Mike Nichols: A Life
By Mark Harris
Penguin Press, 688 pages, $29.99
After six days on the S.S. Bremen in 1939, the little Berliner fleeing the Third Reich disembarked in New York. Igor Michael Peschowsky was seven, “a self-contained, unsmiling child,” and bald as an egg – the unexpected result of a whooping-cough vaccine. At the time, said his brother, they had never seen the inside of a synagogue and were about as un-Jewish as it’s possible for Jews to be.
In terms of distinguishing characteristics (no hair, no brows, no lashes) and identity (not Russian like Dad, not fully German like Mom, and not yet American), Igor was undefined. He would spend the next seven decades defining, refining, and periodically reinventing himself, along the way reinventing American comedy and Broadway theatre and taking Hollywood films to psychological places previously unplumbed. Igor Peschowsky? You know him better by his American name, Mike Nichols, improv wizard of Nichols and May, stage director of “The Odd Couple” and filmmaker of “The Graduate” and “Silkwood” and “The Birdcage.”
You will know him intimately after reading Mark Harris’s can’t-put-it-down biography, “Mike Nichols: A Life.” Like his subject, its humor is sidesplitting, its behavioral insights keen and its wit double-edged. Harris introduces Nichols as an expert crafter of personal anecdotes that satisfy public curiosity while sealing off further questions. But he scratches Nichols’ inscrutable surface to reveal the man who staged charm offensives to deflect others from seeing his insecurity and depression. Few artists have experienced Nichols’ measure of seesaw success and failure and belatedly-achieved equilibrium.
Famously ambitious and gregarious as an adult, Nichols – according to Nichols – suffered an aimless and friendless youth. As he told it, the decade between his arrival in New York and departure for the University of Chicago ten years later was marked by ceaseless humiliation and tragedy. Schoolmates called him “Baldy” and his father, a physician, died of leukemia when Mike was 12. The family fell into poverty. When Nichols’ mother bought him a wig that his father had refused him, he no longer felt like a total pariah. Now he was just an ordinary outsider, only poorer. He maintained that “he never had a friend when he came to the country until adulthood,” but others remember otherwise. Harris quotes a faculty member at the Walden School who remembers Nichols not as the unperson he thought himself to be, but as “reasonably popular with both teachers, who thought him bright, if unmotivated, and classmates, who enjoyed his sense of humor.”
By 16, Nichols had a girlfriend whose parents gave daughter and beau with theater tickets, including a pair to Elia Kazan’s paradigm-shifting productions of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” “Poleaxed” by the blend of realism and poetry in “Streetcar,” Nichols could not have known he was doing reconnaissance for a career he could have never imagined.
“Tall, stooped, and babyfaced,” resembling “something out of a German Expressionist movie,” Nichols arrived at the University of Chicago in 1949, surprised to find that people liked him and he them. He found his tribe, and also his role as contemptuous court jester. To mask his anxiety, he affected a style of hauteur and ennui, swiftly learning the truth of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “to be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” It was a taxing performance. He slept 18 hours a day and was jealous of rich classmates who didn’t have to work and scrounge leftover food from cafeteria plates.
In the cafeteria Nichols encountered Paul Sills, an undergraduate, bussing tables. He was the son of Viola Spolin, whose work on improvisational theater games is now a mandatory text for actors. Sills recruited Nichols to be in his plays, typecasting him as prick. Harris describes him as a human seismograph, acutely sensitive to the subtlest of geological shifts on stage and off. When acting in “Miss Julie,” he was unnerved by a contemptuous beauty in the front row, who turned out to be Sills’ girlfriend. Her name was Elaine May. Before introducing them, Sills told her that Nichols was the only person at the University as hostile as she was. Instead of two negative poles repelling each other, Nichols and May were irresistibly drawn.
The romance lasted three days, the personal and professional attachment more than 60 years. Theirs was a love affair consummated in artistic collaboration. First, in sketch comedy, and later, with her writing screenplays and him directing them, including “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors.”
Soon after they met, Nichols dropped out to New York to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York, later realizing he absorbed as much about directing as acting. While classmates were getting parts, Nichols was invisible. He “slunk back to Chicago” to work with Sills at the Compass Theater. May was there. Through trial and error, they became Nichols and May.
Onstage, they had comic telepathy. Whether playing two teenagers in a car on a date, a detached son and needy mother on a phone call, or a preening radio host interviewing a ditzy starlet, they simultaneously mined the awkward comedy of everyday interactions. May knew how to create the structure of a sketch and Nichols how to score its rhythms. Their credo, formulated by May, was that to create dramatic tension, every interaction in the sketch had to be a fight, negotiation or seduction.. After some road bumps, both decamped for New York in 1957. (When Compass folded, Sills founded Second City, which evolved into the farm team for “Saturday Night Live.”)
The time that elapsed between Nichols’ and May’s arrival in Manhattan and their first gig might be measured in minutes rather than days. In short, order the talent manager Jack Rollins signed them to open for Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard and afterwards play at The Blue Angel on 55th Street. The chameleon brunette and wary guy in the blond wig were instantly branded “hipster’s hipsters” until they got a TV spot on the NBC program “Omnibus” and made millions laugh. Then came the comedy albums, coast-to-coast club engagements, and “An Evening with Nichols and May” on Broadway. They had successfully transformed the end product of American comedy from punchline to emotional gut punch.
