Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols—A Master’s Touch

Nichols and May in action.

The stool and the director’s chair were two of the perches from which Mike Nichols made entertainment history in a career that spanned nearly than 60 years.  The stool represents his present-at-creation role in the development of modern improvisational comedy in 1950’s Chicago.  The director’s chair, of course was for his innumerable Broadway shows, 22 feature films, and memorable made for TV movies and mini-series.  For all of those he garnered armloads of trophies—an Oscar, 10 Tonys, 4 Emmys, a Golden Globe, and an American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award.  He also picked up a Grammy for one of the best loved comedy albums of all time with his partner Elaine May.  In between Nichols was an actor, playwright, producer, and beloved collaborator and mentor to generations of performers and artists.
Nichols died on Wednesday of a heart attack in New York City at the age of 83.  His most recent directorial effort, a Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater just weeks ago as the most highly anticipated play of the season.  He was slated to direct a new film being produced by J.J. Abrams.  The man virtually died in the saddle.
His origins were far away and long ago in a perilous time.  He was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky on November 6, 1931, the son of a wealthy and respected Jewish physician whose father had escaped the Russian Revolution and had come of age in Vienna.  His mother, Brigitte Landauer, came from a deeply intellectual German Jewish family.  His grandparents were anarchist theoretician Gustav Landauer and author Hedwig Lachmann. Albert Einstein was a distant cousin. 
Berlin, of course, quickly became an unsafe place for Jews, even those as acutely secular and assimilated as the Pexchkoskys.  Early in 1939 his father fled to the United States.  When the Nazis began mass arrests of Jews in Berlin Mikhail and his younger brother were spirited out of the country to join their father.  Their mother went into hiding and followed with a perilous escape through Italy. 
The family reunited in New York City in 1940.  His father changed the family name to Nichols, from his Russian patronymic Nikolaevich and the boys had their alien sounding first names Anglicized.  The whole family became citizens in 1940 and Dr. Nichols was able to establish a very lucrative and successful medical practice.  The family lived comfortably in a sprawling apartment near Central Park.
Young Mike was first educated at P.S. 87, a top ranked public school in a tony neighborhood.  He was then sent to the progressive private Walden School which emphasized the visual and performing arts.  While in attendance he was first drawn to the theater when he and his girl friend attended the second night of Elia Kazan’s original production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando in 1947.
Despite a burgeoning interest in theater, Nichols dutifully followed his father’s career path by enrolling in the pre-med program at the University of Chicago in 1950. 
Nichols tried, but his heart was not in his medical education.  Increasingly it was in a lively university theater scene.  He was soon skipping regular classes to sit in on acting lessons.  He became involved in college productions, and in off-campus community theater.  By some accounts he encountered Elaine May on a bus and the two somehow began improvising a lover’s quarrel to get a rise out of fellow commuters.  While this may have been their first interaction, they had met before when May critiqued Nichols’ performance in a workshop of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, a heavy lifting drama.  One of Nicholas’s closest friends was a fellow drama devotee named Susan Rosenblatt, soon to be known to the world as Susan Sontag.  By his junior year Nichols earned an opportunity to direct his first play, William Butler Yeats’ Purgatory. 
While still studying at the Chicago, Nichols decided to pick up some spending money.  Instead of waiting table, working in a bookstore, or some other student friendly job, he applied to be an announcer at the brand new fine arts FM station, WFMT which quickly became the city’s most important classical music station. Not only did Nichols get the job, but he devised a famous tongue twisting audition consisting of strings of names of Russian and Slavic composers and musicians that had to be read flawlessly in one minute.  Many tried, few succeeded.  He was also asked to assemble a Saturday night program that broke for the usual classical programing to present local acts, many of them folk musicians, along with an eclectic selection of records in many genres, storytelling, and sketches.  The program became the beloved Midnight Special which Nichols hosted for its first two years before handing off the job to Norm Pellegrino.  The show remains on the air in its original time slot to this day.
