) Money money money, money money money. Money money money, money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money. Money money money money money money.

GROSS: That's Alan Cumming singing "Money" from the 1998 cast recording of "Cabaret." And he's starring now in a new revival of it. I really do love the way you sing.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to hear how you prepared to sing for this role. But before we talk about that, I want to play you something that John Kander had to say. I interviewed John Kander, who wrote the music. Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for "Cabaret." And I asked him what he did before composing the music for "Cabaret" and what he listened to. And here's what he told me.


JOHN KANDER: For "Cabaret," I listened to a lot of German jazz and vaudeville music, also the late '20s and very early '30s, and then promptly forgot about it. It sounds like a very kind of crude way of doing research, but it works for me. You listen and you listen and you listen and then put it away and don't think about it anymore. And I have this absolute belief that the styles of the music that you've been listening to seep into your unconscious and come out in your own language.

GROSS: And that was John Kander on FRESH AIR in 2003. And my guest is Alan Cumming who's starring in the new revival of "Cabaret." So John Kander said that, you know, he listened to all this music and then just let it seep in, as opposed to actually thinking about it when he was composing.


GROSS: What did you listen to? And did you have that attitude too, that it would just naturally seep in?

CUMMING: I'm a big believer in seepage.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: The first time around I, and this time again, you know, I read a lot of stuff about the Weimar, cabarets and just generally the history of that time. What was great when we did it in London the first time was that Stephen Spender, who was one of the chums of Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden and those boys who where, you know, in Berlin at that time, he was still alive then. He came into rehearsal to ask and to sort of, you know, talk to us and we got to ask him questions. So that was amazing, that someone who was actually there.

And I said - it was so funny because they said, you know, just be very respectful don't, you know, stay off the whole sex thing, blah, blah, blah. So we were asking questions and I could tell we were getting along. And I said, so Stephen, you boys from Oxbridge, you didn't really go across there to kind of chronicle the surge of fascism and the change of the sort. You really went in there to get shagged, didn't you? You just went to get boys.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And he was like, yes, of course, we did. Yes, of course. And I just, I love the idea that this kind of amazing period of history has been chronicled so amazingly by Christopher Isherwood and many other people, but in this case, by him, was actually, you know, a happy accident because they really just went there. They were from England, you know, puritanical, shameful England. And they went to Berlin where you could have sex with people all the time and go to dirty bars and no one would know. So that was a key for me into getting into this role and to understanding what it was like in that time.

GROSS: So here's a very intellectual question I wanted to ask you.


GROSS: You'll appreciate the depth of this.


GROSS: In a lot of your choreography in "Cabaret" your arms are raised over your head. You did not shave under your arms. I don't know what the protocol is for men now. Like men defoliate their chests like, you know, for movies.

CUMMING: Oh, yes.

GROSS: So I don't know what the story is supposed to be for under your arms.


GROSS: I worked really hard on that question.

CUMMING: Terry Gross. Terry Gross, I'm appalled.


CUMMING: Well, you notice the girls don't shave under their arms either. You notice that?

GROSS: No, I didn't notice that. Oh, no, I didn't notice that.

CUMMING: Yeah. The girls have got to have hairy armpits. That was part of the, you know, the down and dirty thing of the club. I have extensive hair under my arms. I'm aware of that. I have - it's actually annoying because I always wanted to...

GROSS: I've seen more. It's really not that - yeah. Go ahead.


CUMMING: Yeah. But it's not - I mean I'm not a hairy person. I've longed to have a hairy chest, I mean, I have. I have a little kind of tuft in my sternum. Gosh, I said sternum twice in the sense that I don't think I've said sternum for years before this. But I have a little tuft there and then I've got odd ones across my chest. But I seem to have all my hair in my armpits and actually it seems to cause great consternation to people.

But I actually, really - just as a sort of a side point, if you're going to, you know, ask a silly question, I'm going to say another thing about it. I think this obsession we have in our culture with shaving - taking away body hair, like, on men and women - I think it's really dangerous, and sort of like wanting to infantilize yourself and wanting to kind of, you know, make something sexy that is not adult. It's more sort of prepubescent, and I think that's really weird and dangerous, don't you?

GROSS: I do, actually.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you for saying that. (Laughter).

CUMMING: You're welcome.

