Mike Nichols was one of a vanishingly small number of directors to have done distinguished work on both stage and screen, and one of an even smaller number to be widely known by name to the public at large. But like Alfred Hitchcock, who became nationally famous only when he started hosting a TV series, Nichols first acquired his celebrity for another reason. From 1957 to 1961, he and Elaine May were a hugely popular stand-up comedy team, appearing on TV and radio and cutting bestselling albums of the sketches in which they satirized the foibles of middle-class America in the Eisenhower era. Not until 1963 did Nichols direct his first Broadway show, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, following it three years later with his first film, a screen version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Though he continues to be known for his partnership with May as one of the founders of the modern comedy movement exemplified by the four-decade run of Saturday Night Live, it was Nichols’s career as a director that made him notable. He spent nearly five decades on Broadway, staging versions of such plays as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
For 30 years, from 1966 to 1996, he also helmed big-screen hits as various as Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Working Girl, and The Birdcage—and one unquestioned cultural phenomenon, The Graduate, in 1967. At the turn of the 21st century, Nichols took to HBO, where his adaptations of Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway fare such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Margaret Edson’s Wit won universal acclaim. By the time of his death in 2014 at the age of 83, Nichols had won a best-director Oscar, two best-director Emmys, seven best-director Tonys—and, in 1961, a Grammy for best comedy album of the year. He was, without a doubt, the most celebrated behind-the-scenes guiding hand of his, and perhaps any, time.
Such a wide-ranging professional life is the stuff of a major biography, and Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back, two of the best books about film to come out in recent years, has delivered the goods. Mike Nichols: A Life is as fine a portrait of anyone in the performing arts as I have ever read.1 Few such books can claim to be truly definitive, but this one fills the bill. A primary-source biography based in large part on interviews with Nichols and his friends and colleagues—including his wife Diane Sawyer, Elaine May, Matthew Broderick, Tom Hanks, Tony Kushner, Bill Irwin, Steve Martin, Marsha Mason, Robert Redford, and Stephen Sondheim—it is at once exhaustive and consummately well written, a book that tells you everything you could possibly want to know about its subject without stooping to gossipy salaciousness.
BORN IN Berlin in 1931, Nichols was of Russian-Jewish descent (his birth name was Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky). He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1939, just ahead of the Holocaust, and settled in New York. His father was a doctor who was able to restart his career after coming to America (his patients included Sol Hurok and Vladimir Horowitz) and to send his oldest son to private schools that admitted Jews. But Nichols, who did not speak English before coming to New York, felt a sense of distance from his fellow students as a result, and he was to be haunted thereafter by the nearness of his escape from the Nazis. His feeling of distance also arose from the fact that he had lost all his hair as a child—including his eyebrows—in an adverse reaction to a whooping-cough inoculation. It never grew back, and from the age of 13, he wore wigs and fake eyebrows.
Nichols’s father died of leukemia in 1944, leaving his family in straitened circumstances. But he won scholarships to the private schools he attended, and his mother’s second husband, also a doctor, sent him to the University of Chicago in 1949. By then he was stage-struck—he had been “pole-axed,” as he later put it, by Elia Kazan’s original productions of Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—and in Hyde Park he began working with a group of young actors that later evolved into Second City, the improvisational comedy troupe.
In 1951, Nichols dropped out of school to spend all his time acting and watching movies, with which he was similarly obsessed. Then he met a young performer named Elaine May, who shared his cultural interests. Although they fell briefly in love, it was their mutual interests and talents, not their short-lived romance, that led them to set up shop in 1957 as a full-time comedy team whose sketches were polished versions of the satirical improvisations that had wowed Chicago clubgoers.
Neither Nichols nor May ever expected to make a career out of comedy. “Eventually we would find out what we were going to do, and do it, and have lives like normal people,” he recalled. Nevertheless, they became a hugely successful comedy duo, moving to New York and recording LPs of the routines they performed in nightclubs and on TV, many of which, like “Mother and Son,” played their Jewish heritage for laughs (“Hello, Arthur? This is your mother. Do you remember me?”). They reached the pinnacle of their joint success when An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May opened to near-universal acclaim on Broadway in 1960. But they were tired of doing the same material over and over again, so they shuttered the show after 311 performances and went their separate ways. This allowed their friendship to survive—35 years later, May would write the scripts for The Birdcage and Primary Colors, two Nichols films—while leaving Nichols at a loss for what to do next. It was not until 1963 that he made the long-delayed discovery that changed his life permanently.