In 1954 Nichols threw up his pre-med courses, dropped out of school, and returned to New York where he auditioned for and was admitted to the Actors Studio to study under Lee Strasberg, the man who had trained his idol Brando.  He was now fully committed to a theatrical career.
The next year old associates from the U of C invited Nichols back to Chicago to form a professional off-campus group known as the Compass Theater, the original improvisational troop under the direction of Paul Sills.  May was already on board.  Other cast members included Shelley Berman, Del Close, and Nancy Ponder.  The troop played in a Hyde Park tavern named the Compass and soon began attracting crowds not just from the University community but from across the city.  In 1956 they took the show to St. Louis were the close knit group formalized their improvisational processes.
It was here that Nichols and May developed many of their signature comedic duets, funny but poignant portraits of clumsily expressed affection, missed opportunities, sexual misadventures, and the travails of urban life.
In 1957 Nichols and May left the company to take their act to the nightclub stage, just as Shelley Berman did with his one-end-of-a-telephone-conversation shtick.  They were a hit.   Working successfully in New York they launched a two person Broadway Show,  An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, directed by Arthur Penn which became a sensation in 1960.  An LP based on the show won a Grammy.  It was one of three popular albums they released at a time when comedy albums were a top selling form.
Nichols and May were so fresh and funny that they practically revolutionized comedy.  The public so closely identified the pair that most people assumed they were married.  Whether or not they ever had a romantic relationship, however, for the first years that they performed together together Nichols was married to his first wife, Patricia Scott.   That marriage broke up over infidelity issues, which was also a frequent topic of Nichols and May sketches.  Nichols observed, “I keep coming back to it, over and over—adultery and cheating.  It’s the most interesting problem in the theater. How else do you get Oedipus? That’s the first cheating in the theater.”  And he admitted that he and May usually played versions of themselves.
But there was trouble in paradise professional differences and personal conflicts led to a sudden and somewhat bitter break-up of the act at the pinnacle of their success.  In later years they would reconcile and work together again.  They re-united for an appearance at an event for Jimmie Carter’s inaugural.  In 1980 they may have worked out some of their demons on stage in a New Haven revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, a property Nichols knew well.  Still later he appeared in a play by May and she wrote screen plays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors.
At loose ends Nichols went to Vancouver, British Columbia to act and direct in regional theater.
In 1964 he was back in New York with a plumb directing assignment—Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon’s second play coming on the heels of his success with Come Blow Your Horn.  The play starred Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley and was a huge hit running for 1530 performances and earning Nichols his first Tony for direction.
He became the go-to man for a string of Simon hits—The Odd Couple with Art Carney and Walter Matthau, Plaza Suite with George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton, Prisoner of Second Avenue with Peter Falk and Lee Grant.  In between he found time to do an off-Broadway hit, The Knack by Ann Jellicoe and Murray Schisgal’s Luv with Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson. 
This amazing run of hit earned Nichols three more Tony Awards—four if you count 1965 when his work on The Odd Couple and Luv split the honor.  By the mid-Sixties Time magazine had anointed him “the most in-demand director in the American theatre.”  It was inevitable that Hollywood would come knocking on his door.