GROSS: So you've met and performed with Liza Minnelli.

CUMMING: Yes, Liza.

GROSS: What did she mean to you before you met her?

CUMMING: I mean, it's hard to - it's almost like she was like a movie star from a long, long time ago, like the kind of like a silent movie star or something. She had that kind of, there's a mist swirling around her. And I'd seen the movie of "Cabaret" and I just - it's hard to describe it. It was more like I was aware of the effect, the effect she had on the world and on people, rather than knowing that much about her. You see what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CUMMING: It wasn't - till I was 30 I didn't really, I've never been to America. I, you know, was aware of American culture and things in Britain, but I didn't ever sort of engage in it fully because I don't know why, I just didn't. And then, of course, when I met Liza, she came into my dressing room with Fred Ebb. And I was in this tiny dressing room, it was like kind of size of a shoebox and she came in and gave me a hug and said, Alan, I want to be your friend forever, which is such a darling thing to say. And then I saw Fred, I went oh, Fred. And when I finish talking to Fred, I realized that Liza had pushed herself against the wall and had her face in my wet towel, which was hanging on a hook on the wall in order for me 'cause the room was so small, in order for me to talk to Fred.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: And I went oh, Liza, you're squashed into my towel. And she's like, Alan, I'd be squashed into your towel forever for you. She's just...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMMING: She's just a most lovely, hilarious person. And so I've been doing these concerts with her and stuff and just I - now I just think lovely Liza and we have a real laugh. And I think we just go on - I don't know why - we just have a really great understanding of each other. And...

GROSS: Did she give you any advice about "Cabaret?"

CUMMING: Well, I can't really say it (laughter) on the radio.

GROSS: (Laughter) That sounds good.

CUMMING: It's more just a kind of - like when she came to see "Macbeth" - the "Macbeth" I did last summer - or last two summers - she said this thing, which is, I really great - I actually really love it. I love this saying. I'll just do, I'll paraphrase it. But she says, well, she, you know, just before I was about to go on, I was really terrified. She went - darling, take no prisoners and F - bleep - the wounded.


CUMMING: And I think that's great. I mean obviously, not literally. But as a go get 'em and just, you know, don't let anything hold you back.

GROSS: Right.

CUMMING: It's a great sort of way of thinking about performing and I'm always a big - I'm a big believer in that you just have to dive off the cliff, and so is Liza.

GROSS: Alan Cumming, this was so much fun.

CUMMING: Thank you.

GROSS: And congratulations on your performance. It is so good.

CUMMING: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

CUMMING: Thank you. I'm a big fan and it was lovely to talk to you.

BIANCULLI: Alan Cumming speaking to Terry Gross in April. He stars as the emcee in the current Broadway revival of "Cabaret" and has just written a memoir called "Not My Father's Son." Coming up, an appreciation of producer-director Mike Nichols, who died earlier this week. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Mike Nichols, the celebrated and influential film and theater director, died of cardiac arrest Wednesday. He was 83 years old. Mike Nichols first became known in the late '50s for his improvisational comedy with Elaine May. He went on to direct theater, films and television. And he was one of the very select show business talents to collect all of the major awards - winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and nine Tonys. Terry Gross spoke to Mike Nichols in 2001.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Why did you get into directing? You started off as a performer, you know, doing comedy. Why did you want to go behind the camera?

MIKE NICHOLS: Well, I didn't want to stay a performer. I mean, it's not that it came up that much. I think that as a performer I was something of a director. You know, there were two of us performing, and I was, you know, always bossing her around a little bit. But also I never really was crazy about what performing brought out in me - more of the baby. And I feel like directing brings out the daddy in me to some extent, and I enjoy it more. I like it better.

GROSS: In what way did acting bring about the baby in you?

NICHOLS: Why did it? It's just something that happens to me. I just turn into a baby. You know, I say, shouldn't I have the other dressing room? And, look, that light is out. Why don't we come first? And who's opening? And I just don't like the performers' baby impulses, and they come out plenty in me.

GROSS: Whereas as the director, you have to be careful of all the other actors' egos and baby impulses probably.

NICHOLS: Well, that's right. Well, you're worrying about somebody else. You're thinking about somebody else, which is somehow more freeing and which I enjoy more. I don't like worrying, did they like me, will they like me? I prefer worrying, will they like her, will they like him, will they like them?

