Mike Nichols obituary
Film and stage director whose movie The Graduate ushered in a new kind of male Hollywood star
The career of the director Mike Nichols, who has died aged 83, triumphantly straddled Broadway and Hollywood. Most of his movies, plays and musicals were thought-provoking and beautifully crafted, if sometimes ironic and even cruel in their humour. But none of his later work equalled the impact of his second film, The Graduate (1967), which won him the Oscar for best director, and resonated strongly with the baby-boom generation.
When offered the film, Nichols had already made his reputation as the boy wonder of the Broadway stage, where he had directed a string of smash-hit comedies. Two were by Neil Simon, with whom he would have a long association: Barefoot in the Park (1963), which gave Robert Redford his first leading role, and The Odd Couple (1965), with Walter Matthau and Art Carney. Others included Murray Shisgal’s Luv (1964) starring Alan Arkin, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and the musical The Apple Tree (1966) featuring Alan Alda. At the start of the decade he had established a reputation on Broadway in the comedy duo show that he wrote and performed with Elaine May.
Born in Berlin as Michael Igor Peschkowsky to Paul, a doctor, and his wife, Brigitte (nee Landauer), he arrived in the US with his younger brother at the age of seven, having fled the Nazis. His father, who had arrived a few months earlier (Brigitte joined them after two years), changed the family’s name to Nichols. Mike remembered being able to say just two things in English: “I don’t speak English,” and “Please don’t kiss me.” At the time he was totally bald, having lost his hair in reaction to a whooping cough vaccine. (He wore a toupee all his life.)
When he was 12, his father died of leukaemia, leaving the family financially destitute. A bright and ambitious boy, Mike was able to continue his studies thanks to scholarships and doing odd jobs, eventually becoming a US citizen in 1944.
While at the University of Chicago (1950-53), he made a living as a night janitor, hotel desk clerk, and delivery truck driver. It was at university that he first began to perform, and he later went to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg. However, he was unable to find work as an actor in New York and returned to Chicago to form the Second City, an improvisational group with similarly unwanted performers: May, Barbara Harris and Arkin.
He and May then formed the duo Nichols and May, whose quick-witted comedy got them known as “the world’s fastest humans”. They lampooned previously sacrosanct institutions, becoming part of the satire boom of the period, along with Lenny Bruce, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, and Terry Southern, pioneers in extending the range and subject matter of American comedy. The pair recorded a number of comedy albums, and won a Grammy for An Evening with Nichols and May, a recording of their Broadway show, directed by Arthur Penn (1961-62), after which the two went their separate ways, with Nichols embarking on his work as a stage director.
In 1966, Ernest Lehman, who was producing and adapting Edward Albee’s acid drama of marital non-bliss, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, persuaded Warner Bros to hire Nichols to direct. It was a baptism of fire for the debutant film-maker, who had to control the leading couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. After the three less than convincing films they had previously made together, Virginia Woolf brilliantly restored their credibility as performers,* and Nichols’s essentially theatrical but competent direction was nominated for an Oscar.
Whereas on Virginia Woolf he had been constricted by the starry couple and the confines of the Albee play, Nichols had far more power to exercise on The Graduate. For the title role of Benjamin Braddock, the producers wanted Robert Redford. However, Nichols felt he was too dishy to be convincing as shy with women. He realised he had found the right man when he saw Dustin Hoffman acting off-Broadway.
Hoffman was doubtful: “I don’t think I’m right for the role. He’s a kind of Anglo-Saxon, tall, slender good-looking chap. I’m short and Jewish.”
“Believe me, Benjamin is Jewish inside,” replied Nichols persuasively. Hoffman turned out to be the movie’s greatest coup, ushering in a new kind of male actor in American films. Yet Hoffman was later to say, “If there is any victory in the film, it is not mine. It has nothing to do with me. The film belongs to Mike Nichols. Nichols knew every colour, texture and nuance he wanted and worked like hell to get it.”
Today, it seems stranger than ever that a movie that made no reference to civil rights or Vietnam would be taken as a symbol of counterculture. “I was interested in [Benjamin’s] rejection of a materialistic life in a way that was a little retarded, like young teenagers do until they’re trained away from it,” Nichols commented years later.