The man behind the camers.

It did, but Warner Bros. offer to let him direct the screen adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, an unexpected departure for a man who had made his reputation in comedy.  The studio even trusted him with the hottest stars in film and the center of tabloid gossip, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor playing against type as slovenly, snarling middle aged drunks at war with each other and their own deep disappointments in themselves.  The film was an eye opening tour de force for all involved, including George Segal and Sandy Dennis as the young academic couple drawn in and devastated by the central maelstrom.  Released in 1967 the film is now famous for shattering the old Production Code and ushering in a new era of frank language and adult themes to Hollywood movies.  It was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Nichols, and is one of only two films ever to be nominated in all major award categories.  Taylor and Dennis walked off with Oscars.
Nichols followed up the next year, 1968 with an even greater success—The Graduate, based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb.  The film starred Dustin Hoffman as the alienated and confused young man, Anne Bancroft as his older seducer, and Katherine Ross as the innocent and somewhat vacuous object of Hoffman’s fantasies and desires—and is the daughter of his secret lover.  Once again Nichols tackled themes that were too hot to handle for commercial films only a year or two earlier.  And, as noted by many, without ever mentioning the political turmoil of the sixties, the Vietnam War, or the emergence of the counter culture the movie captured the dilemmas of a generation.  Enhanced by one of the most memorable sound tracks of all time by Simon and Garfunkle, the film was made for a modest $6 million without a bankable star and grossed $105 million at the box office making it, adjusted for inflation, number 21 on the list of highest-grossing films in the United States and Canada.  Now considered one of the most iconic films of the decade and a certifiable classic it launched the career of Hoffman, and unlikely leading man.  This time Nichols took home an Oscar and a Golden Globe as well.
During these heady years on Broadway and in Hollywood, Nichols was married to his second wife, Margo Callas with whom he had a daughter, Daisy.  The marriage lasted from 1964 to ’75.
Nichols red-hot career began to cool in the ‘70’s.  But cool is relative term.  His accomplishments that decade would be career triumphs for most.  His most expensive film to date, an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel Catch 22 starring Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin and an all-star cast of supporting players confused critics and audiences and was only moderately successful at the box office.  Its reputation has improved with age and is now something of a cult film.
More successful, but even more controversial was 1971’s Carnal Knowledge starring Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Art Garfunkel, and Candice Bergen with a script by Jules Feiffer. The film featured not only nudity, which was rare but not then unheard of in film, but frank depictions of, as one court delicately put it, “the ultimate sex act.”  A Georgia  theater manager was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of showing the film. The conviction was over turned in Supreme Court in a case that virtually ended local film censorship.
Nichols’ next two films, the thriller Day of the Dolphin with George C. Scott and dark comedy The Fortune starring Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Stoddard Channing were critical and box office failures.  The latter was his last film for eight years.
No matter, the theater was still welcoming.  He had already scored a Tony in the decade for The Prisoner of Second Avenue.  He went on to direct successful productions of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya with Scott, David Rabe’s Streamers, and The Comedians with Milo O’Shae and Johnathan Pryce. 
Nichols also branched out into producing.  His first foray was into television with the critically acclaimed and ground breaking series Family which took a hard, frank look at an upper-middle class family and ran from 1976 to 1980.  He shared producing duties with Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg.  The show starred Sada Thompson, James Broderick, Meredith Baxter Birney, and Kristi McNichol.
His Broadway producing debut was even more spectacularly successful—the mega hit musical Annie which ran for 2,377 performances from 1977 to ’83.  The show won the Tony for best musical which Nichols, as producer, got to take home and add to his collection.
Also in ’77 Nichols directed Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in Donald L. Coburn’s The Gin Game.  Tandy won a Tony for her performance.
In 1980 Nichols directed a film version of Gilda Radner’s one woman show, Gilda Live! While the film was not successful, it eased Nichols back behind the camera.
He came back in a big way in 1983 by directing the acclaimed Silkwood, based on the true story of the fate of a young woman who became a union activist and whistleblower at an Oklahoma nuclear power plant. It starred Meryl Streep, Cher,  and Kurt Russell.  The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Nichols.
Back on Broadway 1984 was an exceptionally busy year.  Nichols directed the New York premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing starring Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Christine Baranski.  While that was playing to packed houses just down the street he opened a second play, David Rabe’s Hurlyburly with Judith Ivy.  The Real Thing was nominated for seven Tonys and won five, including another trophy for Nichols.  Hurlyburly got three nominations and a win for Ivy
The same year he helped his discovery and protégé Whoopi Goldberg get her one woman show to Broadway.  On Thursday Goldberg, who credits Nichols with giving her a career and with whom she remained close, broke down in tears on her show The View trying to talk about him.

