Mike NicholsFor nearly half a century, Mike Nichols has had such a varied and profound effect on our culture that probably no American has been left untouched by his genius. His fabled partnership with Elaine May perfected American improvisation comedy. On Broadway he has directed some of the most acclaimed box office hits of the past four decades. As a producer, Nichols brought Whoopi Goldberg to Broadway, The Remains of the Day to the screen, "Family" to television, and the musical Annie to the world. He has directed many of our favorite films and at least two that dramatically changed not only the film industry itself, but also the way we looked at movies and the way they made us feel. For nearly half a century, Mike Nichols has had such a varied and profound effect on our culture that probably no American has been left untouched by his genius. His fabled partnership with Elaine May perfected American improvisation comedy. On Broadway he has directed some of the most acclaimed box office hits of the past four decades. As a producer, Nichols brought Whoopi Goldberg to Broadway, The Remains of the Day to the screen, "Family" to television, and the musical Annie to the world. He has directed many of our favorite films and at least two that dramatically changed not only the film industry itself, but also the way we looked at movies and the way they made us feel. His first film, the 1966 taboo-busting, Oscar-winning Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, famously put the final nail in the coffin of the stifling Motion Picture Production Code. With his second movie, The Graduate, Nichols created a box office sensation that made Dustin Hoffman a star and inaugurated a cycle of youth-oriented movies that ushered the American film into a new and vibrant era of creativity. The first got him an Oscar nomination, the second the award. Writing for the New York Times about Nichols' career in film, which now includes nearly 20 motion pictures, Caryn James said: "Beneath their apparent diversity, all of Mr. Nichols's films are concerned with the boundless promises of American life-money or justice or marital happiness—as filtered through middle-class, popular culture….But always Mike Nichols is the ultimate mainstream director, who senses the movement of American culture half a beat before the rest of us and, like a reconnaissance man, presents us with a map of the territory where we will all arrive shortly."
A child war refugee, Nichols, who was born Michael Peshkowsky, emigrated with his family to the United States to escape the Nazis. He worked his way through college at the University of Chicago, where he decided to become an actor. After studying with Lee Strasberg in New York, he returned to Chicago, where with Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Paul Sills, and others, he formed the groundbreaking comedy troupe Second City. Soon after, Nichols and May broke from the group and their meteoric rise as a comedy team began in 1957, when they first performed in New York at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. They revolutionized the landscape of American comedy through their appearances in clubs, television, radio, and in their legendary 1960 Broadway production An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Combining dry wit and wry satire, "the world's fastest humans" lampooned faceless bureaucracy and such previously sacrosanct institutions as hospitals, politics, funeral homes, and even motherhood. Journalist Peter Marks wrote, "For sheer urbanity, there was nothing quite like a Nichols and May routine. Their material could be as accessible as a skit about two teen-agers parked for a passionate interlude or as lofty as a parody of William Faulkner."
The fabled partnership only lasted four years, though, and following the breakup, Nichols turned to directing and in quick succession staged Barefoot in the Park, Luv, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue from 1963 to 1972. Five huge hits and four Tony Awards later, Nichols had redefined the Broadway comedy for a new generation. "Mike takes you so into the play," says Neil Simon, "you forget you're in the theater."
There are few directors who have Nichols' virtuosity—who move so fluently from the theater to the movies—and fewer still who make performers look so good. Many of our great actors have given some of their most unforgettable performances while under the influence of Mike Nichols' expert direction. On screen there are Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Anne Bancroft and Hoffman in The Graduate, Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge, Meryl Streep and Cher in Silkwood, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, Matthew Broderick in Biloxi Blues, Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Emma Thompson in Wit, and John Travolta in Primary Colors. In the theater there were Elizabeth Ashley in Barefoot in the Park, Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, Maureen Stapleton in Plaza Suite, George C. Scott in Uncle Vanya, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in The Gin Game, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver in Hurlyburly, and Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons in The Real Thing. "Mike creates a very protective environment," explains Irons. "He's like the best of lovers; he makes you feel he's only for you."
When he won an Emmy Award in 2001 for directing Wit, Nichols joined an elite circle of artists who have won every major entertainment award, Oscar (The Graduate, 1967), Emmy, Tony (Barefoot in the Park in 1964, Luv and The Odd Couple in 1965, Plaza Suite in 1968, The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1972, The Real Thing in 1984, and for producing Annie in 1977) and Grammy (in 1962 for An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May). Urbane and witty, exuberantly versatile, and most of all humane, Mike Nichols above all has won the admiration and respect of anyone who cares about theater, about movies, about laughter, about life.