GROSS: You must have had your hands full with the first movie you directed, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" because starring in that was Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were two of, you know, perhaps, the most, like, followed couple in the press and by the American public. And they had this tumultuous relationship, and the story is about people who prey on each other's neuroses and delusions. That must have been quite a job for a first-time director.

NICHOLS: Well, I was lucky. They were very good friends of mine. Richard and I were very good friends. We'd been in the same alley - our theaters were in the same alley when we were on Broadway in different shows. I was in "Evening With Nichols And May," and he was in "Camelot." And we'd become very close friends, and then I was just becoming a good friend of Elizabeth's. And I felt quite easy with them. And they were very sweet and wanted very much to make the movie as good as they could.

And there was really only four of them - four actors - and they were wonderful to the other two actors, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. And they were wonderful to me, and Richard had his difficult days - difficult for him first - but we waited for him - this way and that way - and that was the only problem that ever arose. I was extremely fond of them, and I thought they were doing very good work. And in a good way, we enjoyed doing it. I mean, they would get down. They would get depressed. Sometimes she'd say she was tired of spitting at him. You know, and could we do something else for a while? She'd had three days spitting at him. But by and large, they were a pleasure.

GROSS: Let's just listen to a short scene from the film.


RICHARD BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (As Martha) Oh, what do you want?

BURTON: (As George) I wouldn't go on with this if I were you.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Oh, you wouldn't would you? Well, you're not.

BURTON: (As George) You've already sprung a leak about you-know-what.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) What? What?

BURTON: (As George) About the sprout - the little bugger - our son. If you start in on this other business, Martha, I warn you.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I stand warned.

GEORGE SEGAL: (As Nick) Do we really have to go through all this?

TAYLOR: (As Martha) So anyway, I married the SOB. I had it all planned out. First, he'd take over the history department. Then when daddy retired, he'd take over the whole college, you know? That was the way it was supposed to be - getting angry, baby? That was the way it was supposed to be - all very simple. And daddy thought it was a good idea, too, for a while, until he started watching for a couple of years - getting angrier? Until he watched for couple of years and started thinking that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all, that maybe Georgie boy didn't have the stuff, that maybe he didn't have it in him.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) Like hell I will. You see, George didn't have much push. He wasn't particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flock - a great, big, fat flock.

BURTON: (As George) Stop it, Martha.

TAYLOR: (As Martha) I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary, not on an associate professor's salary.

GROSS: That's a scene of "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" directed by my guest Mike Nichols. It was his first film - the first film that he directed. You know, it's funny as part of Nichols and May you dealt a lot with neuroses in relationships, but not on this level of kind of grand neurosis, you know, (laughter), the grand theatrical version of neurosis. So it was kind of continuing a theme but in a completely different level for you.

NICHOLS: Well, yes, I think that's right. But, you know, when I saw the play of "Virginia Woolf," I was really knocked out by it. I thought, and still think, that it's a great play, and I was - I felt I knew a lot about it when it came up because there's something about the way Albee went about it that was very familiar for somebody who had gone to the University of Chicago and known certain people there who had difficult marriages and lived a certain kind of academic life, you know? The gag about academia is that the - you know why there's so much backbiting and viciousness in academia?

GROSS: No. Why?

NICHOLS: Because the stakes are so low.

GROSS: (Laughter). Right.

NICHOLS: And that - I had seen a certain amount that at the university. And I really felt I understood it. And I think you're right, you know. Elaine May and I did neurotic couples, God knows. And here was one more.

GROSS: Actually, maybe this would be a good time to hear an example of the kind of neurotic couple that you and Elaine May did. But this is not just neurotic, it's also neurotic with a lot of intellectual pretensions.

NICHOLS: Yes. Oh, I know which one that is.

GROSS: This is a routine called "Bach To Bach."


ELAINE MAY: (As character) My family was middle-class - ordinary. And there was no relating. There was proximity, but no relating.

NICHOLS: (As character) Oh, no, it can't be. The pressures are just incredible.

MAY: (As character) And of course I had a great many difficulties, which I've been trying to resolve.

NICHOLS: (As character) Yes. And I think you are. I mean, I haven't known you that long, but - you know, when you consider the ambivalence of the women's world today...

