Tribute: Mike Nichols

Posted on November 20, 2014 at 8:16 am

Copyright Playbill 1961
Copyright Playbill 1961

We mourn the loss of director Mike Nichols, who died yesterday at age 83, survived by his wife, television journalist Diane Sawyer. Nichols began as part of the 1950’s improvisational movement coming out of Chicago, and rose to fame as half of the comedy team Nichols and May, with Elaine May, who also became a director. Their humor was brainy and neurotic, part of the same genre that included stand-ups Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. He then became one of the most gifted directors of the late 1960’s through the present day, winning all four in the EGOT awards, Emmys (“Wit,” “Angels in America”), a Grammy (best comedy album with May in 1962), Oscar (“The Graduate”), and multiple Tonys including awards as producer of “Annie,” and director of “Death of a Salesman,” “Spamalot,” and “Barefoot in the Park.” He also received the nation’s highest artistic honor, the Kennedy Center Award, and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Nichols was born in Germany as Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky and immigrated to the United States when he was seven. He dropped out of pre-med at the University of Chicago to study at the legendary Actors Studio in New York with Lee Strasberg. His first Broadway directing job was Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” a huge hit. He worked with Simon many more times, and Simon pays tribute to him in his book Rewrites: A Memoir as the smartest person in the world.

His first film was the groundbreaking “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starring real-life battling spouses Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, followed by the even more groundbreaking “The Graduate,” a moment-defining film that spoke to what was then called the generation gap of the 1960’s and launched the careers of Dustin Hoffman and Simon and Garfunkel. Following an uneven version of the unfilmable “Catch-22,” he made the highly controversial “Carnal Knowledge,” starring Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret. The film, written by Jules Feiffer, had a then-highly controversial frankness about sex that got it banned as obscene in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that it was not pornography.

Nichols’ other films include “Working Girl,” “Heartburn,” “The Birdcage,” “Silkwood,” and “Postcards from the Edge.” Actors loved working with him and some of the best, like Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, worked with him many times. Only Nichols could have coaxed Melanie Griffith to what is by far her best performance in “Working Girl,” much less persuaded one of the most successful actors of all time, Harrison Ford, to appear in the film in a supporting role, but also one of his best and most natural and witty performances. Nichols was especially good with actors. Bergen, then very inexperienced, talked about how her helped her in the early scenes of “Carnal Knowledge.” When she was having a hard time finding the right note of nervousness and vulnerability for a college party scene, he had her wear a slip but no skirt while her close-ups were being filmed. In the same film he gave Ann-Margret a chance to show a depth and complexity no other director ever did and she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Cher was not an established actress when he cast her in “Silkwood,” and audiences were surprised to see how grounded and natural she was as the title character’s lesbian roommate.

His television work included the outstanding adaptation of “Wit,” with Emma Thompson as a professor dying of cancer.

Nichols always put top-notch performers in even the smallest roles in his films, and his music, cinematography, and design partners in filmmaking were superbly chosen. His taste was impeccable. He leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of work that will be appreciated for generations. May his memory be a blessing.

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