Mike Nichols was not a Vegas kind of guy.
That made the rare occasions when he came into our world all that more impressive. And just a little intimidating.
Not that there was reason to be. Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83, twice proved as gracious as he was articulate. First when a younger me covered the press junket for “Postcards from the Edge,” and 17 years later, when the old one got him on the phone to talk about his Broadway hit “Monty Python’s Spamalot” moving into Wynn Las Vegas.
Movie promotion was a little different in the pre-Internet era of September 1990, when studios flew reporters in for press junkets. This one was at Caesars Palace, where parts of the movie had filmed, allowing me to be one of the few locals in the mix.
The biggest media outlets got private interviews with Nichols and his stars Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. But a vast and strange assortment of the rest of us? We were broken into groups of seven or eight and seated in a ballroom at round tables with an empty seat at each, where the stars and director would rotate and sit down every 10 minutes.
My table ranged from a guy whose sole obsession was posing for pictures with the talent to more experienced reporters who, well, didn’t almost forget the question he had loaded up for Meryl Streep when he suddenly found himself looking straight into her eyes.
Touring rockers and resident crooners were one thing. I think I was already friendly with Robert Goulet by then. But A-list Hollywood people didn’t often fall into the Review-Journal’s purview, and this was the director of “The Graduate” who plopped down at the table, cordial and fully engaged yet somehow so — not Vegas.
I remember my main goal was to get in a question or two that did not embarrass me or the stars, while otherwise being happy to let the table share the load.
When it came my turn, I got out some rambling question about how the intimate, dialogue-driven film came off like a well-rehearsed play and how he had achieved that, failing to add a question mark at any comprehensible point.
“Did we rehearse? Oh sure,” Nichols replied, or something to that effect (in lieu of the actual cassette tape or microfilm evidence of the quote). But he went on to reveal he had booked the cast for two weeks of rehearsal, twice the amount of rehearsal time that he would normally do before shooting.
Nichols (and Carrie Fisher) were also happy to talk about how the movie version of Fisher’s autobiographical novel dealt with part-year Las Vegan and Fisher’s mom, Debbie Reynolds.
Reynolds “really wanted to play” the role that went to MacLaine, Nichols said, but “It’s already so confusing … because we know so much about Carrie’s life. I didn’t want to emphasize that. It’s not a documentary. It’s a fictitious movie about invented characters. Those characters have as many roots in my life and Meryl’s and Shirley’s as they do in Carrie’s life.”
In 2007, Steve Wynn imported “Spamalot” for a resident run, and Nichols agreed to speak by phone about his Broadway creation. My ice-breaker was to tell the director I had attended the “Postcards” junket and asked him a garbled question, but was not one of the guys asking him to pose for pictures.
“I can tell on the phone that you are not one of those guys,” he said with a laugh.
Nichols had limited involvement with the Las Vegas edition of the comic musical, but agreed shaping the Python piece with Eric Idle was a good counterbalance to the heavyweight drama of his two previous films, “Closer” and “Angels in America.”
“If you love comedy and have a knack for it, it’s wonderful to return to it because it’s so straightforward,” he said.
“If it’s funny, you keep it. If it’s not funny, you throw it out. I love the simplicity and cruelty of that.
“There’s only one test. It’s not, ‘Is it interesting?’ It’s not, ‘Was I moved?’ It’s not, ‘Did I feel for her?’ It’s only, ‘Did you laugh?’ If you didn’t laugh, we’ll take it out.”
I didn’t ask him about rehearsals.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.