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Obituary: Farewell to the master of angst and thoughtful conversation, Mike Nichols

Obituary: Farewell to the master of angst and thoughtful conversation, Mike Nichols

The multi-talented Mike Nichols, master comedic genius, film, television and stage director, has passed away. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes note of Nichols’ impact in a long career that brought memorable works like The Graduate and Angels in America to the big and television screens, and Death of a Salesman to the stage.

Long before this writer had a clear idea of what the impact of a film director actually was, two of Mike Nichols’ earliest films had already made an extraordinary impression on a young filmgoer. To be astounded by the raw, painful energy of a work like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and then, just a year later, to be mesmerised by The Graduate was like seeing a door opening up into an entirely new landscape. And these were just the first cinema works of a man who had already made a reputation as a sardonic, funny and very dark stand-up comedian with his co-performer and writer, Elaine May, as well as a growing reputation as a successful director on Broadway.

Even before venturing into directorial work, the comedy duo’s live appearances had made Nichols a nationally recognised creative presence to be reckoned with. Together with May, their seemingly improvisational, freewheeling style tackled sex, marriage, and family, along with various other subjects in a fresh, even dangerous way that startled and enthralled audiences in the late 1950s and early ’60s. In 1997, Nichols, reminiscing about their work together, said, “People always thought we were making fun of other people when we were in fact making fun of ourselves. We did teenagers in the back seat of the car and people committing adultery. Of course, you’re making fun of yourself. You’re making jokes about yourself. Who can you better observe?”

Nichols died last week at 83 after a career in which he garnered nine Tony Awards (for stage), an Oscar, several Emmy Awards (for television) and even a Grammy for a bestselling recording of his comedic work. For the actors who worked with him he was known as a director who helped create careers – and legends – for people as varied as Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg. Nichols was the kind of creative talent a writer like Aaron Sorkin could say is “the most talented person I have ever known”, when Nichols directed Sorkin’s script for the film, Charlie Wilson’s War, late in Nichols’ career. Throughout his long working life, Nichols delivered magnificent stage and screen (both big and little) renditions of works by such first tier playwrights as Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Tony Kushner and Arthur Miller.

Nichols turned his finely tuned sensibility to deliver films that offered caustic social commentaries of couples drunk with bitterness, bored with regret and apprehensive in flight. Amazingly, in a work like The Graduate, Nichols had provided a film that went right to the core of the growing social and political turmoil of the 1960s in the US, without ever mentioning the Vietnam War, student unrest, the civil rights struggle, the sexual revolution, or any of the other big issues of the day – in a film that, nevertheless, seemed to sum up the angst and feelings of a generation. (The Graduate was helped along by the shimmering music and lyrics from the Simon and Garfunkel duo that helped turn the film a deeply personal tale – even if most young university graduates aren’t seduced by the girl next door’s mother!)

And Steven Spielberg, a man who seems to know a thing or two about crafting a good film, said, “ The Graduate was life altering — both as an experience at the movies as well as a master class about how to stage a scene. Mike had a brilliant cinematic eye and uncanny hearing for keeping scenes ironic and real.”

Even at his darkest moments with film, comedy was never far from most of Nichols’ work. His directorial debut of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had magnificently transferred the live stage world of Edward Albee’s rapier-like wit and repartee and gave it to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as they tormented each other over the respective feelings of long-festering guilt and resentments. Against type, Nichols had made Burton frumpy and rumpled and Taylor bombastic, overweight and frowsy and allowed them to find the dramatic performances of their respective careers.

Watch: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf trailer? (1966)

Similarly, with the TV miniseries of Tony Kushner’s theatrical stunner, Angels in America, and in a television adaptation of the hit drama, Wit, Nichols found the dark humour in the lives of people facing death – and then copped Emmys for both of them. Commenting on his own unique approach to handling humour, Nichols had explained, “I have never understood people dividing things into dramas and comedies. There are more laughs in Hamlet [along with lots of deaths on stage of course] than many Broadway comedies.”

Together with his Russian-Jewish family that had been resident in Berlin, Nichols got to the US in 1939 – just before it became virtually impossible to escape from the Third Reich. He was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky on 6 November 1931, before his name was changed to Nichols. Interestingly, his relatives included maternal grandparents the anarchist Gustav Landauer and author Hedwig Lachmann, while Albert Einstein was a third cousin, twice removed, on his mother’s side.