The skin-deep rebel had a great appeal among middle-class college kids, and the use of the Simon and Garfunkel songs Sounds of Silence, Mrs Robinson and the irrelevant Scarborough Fair, instead of the usual music score, added to the film’s attraction. The soundtrack album reached the top of the US charts, and arguably started the tradition of marketing movie music.
The most telling symbol of the young man’s alienation, which Nichols lightens and makes funny, is Benjamin standing awkwardly in a rubber underwater suit. A subjective camera, filming through goggles, picks out the inane faces and soundless mouths of his elders as he descends to the bottom of the pool, where he stands silently and alone.
Catch-22 (1969), which could possibly have worked if made by Stanley Kubrick, was shot at a cost of $18m, and failed both commercially and critically. Nichols made the mistake of reshaping Joseph Heller’s bitterly satirical novel of the second world war into an overly arty anti-war movie with unsubtle allusions to Vietnam.*
Further film flops followed, although to their credit they were all rather quirky and unconventional: Carnal Knowledge (1971)** examined contemporary sexual mores; Day of the Dolphin (1973) saw George C Scott teaching dolphins to speak; and The Fortune (1975) starred Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty as dumb and dumber crooks.
Because of these disappointments, Nichols worked almost exclusively on Broadway for almost a decade, collecting a number of Tony awards on the way. He continued to show his affinity with Neil Simon, directing Plaza Suite (1968) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972), as well as Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1984) and Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1986). One of the few classics was Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which Nichols himself translated.
Silkwood (1983) was hailed as his major film comeback, but despite fine performances from Meryl Streep and an interesting decision to concentrate on the daily life of its blue-collar heroine, it ended at the point where the real story began. Similarly, Heartburn (1986) started from promising material – Nora Ephron’s fictionalised account of her marriage to the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein – but took it nowhere.
It was soon after that Nichols had a breakdown, believing that he was broke and unable to provide for his three children. He left The Last Tycoon during pre-production (Elia Kazan took over) and had a highly publicised on-set dispute with Robert De Niro on The Man Who Looked Like Bogie, abandoning it after several days of filming.
However, in 1988, after marrying his fourth wife, the TV anchor Diane Sawyer, one of the richest and most successful women on American television, everything changed. He took on more mainstream material, starting with Biloxi Blues (1987), a pleasing, workmanlike transposition of Simon’s semi-autobiographical Broadway play.
Working Girl (1988), in which he showed more cinematic flair than hitherto, combined a feelgood romantic comedy with an incisive look at working women in Manhattan, in which a secretary (Melanie Griffith) triumphs over her boss (Sigourney Weaver). As the camera celebrates her moment of victory – in her own office – it pulls back to reveal her as just one of hundreds of office workers in just one of hundreds of tower blocks.
Postcards From The Edge (1990), which dealt with the explosively difficult relationship between a self-obsessed Hollywood star (Shirley MacLaine) and her unstable daughter (Meryl Streep), was directed with a confident sweep. These films were concerned mainly with women’s choices, while the less successful Regarding Henry (1991) and Wolf (1994) were both attempts to examine masculinity in crisis as viewed from New York’s Upper West Side.
Nichols returned to comedy and to Elaine May, who wrote the screenplay, with The Bird Cage (1996), better made than and almost as funny as La Cage aux Folles, the 1978 camp French film from which it derived. Primary Colors (1998), also written by May, and based on Joe Klein’s bestseller about a Clintonesque politician (John Travolta), was sharp without cutting deeply.
By now, Nichols could ask for $7m per movie plus a share of the gross. He had proved himself an astute businessman, having been the first American stage director to insist on a share of the author’s royalties and subsidiary rights, including movie profits.
He continued to embark on theatrical ventures, appearing to acclaim in a London production of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner (1996), and expertly transposed several plays to television and film. Nichols made few attempts to open out Wit (2001), Margaret Edson’s original off-Broadway near-monologue play about an academic dying of ovarian cancer, with most of the action taking place around the heroine’s hospital bed, and Emma Thompson speaking directly to camera in theatrical fashion.
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2003), described by the author as a “gay fantasia on national themes” was made into an intelligent TV mini-series, and Closer (2004), Patrick Marber’s unrelenting look at two couples who fall in and out of bed and love, showed some of the bite of Nichols’s earlier work. The eclectic director was back on Broadway with Spamalot (2005), a musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which later opened in London.