Nichols was “the toast of the town that had spit him out three years before,” with the money and friends he always craved. He hobnobbed with photographer Richard Avedon and composers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. May wanted to create new material. Nine months into the show, she gave notice. She wrote a play, “A Matter of Position,” for Nichols who realized that the character she wrote for him, a man who takes to bed and refuses to budge, was a blistering critique of him. Though the ensuing power struggle led to their rupture, the process enabled both to establish themselves as individuals. And happily, to their reconciliation.
Nichols worried. Was he an actor, a comedian — or what? Norman Mailer called him “a royal baby.” As a lark Nichols directed “The World of Jules Feiffer,” a trio of theater vignettes, for a one-week run in a New Jersey playhouse. Then producer Arnold Saint-Subber tapped him to direct an unfinished comedy by Neil Simon that with Nichols’ judicious editing and shaping became “Barefoot in the Park.” The Broadway comedy about newlyweds benefitted from what Nichols and May had learned on stage: The best laughs come not from chasing them, but from performances rooted in truth. (Simon whispered that when the leads fought on stage, it felt like he was eavesdropping; Nichols replied, “Then it’s working.”) The play made a star out of a reticent Robert Redford and enabled Nichols to see that he had spent his adult years learning how to direct.
Harris’ strength as a writer is not merely giving the reader a window onto how his subject put together a sketch, a play, a movie, a career, and a life, but putting her in the rooms where it happened. On Nichols’ first Broadway directorial effort he learned that a play needs regular maintenance and tuneups. It would take him much longer to learn that personal attachments need the same kind of attention. So focused was he on work and absent from home that his first two marriages effectively were over shortly after they began. In the mid-1960s he had three simultaneous Broadway hits – “Barefoot,” “The Knack,” “Luv” – and seemed immune to failure. He lived like a pasha (Avedon taught him the rules of celebrity), collected friends, modern art and Arabian thoroughbreds, dated Gloria Steinem and Mia Farrow and often escorted Jacqueline Kennedy.
He was Broadway’s golden boy on the cusp of becoming Hollywood’s Midas. When he heard that Jack Warner optioned Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to star Elizabeth Taylor (whom, of course, he knew), he called Taylor’s press agent and said, “Tell her I should direct this.” He was hired. And since he was friendly with Taylor’s husband, Richard Burton, the thespian agreed to co-star. First though, he had to direct another unfinished Neil Simon comedy, “The Odd Couple,” where for the first time he worked with established stars, Art Carney, who “was a saint,” and Walter Matthau, “who was not a nice man.” While cajoling Simon into writing an Act III as good as the first two, Nichols wrangled Matthau and eased Carney into their now-classic roles as Oscar and Felix, resulting in the director’s fourth Broadway hit in 18 months.
He prepped “Virginia Woolf” as he did his plays, guiding actors to find their characters in rehearsal. But Taylor, “a movie star desperate to be seen as an actress,” and Burton, “an actor who craved stardom,” were understandably anxious that while playing the roles of volatile, sparring spouses, life might imitate art. Although Nichols elicited great work from his four actors – Sandy Dennis and George Segal played the younger couple – Taylor’s chronic illnesses and Burton’s frequent benders put the production over budget, leaving the studio with an expensive, obscenity-laced film. Warner promptly fired Nichols, who secretly continued to work with its editor by phone during postproduction. Nichols was rehired when he promised that Jackie Kennedy would sit in on the screening for the Legion of Decency, the religious group rating movies for their appropriateness to Catholics. When the lights came up, she would say, “What a beautiful movie. Jack would have loved it.” Warner took the bait, the Legion of Decency didn’t condemn it and his rookie film was a smash hit.
As was his sophomore film, “The Graduate,” where Nichols found the funny in existential anxiety and cast an unknown theater guy, Dustin Hoffman, as Benjamin Braddock. “In the scene in which Benjamin checks into…a hotel for a tryst Hoffman couldn’t find the right combination of determination and shame.” Nichols told him to imagine that the hotel desk clerk was a female pharmacist from whom he requested condoms. Nichols so deeply identified with Benjamin, the Jew among the goyim, it didn’t even occur to him that the film’s penultimate scene has the hero watching his first love about to wed another as he shouts, “Elaine! Elaine! Elaine!”
After “The Graduate,” Nichols belonged to a very select club, along with Elia Kazan and Orson Welles: Directors who had made a decisive mark both and Broadway and in the movies. Nichols won an Oscar for his direction and prophetically warned his friends, and perhaps himself, that though he was the golden boy of the moment, “You’re going to see such failures, you wouldn’t believe it!”
It happened sooner than he thought. His next movie was adapted from the novel everyone agreed was unfilmable. “The mood on the set was so toxic that people started calling the production ‘Kvetch-22.’ “Instead of the intimate chamber pieces that were his specialty, Nichols was filming World War II aerial sequences. Nichols was many things, but none of them were action director. To friends he said, “I feel I’m pregnant with a dead child.” When the movie was released, moviegoers and critics agreed.
