A award-winning director of versatility and insight, Mike Nichols (born 1931) has found success in both film and theatre. He started as a performer in improvisational theatre with his longtime collaborator, comedian Elaine May. After the duo broke up, Nichols turned to directing and producing for the theatre, winning awards for such hits as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Annie. He has also acquired an impressive list of film directorial credits, including the 1960s classics Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate.
Mike Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany on November 6, 1931. He was the son of Pavel Nicolaievitch Peschkowsky and Brigitte (Landauer) Peschkowsky. His father had already fled the Russian Revolution and, within ten years, the entire family would flee Nazi Germany and head for America.
Nichols' father, a physician, immigrated to the United States in 1938, and changed his name to Paul Nichols. A year later, Nichols and his younger brother joined their father in New York City. Due to illness, his mother did not immigrate until 1941. The Nichols family settled in the New York-Connecticut area, where Paul Nichols practiced medicine. Nichols was educated at the prestigious Dalton School in New York and Cherry Lawn School in Connecticut. Tragedy struck the family when Nichols was just 12. His father died, leaving his mother to raise two boys on her own. A short time later, in 1944, Nichols became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Chicago, New York, and Back
Nichols enrolled at New York University, but dropped out shortly thereafter. He worked for a year before enrolling at the University of Chicago in 1950. While in the pre-medicine program, he supported himself by working as a janitor, busboy, hotel desk clerk, and truck driver for the postal service.
Becoming more involved and interested in theatre, Nichols left college and moved back to New York. He studied acting with Lee Strasberg for about two years. Nichols then returned to Chicago, where he joined the Compass Players, an improvisational theatre group (later known as Second City) and began working with Elaine May. Of his dramatic abilities, Nichols told Vanity Fair writer Joan Juliet Buck: "I was very bad for a while, and then I was pretty good. And then, like everybody, if you do it long enough, you figure out how to do it."
Nichols and May began developing and performing routines that impressed audiences with on-target satire. Their manager, Jack Rollins, later commented to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service: "They did things that were taboo by the standards in those days. They were totally adventurous and totally innocent, in a certain sense. That's why it was accepted." After packing New York City venues, they reached Broadway, with An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which ran from 1960 until 1961. The show would earn the pair a Grammy Award for best comedy recording in 1961.
Shortly after Nichols appeared in one of May's plays, A Matter of Position, the duo split up. Nichols relayed to Barbara Gelb of the New York Times Magazine: "That's what fractured our relationship. I was onstage, she was in the audience watching me, judging me. As soon as we weren't in balance, equals on the stage, we flew apart." Nichols also shared with Gelb that he wasn't really prepared for professional life on his own. "When Elaine and I split up," Nichols told Gelb, "I didn't know what I was. I was the left-over half of something."
Found Niche as a Director
At the suggestion of a Broadway producer, Nichols made a career change and directed his first play, Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, in 1964. As Nichols told Buck of Vanity Fair, he knew he had found his niche: "On the first day I thought, here's my job. This is what all my experience, which up till now had seemed so random, was leading up to." Nichols was honored with the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best director of a play for Barefoot in the Park, and won the same honor a year later for The Odd Couple and Luv.
Success in filmmaking would follow. Nichols received critical acclaim for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor in an Academy-Award winning role. He also began to exhibit his fondness for foreground shooting, long takes, and distorting close-ups to intensify the sense of his characters' entrapment.
Nichols made his mark with the success of The Graduate, which starred Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman. In Hoffman's memorable screen debut, Hoffman's character became the spokesman for a generation that mistrusted anyone over thirty and vowed never to go into plastics. Nichols earned an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a New York Film Critics Award for best director for the film, which Gavin Smith of Film Comment called "a time capsule movie."
When asked how he made the transition from performing to directing, Nichols told Smith of Film Comment: "Improvising was a wonderful training as it turned out for theatre and movies, because you learn so much about what the audience expects in terms of action and events." His next film efforts would fall short. Catch-22, was based on the Joseph Heller novel. Quite simply, as Buck of Vanity Fair wrote, the film was "a disaster." Carnal Knowledge, a film about how men view women differently, followed in 1972. Starring Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret, Nichols called it "the darkest movie I ever made." His next two efforts, The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and The Fortune (1975) were, as Peter Bart of Variety described them, "ordinary studio films." Nichols then began a seven-year hiatus from making films.
Despite these disappointments, Nichols continued to garner honors in the theatre. He won the Tony Award for best director of a play for Plaza Suite in 1968 and for The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1972. In 1973, his stage work began to slacken as well. He did some television work, serving as executive producer for the series Family. He returned to Broadway with a bang, producing the musical Annie, which earned him $2 million and a Tony Award for best musical (as producer) in 1977.
Returned to Films
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Nichols was active in theatre and television, but had not made a movie since The Fortune in 1975. That changed when he began working on the politically-charged movie Silkwood, which starred Meryl Streep and Cher. He was excited about the fascinating, fact-based story about Karen Silkwood, a plutonium plant worker, who died under suspicious circumstances as she went to meet a union official and reporter regarding unsafe conditions at the plant. The story revitalized Nichols, and he greatly enjoyed directing the talented Streep. He also had success on Broadway, with the play The Real Thing, and won another best director Tony Award in 1984.
