My recent interview with singer/songwriter Art Garfunkel was one of the most enjoyable and informative encounters I have ever had.
Like all baby boomers, I grew up in the shadow of Simon & Garfunkel and the power of The Graduate, The Sound of Silence, Mrs. Robinson – all heady stuff that captured the spirit of a unique, thoughtful generation. So earlier this week, I was delighted to see the release of a new CD set, Simon & Garfunkel – The Complete Albums Collection.
In a 45-minute telephone chat with Garfunkel, we covered that release – and the intricacies of his volatile relationship over the decades with writing partner Paul Simon. But more immediate in our discussion was the passing Nov. 19 of Mike Nichols, who directed seminal movies Garfunkel was involved in, including Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge and The Graduate.
Jim Clash: Mike Nichols was not just a business associate, but a long-time friend of yours. Are there words to describe the world’s collective loss here?
Art Garfunkel: Words fail. You’re in the business of words, you have to catch things you write about and capture their essence. It’s a chancy business. Words don’t cut it when it comes to certain extraordinary things. Mike was about the greatest of them all. He was singular. [It’s rare] to encounter a person and ask, ‘Could this be the most intelligent, extraordinary man I have ever met?’ You need to step back and have confidence in your own judgments to capture when something is extraordinary. Mike was a man who seemed to have many extra IQ points and floated a little above reality. He never sweated because the power of intelligence is a calm thing.
JC: He was generous with his talents, no?
AG: I read a story recently where he was called in as a show doctor to sit with the audience to help. They were very frustrated, the production company. Mike watched the whole thing and said nothing. He then asked, ‘Can you do the play over again?’ They did the whole thing over, and he quietly spoke one sentence: ‘Move the chair into the center.’ The power of intelligence! When you are a smarty, you connect the dots with simple straight lines. Mike was never ruffled.
JC: You owe your own acting start to him, correct?
AG: My association with Mike was that of a mentor who plucked me out of a structure called Simon & Garfunkel and said, ‘I think you’re an actor as well.’ He found down time in my life while I was waiting for Paul to write new songs and offered me a role in Catch-22. Prior to that, we had made the sound track for The Graduate. As we worked – Paul, myself and Mike looking for songs to go in and liking on Mrs. Robinson – he must have been saying, ‘I could use Arthur as an actor. I know he has no acting experience, but he’s quick enough to work it out if I cast him appropriately.’
JC: And sure enough, he did!
AG: Mike came by my apartment on 68th Street in New York one day in 1968, rolled down the window of his limo and handed me the script to Joe Heller’s Catch-22. He said, ‘Read this, look for Captain Nately, I see you in that role.’ ‘But Mike, I’ve never acted,’ I said. ‘Just read it,’ he said. When you do read it, you find yourself suddenly able to empathize with Nichols’ call. I can see myself doing these lines, I am this guy. I can just be myself. Nately is an innocent. You have to like him when he’s there as a bit of a mama’s boy, and when he’s shot up you have to miss him when he’s gone as if you had never expected it. I get a catch in my breath when I say that. And so it is with Mike – you have to miss him when he’s gone.
JC: We all collectively miss him, I guess. The Graduate is my own favorite movie.