Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

Mike Nichols: A Life – He was born Igor Peschkowsky in 1931 to Jewish parents in Berlin, Germany. Eight years later, in 1939, young Igor and his brother Robert boarded an ocean liner bound for New York, and escaped Nazi Germany just before the noose tightened around its Jewish population.

Not able to speak English, and an allergic reaction that left him completely hairless for the rest of his life, young Igor was a stranger in a strange land, and was subjected to relentless bullying from his school mates, and under the yoke of his overwhelmed, domineering mother, especially after his father died when he was 12.

Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

By the 1950s, young Igor changed his name to Mike Nichols, and made the move to Chicago to study theatre, and use his powerful sense of observation and humour in a more creative vein. During his days with an improv troupe called The Compass Players (the predecessor of the famed Second City troupe), he met up with the person who would be his greatest creative partner, Elaine May. By the end of the decade, their ability to create original comedy sketches with the barest of essentials (basically a couple of stools) and the most realistic and cerebral of subject matters that Abbott & Costello wouldn’t even consider, the duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May became pioneers in modern stand-up comedy (along with such contemporaries as Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman and Lenny Bruce); they played to sold out crowds at night clubs, performed on numerous TV specials, recorded three best selling albums, and their 1960 stage show “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” was a smash hit on Broadway. Basically, they were the toast of the show business world at a time when great changes were about to bring a new wave of performers and creators that would thoroughly modernize it.

In 1963, a former TV comedy writer and aspiring playwright named Neil Simon just finished his first stage comedy called “Barefoot in the Park”. Somehow, he took a gamble and chose the untested Nichols to be its director. The end result was a Tony Award-winning hit than ran for three years on Broadway. For the next three years, Nichols helmed a string of Broadway hits (including the original production of “The Odd Couple” in 1965), when Hollywood came calling.

Again untested as a director (for motion pictures), Nichols’ first major motion picture was the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s controversial 1962 play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. Somehow, such an important film in the hands of a novice film director would have been an invitation to disaster; however, Nichols’ trademark skill of handling actors to give their best performances and the importance of rehearsals before filming began made the movie a modern classic and earned two Oscars (including a Best Actress Oscar for Elizabeth Taylor for her booze-soaked portrayal of Martha to Richard Burton’s self-loathing George).

This led to an impressive list of critical and commercial hit movies that forever shaped modern movie making, such as “The Graduate”, “Carnal Knowledge”, “Silkwood”, “Working Girl”, “The Birdcage” and “Angels in America”. It got to the point that if people in show business circles found out that a new film or play would have Mike Nichols’ involvement attached, it would be a highly-anticipated prestige project. However, his traumatic upbringing and bottled up insecurities would deeply affect his psyche, especially when projects like “Catch-22”, “The Day of the Dolphin”, “Wolf”, and “Waiting for Godot” were critical and/or box office flops, which led to periods of deep depression and cocaine use.

This was the impressive, complex and paradox-laden life of the artistic genius that was Mike Nichols. And it’s so vividly and thoroughly recaptured in Mark Harris’ masterful biography Mike Nichols: A Life.

This is show business biography writing at its best. Harris’ penchant for diligent research and getting every available detail to tell the full story, which he has done so well with his previous two books — Pictures at A Revolution and Five Came Back – has given a full portrait of this very talented, but tortured, individual (and the more than 250 interviews he conducted with many of Nichols’ friends and colleagues, including Meryl Steep, Elaine May, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks, is a true literary icing on the cake).

When one reads the book, they get the impression that the entire narrative takes on a certain rollercoaster kind of pattern. For example, when Nichols’ 1966 production of “The Apple Tree” was a minor success on Broadway, but gave him an unpleasant experience (especially due to the insecurities of lead actress Barbara Harris), Nichols retreated to Hollywood to direct “Virginia Woolf” and “The Graduate”. And after the bitter experience as a result of directing the 2000 movie comedy “What Planet Are You From?” (which ended up being the biggest box office flop of his career), Nichols decided to go to television and directed two productions for HBO – “Wit” and “Angles in America” — that would end up as the most prestigious productions of his swansong years. And in between each paradigm shift, Nichols would relax at his Connecticut country home, buy expensive horses for his ranch, and living the high life in New York City, where he attended countless theatre premieres, launches, parties and dined at many fine restaurants, most of the time accompanied by his third wife Diane Sawyer.

And of course, what biography of any genre would be without its fair share of behind-the-scenes anecdotes? Happily, this book does not disappoint in that department. My favorite is the collection of anecdotes that involved how Nichols dealt with the holier-than-thou attitude of Walter Matthau, who originated the role of Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple”. Throughout the play’s rehearsals, Matthau wasn’t happy about the fact that the play’s third and final act was not fully developed, and Neil Simon was in the midst of writing and polishing it. Matthau expressed to Nichols that he never did a performance unprepared throughout his career, and wasn’t about to start. Nichols refused to cave in to him, which prompted the soon-to-be Tony winner to say “I’ll go out there and make a fool of myself. But at the curtain call, I’m going to say to the audience, I did my best. Blame this shit on Nichols and Simon.” It was that kind of attitude that led his co-star Art Carney to have a nervous breakdown and another bout with alcoholism before the show’s original run ended.

Mike Nichols: A Life is a fascinating, probing biography of a person who turned a childhood trauma into a much revered career in comedy, Broadway, television and movies. Mike Nichols was a man who had that rare respect for actors and acting, and who really had the performing arts world in his blood, even if he wasn’t directly involved helming a new play or movie. One glaring example of the latter was immediately following Nichols’ death in November of 2014 at the age of 83, his appointment book showed that the week after his death was completely filled with an assortment of appointments, visits with friends and luncheon dates.

By: Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca

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