Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Late Great Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols, who began his career as part of the legendary comedy team of Nichols and May with Elaine May and went onto a career as an acclaimed director, died yesterday at the age of 83. The cause was a heart attack.

Mike Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany on 6 November 1931. On his mother's side his grandfather was anarchist Gustav Landauer and his grandmother was poet Hedwig Lachmann. Also through his mother's side, Albert Einstein was his third cousin twice removed. His family were Russian Jews who had migrated to Germany. With the Nazis in power, the family eventually left Germany for the United States. Young Mikhail's father left first and a few months later, in April 1939, Mikhail and his younger brother joined him. The family settled in New York City. Young Mikhail's mother, who had been ill,  joined them after escaping from Nazi Germany in 1940. In the United States Mikhail's father changed his name to Paul Nichols and established a medical practice in Manhattan.

Mike Nichols attended P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side and became a naturalised citizen of the United States in 1944. He graduated from Walden School in Manhattan and then attended New York University for a short time. He enrolled in the pre-medical programme at the University of Chicago in 1950. It was at the University of Chicago that he took an interest in theatre. Mike Nichols first encountered Elaine May, who would eventually be his partner in comedy, while there. He was acting in a student production of August Strindberg's play Miss Julie when he first took notice of her, a young woman who obviously hated the production and his performance. The two encountered each other a few more times before a fateful meeting in the Illinois Central Railroad station.

It was in 1953 that Mike Nichols joined the  the Playwrights Theatre Club, a forerunner of the Compass Players. He dropped out of the University of Chicago in 1954 to move to New York City to study acting under Lee Strasberg. He returned to Chicago in 1955, at which point he joined the cabaret revue show known as the Compass Players. It was there that Mike Nichols reconnected with Elaine May and the two of them formed a comedy team with Shelley Berman. The team was soon reduced to simply Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

Eventually Nichols and May were performing in New York City at various clubs. They also began to appear on television. They made their television debut on an edition of Omnibus in 1958, "The Suburban Show". Nichols and May appeared on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, the 11th Annual Emmy Awards, The Big Party, The Jack Paar Tonight Show, What's My Line, and Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall.  They also appeared in their own show on Broadway, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and recorded the comedy albums Improvisations to Music, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors, as well as proving voices for animated commercials for Narragansett Brewing Company.

Unfortunately Mike Nichols and Elaine May's partnership could be volatile and the two not only argued off stage, but sometimes on stage as well. Eventually Miss May dissolved the partnership, and for a time their friendship ended as well. The two would reunite from time to time in the Sixties, appearing in the TV special President Kennedy's Birthday Salute and several editions of The Jack Paar Programme. Elaine May would have a cameo in Mike Nichols's film The Graduate (1967).

By his own admission Mike Nichols floundered for a time after the dissolution of his partnership with Elaine May. Fortunately in 1963 he was hired to direct a play written by Neil Simon that would eventually be titled Barefoot in the Park. Barefoot in the Park debuted on Broadway in 1963 and received widespread acclaim, with Mr. Nichols's direction often praised. Mike Nichols would direct several more high successful Broadway plays in the Sixties, including Luv, The Odd Couple, The Apple Tree, a revival of The Little Foxes, and Plaza Suite.

Mike Nichols also broke into directing films. His film debut was the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The film was not only critically acclaimed, but was nominated in every single eligible category in the Academy Awards. In total it won five Oscars. If anything Mr. Nichols's next film would be even more successful. The Graduate (1967) would be the highest grossing film of its year and is still the 21st highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. It received overwhelmingly positive reviews and seven Oscar nominations. Mike Nichols won the Oscar for Best Director for the film. Mr. Nichols directed the short "Teach Me!" and then the 1970 adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. While Catch-22 did not do well at the box office and was largely ignored by the various awards ceremonies, it has since become highly regarded.

