David Nichols was so unlike old-school Hollywood you’d never imagine he worked alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro.
Instead, he was a charming and personable soul who belied the sometimes inaccessible and impersonal nature of what things can be like behind the camera. He was a man you’d see on the streets of Taos, just an ordinary human being.
Nichols died May 13 in Taos after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 78.
"I remember as a child a driving desire to pick up a blade of grass and study it,” Nichols wrote in his journal in 1963. “To sit in a field and see all of those things that existed within a small square I had scored in the earth. … This is what must've been in my mind in creating. … A small whole of many little parts each one beautiful and worthy of being seen for itself.”
Nichols moved to Taos in the 1970s, according to his nephew Perry Brooks Nichols. “He always returned to his beloved Taos, despite a career that brought him to LA and locations all over the world,” Brooks Nichols wrote. “He was well regarded for his generosity, humor and the brilliant candor that he carried until his last days as he battled degenerative Parkinson's disease. He is considered an inspiration by many he encountered on his life's journey and by those impacted by his departure.”
Ron Usherwood has worked extensively in the Taos theater community, as a director, actor and former executive director of the Taos Center for the Arts. He was a longtime friend and associate of Nichols.
“My friend David was a troubled genius,” Usherwood said. “We collaborated on many projects as director and designer, actor and director and as fellow actors. He was quick to laugh and equally quick to anger. Our almost 30-year friendship was not always easy, but it was almost always entertaining.”
He said the stories Nichols told of his film escapades always kept him enthralled. “From destroying a basketball court filming ‘Hoosiers’ (1986) to sourcing a truck load of human skulls for ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1988), to riding around Manhattan on the floor of a cab at 3 a.m. on top of Robert De Niro’s feet balancing a camera on his knees during the shooting of ‘Taxi Driver,’ he lived his large life with everything he had.”
Usherwood said he was living with Nichols in a bungalow in Talpa when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“We were rehearsing Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ for a backstage performance at the [Taos Community Auditorium] and David, playing Hamm, was having issues with line memorization due in part to the disease. We developed a signal for him to relay to [local actor] David Garver, playing Clove, when he was in trouble – Nichols would tap his forehead when he needed Garver to feed him a line.
"On one night, near the end of the run, when his makeup was nearly rubbed off his forehead from signaling for help, he finally turned to Garver and improvised the line, ‘Put me on the road.’ Without missing a beat Garver turned to Nichols and said, ‘There are no more roads.’ I was sitting next to [the late gallery owner and actor-playwright] Steve Parks in the house and we looked at each other. That’s all it took. We both guffawed so loudly we startled the rest of the audience. But Nichols was back on track. He laughed so loudly at our outburst that the audience had no choice but to join in. Steve and I and the audience had put him on the road. He did love a good audience. And I guess David is on the road again. Godspeed, my friend.”
Jane Ayles, another local theater director-actor, had this to say upon Nichols’ passing: “I first met David when he attended a rehearsal of ‘The Real Inspector Hound' that I was directing at the Space Theatre (in Taos) in 2010. I was looking for a body, and he volunteered. Not too easy to lie on the stage under the sofa for an hour without sneezing or snoring, but he played the part brilliantly!”
Ayles added that in March 2011, local actor Kristen Woolf suggested she ask him to design her set for ‘The Boys Next Door.’ “He came up with an intriguing child’s paintbox color scheme with great ingenuity — both of these shows delighted local audiences and toured to Angel Fire with great success. He was always kind, funny, humble and so knowledgeable about all aspects of the theater. I will miss seeing him at all the shows. He never missed a performance and he complimented everyone involved and really enjoyed himself. He always had that engaging delighted smile, a true gentleman of the theater. I was honored to have had his acquaintance.”
Woolf added that when her husband, the late Bjorn Halvorsen, was in the Taos Living Center for a cracked femur, Nichols was his roommate. “They were both men of wit and intelligence, and kept each other entertained, especially when nights were long,” Woolf said. “David entirely endeared himself to us both, regaling us with stories about his boyhood, being always good humored and smiling. Twice when Bjorn was in the ER, he would be on a bed next to David, and they both found this hilarious.”
Maestra Michael Creature, daughter of Nichols’ longtime companion Ramsey Scott, said, “In David I found the most kindred of spirits. He 'spent some heart’ on me, he would say. And it was the most precious gift to me. His eyes glowed with heart and soul. I could sit with David for hours and be filled with inspiration in the artistic musings of his perception of life and creativity, and I treasured his opinions of my work.”
Creature, who lives in the U.K., is an artist and musician. “Her voice was the only voice he responded to with smiles and recognition during his last days. She called him Papa,” Scott said.
“He understood the rawness and suffering of the human experience, but he never ceased to amaze me with his sense of humor about it, his patience with it and his grace as he dealt with his own challenges,” Creature said. “The clarity he provided me as an artist and as a fragile evolving human is a testament to his great understanding of both of these subjects, which we shared enthusiastically.
“He invested time into knowing what was important to me and who I was growing into, and made me feel embraced and loved in a way that very few people can claim. I called him Papa and he adopted me back. There was a bond between us like a flame that will stay lit in my heart forever.”
David Trelawny Nichols was born Nov. 24, 1941 in Dallas, Texas, to Perry Boyd Nichols, the Dallas Nine Regionalist painter, and Mary Nell Brooks Nichols, an artist and designer.
He was raised along with his brother, Christopher, in Dallas. Nichols’ family including uncle James Brooks, "the irascible" abstract expressionist, who encouraged him to pursue studies in the liberal, visual and performing arts at Austin College and Goddard College, before embarking on a career in acting and film production.
His first professional acting role was in Theatre 3's premiere production, "Waiting for Godot," in Dallas. This paved the way to his performances in off-Broadway and major motion pictures.
He made the leap from directing and designing for the stage to working in movie production, starting out as the art director for Roger Corman's "Gas!" in 1970. He honed his craft as the visual consultant for many of Martin Scorsese's early productions including "Taxi Driver," and evolving as production designer of such iconic pictures as "Groundhog Day."
His illustrious career in film and Hollywood spanned more than 30 years.
Nichols is survived by his brother, the renowned playwright Christopher Perry Nichols, sister-in-law Libby Walls Nichols, half-brother Peter Nichols, and only nephew Perry Brooks Nichols, who carries on the family's legacy through his art and music.
A celebration of his life will be announced postpandemic. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to any animal support foundation in his name.