His last feature film was Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a controversial political comedy starring Tom Hanks as a wily US congressman who gets involved in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In 2012, Nichols crowned his Broadway career with a powerful production of Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last stage role, as Willy Loman.
He is survived by Diane, and by three children: Daisy, with his second wife, Margo Callas, and Max and Jenny, with his third wife, Annabel Davis-Goff. His first three marriages ended in divorce; the first of them was to Patricia Scott.
• Mike Nichols (Michael Igor Peschkowsky), director, producer, writer and performer, born 6 November 1931; died 19 November 2014
Mike Nichols: a director who found the zeitgeist in every decade
Nichols, who has died aged 83, was an astonishingly versatile and fluent director, who specialised in adult drama which sang because he coaxed such fine performances from his stars
From Burton and Taylor’s ugly marital war in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966) right through to Aaron Sorkin’s snappily expressed Washington intrigue in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Mike Nichols was bringing literate, grownup dramas and comedies to the screen. He had a gift for helping stars bring their performances into pin-sharp focus and teasing out the romantic chemistry and fizz between his male and female leads.
Born in Berlin in 1931, named Mikhail Peschkowsky, to Russian Jewish parents (and a distant cousin to Albert Einstein), he was sent alone as a child to the safety of the United States, where his father anglicised his name. He became a Broadway comic performer with Elaine May and then a much-admired stage director who was to become a member of the exclusive EGOT club (having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony) and in the movie projects he chose he had the knack of finding the Hollywood zeitgeist in almost every decade.
After the exciting if somewhat stage-bound Virginia Woolf, Nichols’s sexually daring The Graduate (scripted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry) opened things up – and introduced the world to Dustin Hoffman, a veritable standard-bearer for smart, disaffected, pained youth, a representative of the alienated times and yet somehow orphaned by them as well.
He was the spoiled brat with the college degree, floating around all summer in his parents’ swimming pool, embarking on a jaded affair with next-door neighbour Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and realising almost too late that he has fallen in love with her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross). The Graduate got Nichols his best director Academy award and in it he pretty well invented the romcom staple: the last-minute rush to prove your love. (Twelve years later, in Manhattan, Woody Allen made this the last-minute rush to the airport.)
In the 1970s, Nichols again found himself upscale, modish movies which moved with the times. His screen version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970) again scripted by Buck Henry, chimed with anti-Vietnam sentiment and caught the same wave as Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H that year, and his direction of the Jules Feiffer-scripted Carnal Knowledge (1972) reinforced the seductive charm and celebrity status of its star, Jack Nicholson.
In the 1980s, Nichols was working with the biggest female stars and instinctively found a way for their personalities and feelings to register on camera. His Silkwood (1983), co-written by Nora Ephron, reverberated with liberal America’s growing unease with the nuclear industry and gave Meryl Streep one of her most powerful and memorable roles. The “Silkwood shower” scene dramatised a widespread shiver of fear and disgust at nuclear dangers. Another Nora Ephron script, Heartburn (1986) about Ephron’s relationship with Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, was another opportunity for Nichols to show his expert handling of smart, grownup romance – with Streep and Nicholson.
At the end of the 1980s, Mike Nichols made what for me is among the best of his movies, the rather underrated Working Girl, a terrifically buoyant and effervescent New York romantic comedy with Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary whose wicked boss (great work from Sigourney Weaver) pretends to mentor and just steals her business ideas. Nichols makes it all look very easy. In the 90s, Nichols showed how America and the world was beginning to turn away from the yuppie-ism, with his sombre film Regarding Henry, in which Harrison Ford – playing a super-smooth businessman not that far from the one he had played in Working Girl – suffers a brain injury and has to go through painful rehab.
Primary Colors was a coolly efficient movie version of Joe Klein’s sensational bestselling fictionalisation of the Bill/Hillary political partnership, and he was an eminently sensible choice to direct the screen version of Patrick Marber’s play Closer, although there was now probably a generational difference between the sexual-social mores of Nichols’s generation and Marber’s.
Mike Nichols was a kitemark of intelligent mainstream Hollywood cinema – his directorial style was the sympathetic platform for smart writing and great acting performances.
Mike Nichols: 10 of the best, from Virginia Woolf to Charlie Wilson
The director Mike Nichols has died aged 83. Here are clips from 10 of his key movies – and why they’re important
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)