Nichols' personal life experienced some dramatic upheavals during this time as well. He developed health problems between the films Heartburn (also starring Meryl Streep) in 1986 and Biloxi Blues in 1988. After being prescribed the drug Halcyon, his problems increased. In quick succession, his third marriage ended, he quit using Halcyon, and he became reacquainted with the television journalist Diane Sawyer (whom he had met prior to the Halcyon problems). Nichols and Sawyer married in the spring of 1988. Children from previous marriages included Daisy (from his first marriage) and Max and Jenny (from his third marriage).
Nichols returned to work with a vengeance. He directed a stage production of the Samuel Beckett classic Waiting for Godot in 1988, as well as several successful films. After Biloxi Blues, he directed the romantic comedy Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford. He directed Streep in Postcards from the Edge in 1990, and directed Ford in Regarding Henry in 1991.
Collaboration with May
A 1994 effort, Wolf, was unique and special in many ways. Starring Jack Nicholson, the film took Nichols into new territory—the horror genre. He also tackled profound questions about aging, death, and what lies beyond concrete knowledge. Smith of Film Comment added, "In some ways Wolf is almost a mirror image of Regarding Henry. Both are stories of transformation, of discovering a new self."
What was likely the most special part of Wolf however, was that Elaine May, his old partner from his comedy days, helped with the script (although uncredited). Regarding his relationship with May, Nichols commented to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service: "Certainly rejoining Elaine has been terribly important. Any small differences between us have burned away. We have only pleasure. What I don't think, she thinks of; what she doesn't think of, I think of."
The pair followed with The Birdcage, a remake of the French farce La Cage Aux Folles, which was released in 1996. May wrote the screenplay, and Nichols directed the film. It was their first collaboration in more than three decades. The movie was a huge hit. David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, "What's striking about The Birdcage is how little it's changed in 18 years. Nichols carefully follows the classical-farce footprints of the original, in which the middle-aged gay couple are forced to conjure up a straight facade to facilitate the marriage of Armand's son to the daughter of the gay-bashing, anti-Semitic senator."
The movie received some criticism from conservative groups because of its content. It was a movie about a gay couple, which did not sit well with some people. Nichols contended that it was a movie about families and how they care about each other. He stated to the Knight-Ridder/ Tribune News Service that the movie was "suggesting that the value of family is far more important than anyone's notion of family values. What the film really says is that we're all the same. We're all people trying to get through life." The movie made an impact on Nichols as well. He commented to Lemon of Interview that "his life ha[d] come full circle" because he was back working with May. He added, "I've made up my mind that she's the world's greatest screenwriter."
Nichols followed The Birdcage with an acting job. As noted by Jack Knoll of Newsweek, when Nichols was asked to appear in Designated Mourner, a Wallace Shaw play in London, "he consulted with his wife, Diane Sawyer, and with Elaine May, who both advised him to do it." Nichols and May were also honored and profiled in an "American Masters" special on the Public Broadcasting System. The Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service called the pair "the best man-and-woman comedy team since George Burns and Gracie Allen. They precisely fit the name of the series on which they are saluted this week American Masters."
The next Nichols/May collaboration was Primary Colors, which closely resembled the trials and tribulations of American President Bill Clinton. Based on the novel by "Anonymous" (later revealed to be Joe Klein), John Travolta and Emma Thompson play the Stantons, a couple on the campaign trail for the presidency. When Jack Stanton's sexual escapades become public knowledge, his career is threatened. Ansen of Newsweek wrote, " Primary Colors is the funniest, shrewdest, and saddest movie about American politics since Gore Vidal's The Best Man. " He added, "Nichols knows this is a movie about performers performing."
Nichols received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Society of the Lincoln Center in May of 1999. According to the "Internet Movie Database," he is directing and producing the movie What Planet Are You From? as well as producing the movie All the Pretty Horses. Both are scheduled to be released in 2000.
Lemon of Interview magazine reflected, "Over and over, Nichols has captured exactly where culture turned out to be going. You could say that his sixth sense is spooky, but in fact, his uncanniness reflects something else: the mind and heart of an artist."
Further Reading on Mike Nichols
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, volume 16. Gale Research, 1997.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
Newsmakers 1994, Volume/Issue 4. Gale Research, 1994.
Film Comment, May 1999, p. 10.
Interview, April 1998, p. 102.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 17, 1994; March 14, 1996; May 20, 1996.
New York Times Magazine, May 27, 1984.
Newsweek, March 18, 1996, p. 71; May 6, 1996, p. 84; March 23, 1998, p. 63.
Time, May 9, 1988, p. 80.
Vanity Fair, June 1994.
Variety, May 10, 1999, p. 4.
"Mike Nichols," The Internet Movie Database Ltd, http://chevy.imbd.com(October 16, 1999).
"The Tony Awards" Infoplease.com—all the knowledge you need, http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0153396.html (October 16, 1999).