Years later, in explaining how and when he fell in love with the theatre, Nichols explained he first became enamoured with the stage at the age of 15 when the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them two tickets to see Marlon Brando in the second night of the incandescent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Nichols said of that experience, “We were poleaxed, stunned.” No doubt.

After high school, Nichols went to the University of Chicago for a while but left before graduation so he could study acting in New York with the renowned drama teacher, Lee Strasberg. While still in Chicago, back in 1953, Nichols had become an announcer on a classical music station, creating a folk music programme for the station that aired on Saturday nights called The Midnight Special. (The programme is still on air.) After his time with Strasberg, he returned to Chicago and joined the Compass Players, where he first began working with Elaine May. (This group, the Compass Players, was the company that eventually morphed into the renowned Second City Theatre company.)

Watch: The Graduate (1967) Trailer

The Mike Nichols and Elaine May comedy duo quickly became a phenomenon on stage with their Broadway project, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and they scooped a Grammy in the category of best comedy recording in 1961. Nichols and May ended their stage association soon after that success on a less than happy note, but they began to work together in the 1990s, when she wrote the screenplays for some of Nichols later great films, such as Primary Colors and The Birdcage.

Recollecting the impact of that comedy team, Jack Rollins, Woody Allen’s producer, said of them, “Their work was so startling, so new, as fresh as could be. I was stunned by how really good they were, actually as impressed by their acting technique as by their comedy… I thought, My God, these are two people writing hilarious comedy on their feet!”

And after Nichols and May broke up as a team, cinema director Arthur Penn said of them, “They set the standard and then they had to move on”; while the cerebral but evergreen American television talk show host Dick Cavett had said of their work, “they were one of the comic meteors in the sky”.

But after Nichols split from May on the comedy stage, he realised he had found his true path as a director scoring a clutch of Tony Awards, saying in a 2003 interview about his life: “On the first day of rehearsal [of Barefoot in the Park], I thought, ‘Well, look at this. Here is what I was meant to do.’ I knew instantly that I was home.’ ”

Over the years, he had a wildly successful, award-winning run with live theatre that included such stage gems as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Real Thing, Death of a Salesman, and Monty Python’s Spamalot. His 2012 production of The Death of a Salesman starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of that project Nichols said, “This is as good a time as I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to f— it up.” In addition, he produced Annie and The Real Thing. And naturally enough, as he shifted in to film, numerous Oscar nominations came his way for directing such films as Virginia Woolf, Silkwood, Working Girl, and The Remains of the Day (which he produced) – as well as that Oscar statue for The Graduate.

Over the years, Nichols became well known as the kind of director the great actors were eager to work with on stage, on television, or in films. He worked with such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Emma Thompson, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks, just to name a few of the well-known names that appeared in his creations. Speaking about his practice of his craft as director, Nichols said, “I think a director can make a play happen before your eyes so that you are part of it and it is part of you. If you can get it right, there’s no mystery. It’s not about mystery. It’s not even mysterious. It’s about our lives.”

A few years back, at one of those American Film Institute lifetime tribute events, his long-time comedic partner, Elaine May, offered a fitting summation of Nichols’ impact as a director, when she told the audience, “You really want Mike to direct your screenplay because you know that every shot and every costume and every piece of furniture and every shoe is going to tell your story, and never give it away.” We are going to miss his particular brand of directorial genius. DM

Photo: Mike Nichols (L) stands with his wife, Diane Sawyer (R), while holding his Tony Award for director the play “Monty Python’s Spamalot” after the 59th Annual Tony Awards Ceremony at Radio City Music Hall Sunday 05 June 2005 in New York. EPA/PETER FOLEY

For more, read:

  • Aaron Sorkin on Mike Nichols: “The Most Talented Person I Have Ever Known” at the Hollywood Reporter

  • Tom Stoppard on Mike Nichols: “The Pleasantest Person to Be With” at the Hollywood Reporter

  • How Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky Became Mike Nichols: A Timeline at the Hollywood Reporter

  • Master of all mediums Mike Nichols dead at 83 at the AP

  • Mike Nichols Biography from

  • A Last Lunch with Mike Nichols at the New Yorker

  • Mike Nichols, ‘The Graduate’ Director, Dead at 83 at the Rolling Stone


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