"The reason you do this stuff--comedy, plays, movies--is to be seized by something, to disappear in the service of an idea."
"I never understood when people say, 'Do you do comedy or tragedy?' I don't think they're very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn't a great play in the world that doesn't have funny parts to it--as [Death of a] Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means you surely have to have both."
Though he had no trace of an accent as an adult, Nichols spent the first seven years of his life in Germany.
This is the Old Town Hall in Munich. I have no evidence that Nichols lived in that particular German city, but the fellow who made this painting--it recently sold for 130,000 euros at an auction in, of all places, Nuremberg--did spend some time there...
...and he soon would have a profound effect on the future improv comic/director, whose family was Jewish.
"The things that you saw earlier in your life generally have more power than the things you saw last week."
Fortunately, Nichols family got out in time.
“American society to me and my brother was thrilling because, first of all, the food made noise. We were so excited about Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola. We had only silent food in our country, and we loved listening to our lunch and breakfast."
Though it doesn't compare to what would have happened had he stayed in Germany, the rest of Nichol's childhood was far from idyllic. For one thing he was, and would remain, bald, the result of a rare negative reaction to a whooping cough vaccine at the age of four. He eventually took to wearing hairpieces and fake eyebrows. For another, he didn't know the language of his adopted country very well, at first only able to utter, "I do not speak English" and "Please don't kiss me." He later got the hang of the lingo, as his future success as an actor proved.
Before he took up acting, however, Nichols enrolled in the University of Chicago as a pre-med student--his father had been a doctor--but became more interested in theater. He soon dropped out and moved back to New York where he enrolled in the newly-opened Actors Studio, studying under Lee Strasberg. Meanwhile, some friends of his back in Chicago had formed The Compass Players, one of the first improvisational acting troupes (which in a few years would spin off the more famous Second City group) and asked Nichols to join. That's him in the above picture with the cigarette. That's Shelly Berman on his immediate left, and a seemingly napping Barbara Harris on the right. However, it's the woman to the left of Berman that I'm most interested in, the one looking at Nichols, or at least in his direction. She's none other than...
Nichols and May spun themselves off from the rest of the troupe...
...becoming one of the most successful comedy teams of the late 1950s and early '60s.
In case you were wondering about that Grammy I mentioned earlier.
Honor thy mother.
The 1950s quiz show scandal was the talk of the water cooler. The Van Doren mentioned here is Charles Van Doren, a college professor who became a celebrity while a contestant on the highly rated quiz show Twenty-One. Doren, a witty, telegenic intellectual, was the main reason for those high ratings, a reason not lost on the show's producers, who fed him all the right answers. Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren in the 1994 movie Quiz Show.
Death be not proud.
The two also did commercials.
I was born in 1961, the same year the duo broke up, so all of the above clips are really before my time. I first came across a mention of the comedy team in a 1977 or '78 newspaper article about Mike Nichols, who by then was well-known for something else. Though I caught Elaine May in the 1978 Neil Simon movie California Suite and a few other things over the years, I never saw her and Nichols perform together until about 15 years ago when a PBS documentary played a lot of their old bits in full. I immediately became a fan of the duo, when I later became comfortable enough on the Internet, sought out their routines on YouTube. That's a good 45 years after the fact. I envy those of you who saw them in the beginning.
"They set the standard and then they had to move on.
--Arthur Penn, who directed them on Broadway.
Nichols and May are perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era. When Nichols and May split up, they left no imitators, no descendants, no blueprints or footprints to follow. No one could touch them.
--Comedy historian Gerald Nachman (nice to know there are historians for that kind of thing.)
At loose ends after the breakup, Nichols thought he'd give directing a try. First up was a revival of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest in Vancouver B.C. Must have done well because Neil Simon picked him to direct his 1963 Broadway play Barefoot in the Park, which ran for 1530 performances and won Nichols a Tony Award. Above are original cast members Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley.
“On the first day of rehearsal, I thought, ‘Well, look at this. Here is what I was meant to do.’ I knew instantly that I was home”.