Mike Nichols's film career slowed in the Seventies He directed the films Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Day of the Dolphin (1973), and The Fortune (1975), as well as co-directing a filmed version of Gilda Radner's Broadway show Gilda Live! (1980) with Lorne Michaels. He did a good deal of directing on Broadway, including The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a revival of Uncle Vanya, StreamersComedians, and The Gin Game. He had a great deal of popular success with the musical Annie. He won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for The Prisoner of Second Avenue and was nominated several more times during the decade.

The Eighties would see a revival of Mike Nichols's film career. Silkwood (1983) received a good deal of critical acclaim and was nominated for five Oscars. He directed Heartburn (1986) and Biloxi Blues (1988) before having a popular success with Working Girl (1988). The film did very well at the box office and received five Oscar nominations. He finished the decade with Postcards from the Edge (1980). Mr Nichols continued to work on Broadway, directing such productions as Lunch Hour, The Real Thing, Hurlyburly, and Social Security. He won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for The Real Thing.

Mike Nichols began the Nineties with the films Regarding Henry (1991) and Wolf (1994). He renewed his collaboration with Elaine May, with Miss May writing the screenplays for his films The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colours (1998). The Birdcage was an adaptation of the French film La Cage aux Folles and did very well at the box office. The film also received largely positive reviews. While Primary Colours did poorly at the box office, the film did receive largely positive reviews. Mike Nichols finished the decade with the science fiction comedy What Planet Are You From?. On Broadway Mr. Nichols directed the  production Death and the Maiden.

In the Naughts Mike Nicholas directed the television movie Wit and two episodes of the mini-series Angels in America. He also directed the films Closer (2004) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007). On Broadway he directed The Play What I Wrote, Spamalot, and revivals of The Apple Tree and The Country Girl. He won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Spamalot. In the Teens he directed revivals of Death of a Salesman and Betrayal. He received the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for Death of a Salesman.

The word "genius" is often applied liberally to various individuals, but the word might well have been accurate in describing Mike Nichols. As one half of the comedy team of Nichols and May, Mike Nichols created some of the most hilarious comedy sketches of all time. It was not enough that Mike Nichols and Elaine May were masters of improvisation, they could create memorable sketches off the cuff that also served as a commentary on American culture. Their classic sketch "$65 Funeral" pre-dated the Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death and Ruth Muvey Harner's The High Cost of Dying in attacking abuses on the part of the funeral home industry. Their classic "Mother and Son" sketch featured Elaine May as an overprotective mother nagging her aerospace engineer son. Their "At the Watercooler" sketch derived humour from two office workers discussing everything from the then current quiz show scandals to politicians. Nichols and May had a way of taking scenes from everyday life and turning them into a critique of American culture in a way that no other comedians ever had. They also found humour in subjects very few comedians would have ever tried tackling at the time, everything from funerals to hospitals.

Of course, Mike Nichols would go onto a very successful career as a director of both Broadway plays and films. For many his most lasting contribution to film may be The Graduate, the classic tale of a young man coming of age with no particular goals in life. There is no doubt that it is not only a highly regarded film, but one that has had a lasting impact on pop culture. There are very few people who would not recognise the name "Mrs. Robinson". That having been said, Mr. Nichols directed several great films in his career. While it did poorly at the box office and did not win many awards, Catch-22 is now somewhat better regarded. Indeed, seen now it holds up much better than what was at the time the more highly regarded and successful contemporary M*A*S*H. Mike Nichols sometimes pushed the envelope as to what was acceptable in his films. Although it might seem to hard believe now, in its time Carnal Knowledge was very controversial in its rather open portrayal of male sexuality. Although many of Mike Nichols's later films would not be as highly regarded as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or The Graduate, Mike Nichols was still capable of making fine films later in his career. Not only was The Birdcage one of the funniest Nineties in my opinion, but it was better than the original French film.

As both part of the comedy team May and Nichols and as a director Mike Nichols displayed a rare brand of talent. Both as an improvisational comedian and a director his contributions to popular culture will not soon be forgotten. 

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