MAY: (As character) Oh, it's incredibly ambivalent. It's so hard to resolve. It's so hard to acknowledge the fact that aggressiveness need not be hostile.

NICHOLS: (As character) That's right - yes. No, Adler was no fool.

MAY: (As character) No. I always thought of him as a fool, but he said some good things.

NICHOLS: (As character) Yes. No, I've reread him recently. There are really - there are insights there.

MAY: (As character) Yeah. Too many people think of Adler as a man who made mice neurotic. He was more, much more.

NICHOLS: (As character) Can you move over a little? I'm falling off the bed.

MAY: (As character) I'm sorry.

NICHOLS: (As character) A great deal more.

MAY: (As character) Yes, yes, he was.

GROSS: This was, I think, the era when psychotherapy was pretty new for middle-class people to have. And the whole idea of neurosis, I think, was a kind of new part of the vocabulary.

NICHOLS: It wasn't new around me...


NICHOLS: ...Because, among other things, I'd gone to a series of progressive schools. And in these schools which I had attended, one of which was a block away from the studio in which I find myself, everybody was in therapy. The school encouraged it, and there was a school psychologist who was kept very busy. And it was very much part of the vocabulary. And most of the kids in this progressive school were in therapy, so that I was very familiar with it. It was all around me.

BIANCULLI: Producer-director Mike Nichols speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2001 interview with producer-director Mike Nichols. He died Wednesday of cardiac arrest at age 83.


GROSS: Well, Mike Nichols, I don't want to say goodbye without asking you first about one of the most famous shots in modern movies, in a movie that you directed, "The Graduate." The scene that this is from is the scene in which Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft, is trying to seduce the young Dustin Hoffman, freshly out of college. And the shot that I am referring to is just as he's saying, Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me? She has been sitting on a bar stool. She's wearing a fairly short skirt, and as if an answer to that question, she has, like, raised her legs a little bit and separated them. She's, like, bent one of her legs, and you shoot Dustin Hoffman through her spread legs - through that one bent leg. And that shot even became the shot used or the image used in the ad campaign. Can you just talk a little bit about coming up with that shot?

NICHOLS: That scene was all about him being stalked by Mrs. Robinson, you know? And we talked about it being a jungle, and it was a jungle. There was all these plants in the Beverly Hills garden that was, you know, behind the glass that surrounded this sun porch. And we talked about her being the tiger in the jungle, and she had a striped dress on and - tiger-striped dress on. It was all built to be a trap, a tender trap, and then I wanted to - just to find a way to express the fact that she was being extremely provocative and that he was framed by that provocativeness, that it was making him sweat. There was her leg, and it was up. And it seemed logical to shoot through that - the arch of that leg.

GROSS: And did you try it many different ways before coming up with just the right shot?

NICHOLS: No, we just did that one shot. I mean, there it was. Anne put her heel up on the bar stool, and there was this very nice, little arch through which you could see Dustin very well. I said, oh, good, let's come over here - I like this. Things that become famous in movies are a concatenation of so many things that are out of control. All sorts of things that we don't control, but the process of choosing the pieces, the beads for the necklace that eventually gets thrown into the flames on the funeral pyre or that gets put on the princess as she's made into the queen, those - the process of making the beads to try to bend in this metaphor as quickly as possible...


NICHOLS: ...Is always the same. You know, you just look for the shot that most clearly expresses what's happening.

GROSS: Well, Mike Nichols, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

NICHOLS: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Mike Nichols speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. The acclaimed producer-director died Wednesday at age 83.


ANNE BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) May I ask you a question? What do you think of me?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What do you mean?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) You've known me nearly all your life. You must've formed some opinion of me.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Well, I always thought that you were a very nice person.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know I was an alcoholic?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know that?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Look, I think I should be going.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Sit down, Benjamin.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange. Now, I'm sure that Mr. Robinson will be here any minute now.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) No.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) My husband will be back quite late. He should be gone for several hours.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Oh, my God.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson): Pardon?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson, oh, no.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What's wrong?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Mrs. Robinson, you didn't - I mean, you didn't expect.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) I mean, you didn't really think I'd do something like that?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Like what?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) What do you think?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Well, I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) For God's sake, Mrs. Robinson. Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won't be home for hours.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) So?

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson, laughter).

HOFFMAN: (As Ben) Aren't you?

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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