He returned to chamber dramedy with “Carnal Knowledge,” from a script by Jules Feiffer. The film with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel as men who punish Candice Bergen and Ann-Margret for looking like dream girls and becoming their nightmares, may have been the most polarizing film of the 1970s. If its success sprung Nichols from movie jail, then the response to his next film, “Day of the Dolphin” – a pseudointellectual “Flipper” for adults – sent him back to the slammer. The man who had lately defined the new sensibility was out of synch with the audience. To make “Dolphin,” Nichols had turned down directing ‘The Exorcist,’ which became a blockbuster. When he complained to May, she retorted, “Don’t regret it, if you had made ‘The Exorcist,’ it wouldn’t have made money at all!”
He returned to theater with David Rabe’s stage play, “Streamers,” a claustrophobic portrait of soldiers waiting to be dispatched to Vietnam. It was an incendiary piece of theater, with homosexuality, racial tension, class war, and actual violence. He was back. Improbably, he became a “stage doctor” (officially, “active producer”) on the Broadway-bound musical, “Annie.” In 1980, he and May played George and Martha at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater. Fellow actor James Naughton noted, “Together they were like halves of one great personality.”
When Nichols boasted about his liberation from Hollywood, his friends realized it was depression talking. The upside: Film directors with serial failures agree to work for less, as Nichols did with “Silkwood,” about the nuclear whistleblower who died mysteriously on her way to meet a reporter. He thought the story was about a woman’s political awakening and experienced the making of it as his own re-awakening. For the first time he got to work with Meryl Streep, whom he had admired in off-Broadway plays, and screenwriter Nora Ephron, who had interviewed him on the set of “Catch-22.” Harris notes that on “Silkwood” for the first time Nichols, “one of the few directors of his generation whose formative professional years had been spent around a woman, was surrounded by women and felt at home. Nichols, Streep and Ephron formed a mutual admiration society.
By 1985 Nichols had four hit shows on Broadway for the first time in 20 years: “My One and Only,” a musical starring Tommy Tune; “The Real Thing,” the Tom Stoppard play about love and marriage and truth and appearance, with Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons; “Hurlyburly,” a David Rabe tour-de-force about raging masculinism in Hollywood, with William Hurt, Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel; and Whoopi Goldberg’s one-woman show. Yet his third marriage to Annabel Davis-Goff had been rocky since 1980 and was really foundering. Then his mother died. In 1986, he had a heart attack, perhaps because he was abusing cocaine both in powder and crack form. The reviews of “Heartburn,” his latest film, were vicious. He was on the down side of the seesaw and couldn’t find a fulcrum. He thought he was penniless. He was having suicidal ideation. His friends realized he was taking the drug Halcion to sleep, and he was experiencing psychotic side effects. “He returned to therapy, and after decades of hardly giving his heritage a thought,” contended with the feelings around his own Jewishness and escape from Nazi Germany that his mother’s death had restimulated.” He struggled with his feelings that “all of this is borrowed time…. I should have been six million and one.”
He went back to work. Though he was still legally married, he resumed a flirtation with news anchor Diane Sawyer and wed her in 1988. They were together until his 2014 death. Matthew Broderick, who worked with Nichols on the movie version of “Biloxi Blues,” noted “With Diane, he became a lot happier but also a lot more regal and more intimidating.” The “royal baby” had become undisputed king of Broadway, where he directed an all-star version of revivals of “Waiting for Godot” (1988) with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and “Death of a Salesman” (2012) with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. In the 1990s he renewed his collaboration with Elaine May, who script-doctored his 1993 misfire “Wolf ,” the 1994 blockbuster “The Birdcage,” a nonmusical version of “La Cage aux Folles,” and the sharp 1998 Bill Clinton satire “Primary Colors,” released amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
After the Garry Shandling comedy, “What Planet Are You From?” (don’t ask), Nichols went into business with HBO Films, bringing challenging theater plays to a wider audience. He even appeared on HBO’s “The Sopranos” as the psychiatrist who tells Carmela she has compromised herself by staying with Tony. He fired himself from the part, saying “I’m the wrong Jew for this shrink,” adding, “That should be the title of my biography – ‘The Wrong Jew.’” For HBO, he directed Emma Thompson in Margaret Edson’s “Wit”, about a terminally ill scholar, and an all-star cast including Streep, Al Pacino and Jeffrey Wright, in Tony Kushner’s two-part epic “Angels in America,” a kaleidoscopic account of homosexuality and AIDS. It premiered the same night in 2003 that Nichols was the recipient of the Kennedy Center honors. Onstage, Elaine May paid tribute with an observation that was both wickedly hilarious and contained a kernel of truth: “Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact and real relevance,” she said, “but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash.”
In ways he could not have foretold, Nichols turned out to be the right Jew. And like all great biographies, Harris’ book is a double-portrait of an artist and his era.
Carrie Rickey, who previously wrote about Elaine May for The Forward, is writing a biography of French filmmaker Agnes Varda.