Striking gold with wife #4 Dianne Sawyer

Nichols was on wife #3, the Anglo-Irish writer Annabel Davis-Goff, in this period.  The marriage lasted from 1975 to 1986 and produced two children, Max and Jenny. Two years after his third divorce, Nichols wed ABC newswoman Dianne Sawyer.  It was a lasting and happy union for 28 years until his death. 
Nichols capped  the ‘80’s with three new films.  Heartburn was adapted by Nora Ephron from her autobiographical novel based on her marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.  He re-united with old friends Nicholson, Streep, and Channing for the film.  Another re-connection from the past—Neil Simon—was responsible for Biloxi Blues, Simon’s autobiographical service comedy starring Mathew Broderick as the fish-out-of-water New York recruit and Christopher Walken as the most eccentric Drill Instructor ever seen on the screen.  Working Girl in 1988 starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver was one of the most successful films of the decade.  It earned Nichols another Oscar nomination for best picture.
Nicholas was developing a taste for autobiographical and Roman a clef films.  His next project starred Streep and Shirley McLain in Carrie Fisher’s thinly disguised tale base on her relationship with her overwhelming mother, Debbie Reynolds.
Regarding Henry in 1991 with Ford as a high powered lawyer attempting to recover his faculties after surviving a head wound in a street crime opened to mixed reviews and public support as did 1994’s urban werewolf in the corridors of corporate power tale Wolf with Nicholson and Michelle Pfiefer.
Next up were two collaborations with Elaine May as his screen writer.  The first, Primary Colors was a political satire based on Bill and Hillary Clinton in his first run for the White House, bimbo eruptions and all.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson were the stand-ins for the famous couple.  The Bird Cage was adapted by May from the script to the French film hit La Cage aux Follies.  The farce about an aging Gay couple,  one of them a professional Drag Queen and the other the owner of the club  where he works, who must try to fool the ultra-conservative parents of their daughter who has portrayed them as a traditional heterosexual couple.  Predictable trouble and hilarity ensue—but real hilarity.  Although the French film had been made twenty years earlier, this was startling new ground for a mainstream American movie, especially in the highly sympathetic portrayal of its over-the-top Gay characters.  Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Diane Weist, and Clalista Flockhart starred.      
Lincoln Center Honors in 1999 capped nearly half a century of work.  Nichols got to see a parade of his friends and collaborators, including Elaine May praise him for his work and dedication to his craft.
Not resting on those considerable laurels, Nichols launched new ventures into television, this time in on cable with its greater freedoms.  He collaborated with Emma Thompson on the screenplay adaptation of the play Wit and Thompson starred as a doomed cancer wracked intellectual struggling with an impersonal and dehumanizing medical system and her own fragile mortality.  The HBO film was showered with Emmy nominations and Nichols walked off with the award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special. That put him in the very exclusive club of those who have won a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy.
Even more ambitious was his next HBO project, Tony Kushner’s epic about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America.  Most critics never thought it could be made into a film, let alone a made for TV mini-series.  Nichols saw the possibilities in Kushner’s surreal vision.  The mini-series starred Al Pacino as the vicious lawyer Roy Cohn who helped Richard Nixon come to power as a Red baiter, Streep, Thompson, Mary Louise Parker, Patrick Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright.  The production won 11 Emmys including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, all of the top acting awards, and Nichols’ second award.  In addition it garnered Golden Globes, the Directors Guild of America award and slews of others making it one of the most honored television films in history.
On the big screen Nichols helmed What Planet Are You From? In 2001,  a lightly regarded science fiction comedy starring Gary Shandling, Annette Benning, Greg Kinner, John Goodman, Ben Kingsly, and Linda Fiorintino. 
2004’s Closer was a very dark psychosexual drama set in contemporary London starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen.  It was as if Nichols wanted once again push the boundaries of what was possible in the examination of sex like he did with  The Graduate in the ‘60’s and Carnal Knowledge in the ‘70’s
He bounced back in 2007 with another fact based, political film, Charley Wilson’s War about a cocaine sniffing playboy Congressman, a wealthy right wing Texas socialite, and an ambitious CIA operative collaborate to get heavy American arms into the hands of Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of their country.  And yes, it is a comedy.  Made in the midst of another war in Afghanistan was made or needed to be made that those same rebels were now using those same weapons against Americans.  It was wickedly sharp and starred Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  It turned out to be Nichols’ last film.
Back on Broadway in 2012 Nichols directed a revival of Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman with Hoffman as Willie Loman.  You guessed it, another Tony Award plus a Director’s Guild honor.  Those may be the last awards of his lifetime.  But, who knows, that brand new play on Broadway just might earn a final, posthumous award.

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