Nichols reunited with Neil Simon again for another monster Broadway hit, as well as another Tony winner, this one about two divorced men living together, one of whom seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown: The Odd Couple. Above are the original Oscar and Felix, Walter Matthau and Art Carney. Matthau also appeared in the film version. Carney didn't, so if you haven't seen him on stage, as I haven't, his take on Felix Ungar seems to be lost forever. How did the man who gave us Ed Norton stack up against Jack Lemmon or Tony Randell? We'll never know, though we have a clue. In his review, New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr described Carney as "immensely funny quivering his lip like an agitated duck, clearing his ears by emitting foghorn hoots, and clawing his hands through what is left of his hair to indicate pride, despair and all of the other seven deadly virtues. His problem is tension (“It’s tension. I get it from tension. I must be tense,” he says) and ours is to keep from laughing through the next good line." Carney may have resembled his character a bit too much. Not to long after he left the production, HIS marriage ended, leading to a nervous breakdown.
This guy was doing all right, too. Edward Albee had written several well-received plays, one of which did so well Hollywood purchased the film rights.
Now, Nichols had never directed a movie before...
But then, there had never been a movie like this before.
Liz and Dick, here playing George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple with issues. Though tame by today's standards, this film's colorful use of language ("son of a bitch" "up yours" "great nipples" "goddamn" "hump the hostess") was largely responsible to bringing about an end the old Hays production code (the same one that resulted in a $5000 fine for Gone With the Wind producer David O Selznick, not that he gave a damn) to be replace by G, PG, R, and X (and later PG13 and NC-17) But, really, the real worth of this film is the two stars amazing performances, be they potty mouthed or spouting literary allusions (sometimes both at the same time!) I've seen this film numerous times and never tire of it. If this was all Mike Nichols was known for, I've still would have done an obit on him.
George and Martha do their thing in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. George Segal and Sandy Dennis are their captive audience.
Man, oh, man, had that OTHER George and Martha behaved that way, we'd still be a British colony!
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was considered such a cinematic breakthrough upon release, one wondered if Nichols could ever top it.
He did. The Graduate, Oscar's Best Picture of 1967. I never tire of this one either. It's a simple story, really. Boy meets girl...Well, OK, boy meets WOMAN. Boy also meets girl, who happens to be woman's daughter. Boy loses both woman and girl.
Boy gets girl back.
Boy and girl not so sure movie has happy ending.
Sorry if I gave something away, but you really should have seen this by now.
One of the explanations I've read for the long faces at the film's conclusion is that Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross thought the camera had stopped rolling and thus went out of character. Director Nichols decided to use the shot anyway, as it lent a touch of ambiguity to the ending.
Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. Self-loathing has never been sexier.
"And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey...
"...Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Jolting Joe has left and gone away,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey"
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. "Mrs Robinson" won them a Record of the Year Grammy. No Oscar, though, the song appeared on an album of theirs as well as in the movie.
Buck Henry, on the right, co-wrote the screenplay with Calder Willingham.
Here's a bit of trivia for all you Bewitched fans out there. The woman on the very left is Alice Ghostly, and that's Marian Lorne right next to her. Lorne played bumbling Aunt Clara, a semi-regular on the supernatural sitcom, and when she died in 1968, was replaced by Ghostly, who played the similarly bumbling Esmeralda. Yet The Graduate is the only time these two very funny actresses appeared on film together. A coincidence (or magic!)
Trailer for The Graduate.
A comedy that doesn't always play like a comedy. The naturalistic acting, Robert Surtees impressionistic cinematography, and Simon's and Garfunkel's poetic music belies the fact that so much of what you're watching is flat-out funny (Hoffman's and Bancroft's scenes in the hotel room in particular.) The incongruity works brilliantly. Plus The Graduate made money, and for a while Hollywood filmmakers were given the free rein to be as enigmatic as they please.
As for Mike Nichols, well, you can only be revolutionary so many times. After the twin sucessess of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, he backed off on making cinama history and concentrated on merely making good cinema. He largely succeeded.
As he did on Broadway, to which he kept returning to no matter how well his movies did. In 1968, he teamed up again with Neil Simon...
