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Mike Nichols: Director with an array of stage, film and TV hits, including ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’

Fleeing to the US, he knew two English phrases: ‘I don’t speak English’ and ‘please don’t kiss me'

Chris Maume
Thursday 20 November 2014 20:37 GMT
German born film director Mike Nichols circa 1967. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
German born film director Mike Nichols circa 1967. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images) (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Mike Nichols was at once an insider and outsider, an occasional White House guest and friend to countless celebrities who was as likely to satirise the elite as he was to mingle with them.

He brought fierce wit and caustic social commentary to such film, television and stage hits as The Graduate, Angels in America and Monty Python’s Spamalot. During a career spanning more than 50 years he won an Academy Award, a Grammy and a clutch of Tonys and Emmys, as well as a Bafta.

For all the diversity of his work he will probably be best remembered for a sequence of films which began with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, continued with The Graduate and his adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and concluded with Carnal Knowledge in 1971. There were later hits like Working Girl, Silkwood and Primary Colors, but palpable misses, too, like Heartburn. David Thomson judges him harshly in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “Nichols makes movies from really neat, cute ideas that can be grasped in 20 minutes.”

He was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931; his father was a doctor born in Vienna to Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family fled the Nazis for the US when Michael was seven; he recalled that his command of English stretched to two sentences: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”

He fell in love with the theatre when he was 15; the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them tickets to see Marlon Brando on the second night of A Streetcar Named Desire. “We were poleaxed, stunned,” he recalled. “We didn’t speak to each other. We just sat like two half-unconscious people. It was so shocking. It was so alive. It was so real. I’m amazed about our bladders because we never went to the bathroom and it was about 3 1/2 or 4 hours long.”

Nichols attended the University of Chicago then left to study acting in New York. He returned to Chicago and began working with Elaine May in the Compass Players, a comedy troupe that later became Second City.

The pair developed their improvisational rapport into a saucy, sophisticated Broadway show that took on sex, marriage, the family and other subjects in a frank manner that titillated and startled audiences. An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May earned them a Grammy for best comedy recording in 1961. The two parted soon after, though they reunited in the 1990s when May wrote the screenplays for Primary Colors and The Birdcage, adapted from the French farce La Cage aux Folles.

Nichols found his true calling as a director, his early stage work highlighted by Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, each of which earned him Tonys. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was his first film, capturing the vicious yet sparkling dialogue of Edward Albee’s play as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s unhappily married couple torment each other.

Then came The Graduate. Robert Redford wanted the role of Benjamin Braddock, the gauche young existentialist hero wondering what life has to offer as he leaves college, but Nichols turned him down: “A guy who looked like Dustin Hoffman could play Benjamin,” he said. “A guy who looked like Redford would be a joke.” The film’s final scene saw Hoffman sitting at the back of a bus with Katharine Ross’s Elaine, who he has just pulled out of her wedding to another man. Hoffman’s expression shifts from the shock and pleasure at what he’s just done to asking himself, “What have I just done?” Nichols was asked what happened to the couple when the camera stopped rolling. “They turned out to be their parents,” he replied.

Hoffman described filming the scene. “Nichols had a handheld camera ... Katharine and I were facing Nichols, and he said, ‘Look back. Look forward,’ but he never gave us emotional direction. He asked us how we felt rather than telling us what to feel. He said, ‘Look at each other and think a specific thought, such as what you like about each other.’ At the end, he said those magic words that few directors know: ‘Don’t do anything.’ That way, whatever is going on is going to come out.”

At the time, Nichols, who won an Oscar for his direction, was “just trying to make a nice little movie,” he recalled in 2005 at a screening. He admitted in 2013 that many of his projects explored a familiar theme. “I keep coming back to it, over and over – adultery and cheating.”

He was Oscar-nominated for directing Virginia Woolf?, as well as Silkwood (1983), which starred Meryl Streep as a nuclear whistleblower, and for Working Girl. He also had a best-picture nomination for producing The Remains of the Day, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel.

He won Emmys for Angels in America, the 2003 TV mini-series adapted from Tony Kushner’s stage hit, which blended pathos and whimsy in its portrait of people coping with Aids in 1980s America, and for his 2001 adaptation of the play Wit, which told the story of a college professor dying of cancer. “I have never understood people dividing things into dramas and comedies,” he said. “There are more laughs in Hamlet than many Broadway comedies.”

Among his nine Tonys was one in 2005 for Monty Python’s Spamalot, of which The Independent’s Paul Taylor wrote, “it leaves you high and weak with laughter, thanks not just to the Python provenance of the basic material but to the phenomenal speed, wit, cheek and showbiz knowingness of the direction, which is by the great veteran, Mike Nichols.”

The great veteran – who was also a noted breeder of Arabian horses, and who died of a heart attack – shied away from making great claims for himself. Ingmar Bergman and Jean Renoir were great film-makers, he said, “but there are very few like them. The rest of us make entertainment. And that’s an absolutely honourable profession. Straining towards art is confusing and useless.”

Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky (Mike Nichols), comedian and film, television and theatre director: born Berlin 6 November 1931; married 1957 Patricia Scott (divorced 1960), 1963 Margo Callas (divorced 1974; one daughter), 1975 Annabel Davis-Goff (divorced 1986: one daughter, one son), 1988 Diane Sawyer; died 19 November 2014.

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