As director Mike Nichols is celebrated in a recent “American Masters” special on PBS and the documentary “Becoming Mike Nichols” debuting Monday on HBO, Dustin Hoffman shared with me an intriguing story of the former University of Chicago student and Compass Players performer.
Hoffman’s brief trip down memory lane was triggered after a recent interview when I told him that many times when I arrive in Los Angeles, my thoughts turn to a specific image of him.
“Why is that?” said a bemused Hoffman. I explained that as I ride the moving walkway in the American Airlines terminal, I think back to that opening scene in “The Graduate,” where we see a blank-faced Hoffman moving along the same walkway, introducing us to his Benjamin Braddock character.
That was all it took to make the actor’s face light up with a broad smile. “I remember that day so clearly,” said Hoffman, flashing quickly to a memory from four decades in the past.
“At that point, I didn’t know anything about movies. The brilliant Mike Nichols picked that location with Bob Surtees, the cameraman. I remember them talking about it, because it wasn’t in the script,” added Hoffman.
“I remember Mike saying to Bob — and indirectly to me — ‘I want Dustin to be like a suitcase, not like a human being. A suitcase would go down [the walkway] just like the inanimate object it is. Benjamin Braddock should appear the same way because at that point in the story, Benjamin is not yet a three-dimensional person. He’s two-dimensional. He has no depth yet.’
“That’s just a great example of what a fantastic artist and filmmaker Mike was,” said Hoffman. “It’s just one memory of him I won’t ever forget. It’s very much worth remembering, as is anything connected to Mike Nichols.”
The new HBO documentary by Douglas McGrath, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” is centered around interviews recorded only four months before his death. Tony Award-winning director Jack O’Brien leads Nichols through a discussion of his storied career in the documentary.