...and won himself another Tony for Plaza Suite. George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton played three different characters in three different acts.
Cinematic history aside, Nichols also, perhaps inadvertently, made constitutional history as well. Jack Nicholson and Art Gunfunkel spend the postwar years trying to figure out the opposite sex in 1971's Carnal Knowledge. This now-but-not-then tame film actually led to the Supreme Court ruling that a city, town, or village can ban a movie if it violates "community standards" (trying mightily to define obscenity Justice Potter Stewart wrote "I know it when I see it." Fortunately for Nichols, he didn't see it just then.)
Carnal Knowledge trailer. See if it piques your prurient interest.
1971. Yet another Tony for yet another Neil Simon play, The Prisoner of Seventh Avenue with Peter Falk and Lee Grant. Curiously, Nichols never directed any movies based on Simon stage successess. Maybe there was a feeling of been there, done that.
As odd as it is mentioning Mike Nichols and Aaron Spelling (Charlie's Angels, Melrose Place) in the same sentence, they co-produced the well-regarded 1970s TV drama Family. Clockwise from bottom: Michael or David Schackleford, Meredith Baxter-Birney, Gary Frank, Sada Thompson, James Broderick, and, lest we forget, Kristy McNichol.
Actually, for a few years there in the late 1970s, it was IMPOSSIBLE to forget Krisy McNichol. Such was her fame that her brother became famous simply for being her brother! (And you thought that kind of thing only happened on 21st century reality shows.)
In 1977, Nichols directed Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the Broadway production of The Gin Game.
After a few Broadway and Hollywood flops, Nichols came back strong with Silkwood (1983). That's Meryl Streep on the left as doomed real-life nuclear industry whistleblower Karen Silkwood. Kurt Russel and a deglamourized Cher play her co-workers.
Silkwood trailer. Make sure to put on your Hazmat suit before watching this.
I keep going back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. Well, in 1984, Nichols directed the Broadway production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, which took place in Hollywood.
Working Girl (1988) Secretary Melanie Griffith arranges a merger behind ailing boss Sigourney Weaver's back and merges with Harrison Ford to boot. Don't feel too sorry for Weaver. She brought it all on herself by stealing one of Griffith's ideas. Rather misleading promo shot here. By the time Ford feels comfortable enough to put his arm around Griffith's shoulder, he's completely on the outs with Weaver, his fiancee, who doesn't much like Griffith at that point. Can't they be at least have them hissing at each other?
Working Girl trailer.
Mike Nichols smooching TV journalist Diane Sawyer, whom he married in 1988. They were still married at the time of his death.
Debbie Reynolds and--oops, I mean Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as mother and daughter in 1990's Postcards From the Edge, based on the novel by Carrie Fisher.
Nichol's former comedy partner Elaine May scripted 1996's The Birdcage, an American version of the 1978 French comedy La Cage aux Folles. Starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
John Travolta and Emma Thompson as an ambition southern politician and his equally ambitious wife looking to get to the White House in Primary Colors (1998) based on the novel by Joe "Anonymous" Klein, screenplay also by May. Maybe they could make a sequel, except this time the ambitious wife, now a former senator and secretary of state, wants back in that White House. Whadya think?
In 2003, Nichols directed the highly-rated HBO mini-series Angels in America, based on a play, or rather two plays (Millennium Approaches, which won a Pulitzer, and Perestroika) by Tony Kushner, a mixture of the real and unreal dealing with the 1980s AIDS crises. Above is Al Pacino as Joe McCarthy sidekick Roy Cohn, who was, in fact, a real person, though I'm sure some wish he would have been purely fictional.
Angels in America trailer.
In 2010, Mike Nichols won the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievemant Award...
...And Elaine May was on hand to pay tribute.
If you watched the above clip--I know it's long but it's pretty funny--Elaine May made an amazing claim about Nichols.
I looked it up. IT'S TRUE!!! They were related! Third cousins, twice removed!
Let's end it there. Talent, genius, whatever you want to call it, obviously ran in that family.