Arnold Saint-Subber, Neil Simon’s producer, was in search of a director for Simon’s second play, Barefoot in the Park, and persuaded Simon to give Nichols a chance. No sooner had he shown up for the first rehearsal than he realized, in his own oft-quoted words, that “this was the job I had been preparing for without knowing it.” Unlike most comedy directors of the day, whose productions were vulgarizingly broad and exaggerated, Nichols decided to stage Barefoot for truth, not punch lines. “Let’s do it as though we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he told the cast. “As if the people were alive.”
The results are well described by Harris, who puts his finger on the hallmark of Nichols’s directorial style when he speaks of its “effortless verisimilitude”:
[Simon’s] acutely funny lines were combined with a rare glimpse at how people go about their lives in the privacy of their own homes, their physical tics, their tiny irritations, the odd habits that you never realized everyone shared until someone revealed them to you onstage. It was the Nichols touch, honed by his years of working with May and getting the audience to say, “Yes! How did you know?”
Barefoot ran on Broadway for 1,530 performances, and Nichols promptly followed it up with two more hits, Murray Schisgal’s Luv and Simon’s The Odd Couple. What followed was even more unexpected: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton invited him to direct the screen version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. It was a daring choice, for not only did Nichols have no film experience of any kind, but he had hitherto worked solely in comedy. Unfazed by the challenge, he hewed to his lifelong motto, “If you’re in any contest at all where you can win or lose, try to win.” He won big: Virginia Woolf was both a box-office smash and an artistic triumph, one of the few Hollywood films of a first-rate stage drama that is worthy of the play on which it is based. The success of The Graduate, released a year later, made it clear that Virginia Woolf was not mere beginner’s luck. Like Elia Kazan before him, Nichols spent the rest of his life shuttling between Broadway and Hollywood.
OFF STAGE and in private life, Nichols was so quick-witted that some found him intimidating. During a now-legendary (but not, according to Harris, apocryphal) rehearsal for The Odd Couple, he got into a quarrel with Walter Matthau, who was trying to upstage his fellow cast members. “Mike, you’re emasculating me!” the actor shouted. “Can I have my balls back now?” “Certainly,” Nichols replied, then snapped his fingers to summon the stage manager. “Props!”
Even so, he was deeply loved by his friends, and those who gave of their best when working with him found him to be both appreciative of their talent and entirely unpretentious in manner, with a distinctively analytical approach to scripts and their structure. Bill Irwin, whom he directed in Waiting for Godot, was struck by this aspect of his work. “There are two people—and then two other people come in—and then they go, leaving the first two characters alone,” Nichols told him. “It’s the same play as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
A vocal opponent of the auteur theory, which gives directors primary credit for the films they make, Nichols treated cinema as a fundamentally collaborative art and never sought to impose a uniform directorial approach on his work, which was unshowy, even self-effacing. “It’s not a filmmaker’s job to explain his technique, but to tell his story the best way he can,” he said. For this reason, and because he never wrote any of the scripts he directed, no one will ever think of Nichols as a groundbreaker, a radically original creative artist. He was, rather, an interpreter, and in the studio he almost always did his best work with familiar material like Virginia Woolf and Angels in America, both of which very clearly convey the visceral impact of the original stage plays.
My guess is that few of his other films will be as well remembered. Even The Graduate, which vaulted Nichols into the pantheon of Hollywood superstars and continues to retain much of its freshness, now looks like something of a period piece, a carefully posed snapshot of a transitional moment in postwar American culture.2 But the fact that he did make films means that he himself will be remembered longer than any other American stage director of his generation. Save for cooking, no art form is as evanescent as that of theatrical direction, which evaporates when the show closes, and his 1977 production of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, which was telecast by PBS in 1981, is the only public document of his stage work.3
Fortunately, The Gin Game and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (which he rehearsed in the manner of a stage play and was mostly shot on a single indoor set) both do much more than hint at what I experienced when I saw Nichols’s extraordinary 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. It starred Philip Seymour Hoffman and was performed on an exact replica of Jo Mielziner’s skeletal, non-naturalistic set for Kazan’s original 1947 production. Nichols described Kazan’s stage work as “100 percent real and 100 percent poetic,” and his own directing, while at no time self-consciously poetic, had a quality of subtly heightened realism that must have stemmed from the older man’s example.
I have never seen a better revival of Salesman, which I praised as “the capstone of a career” in my Wall Street Journal review. He died two years later. Mark Harris’s wonderful book, which comes seven years after his passing, will serve as his monument.
1 Penguin Press, 688 pages.
2 For more on The Graduate, see my “Post-Graduate Seminar” (COMMENTARY, December 2017).
3 In addition, Columbia released an audio recording of Luv, and I suspect that much of Nichols’s meticulous staging of the opening poker game in The Odd Couple survives (albeit without credit) in Gene Saks’s 1968 film version.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.