Beloved Director Mike Nichols Passes Away at 83
Mike Nichols died Wednesday at the age of 83, leaving behind a mountain of stuff—plays, movies, musicals and comedies, television movies, some jokes and shticks, pearls of wisdoms, a few flops here and there, having lived a big life fully rounded out so that it leaves a big imprint in the world, and in particular, the world of theatrical art—be it movie theaters, a flat-screen television or a cineplex.
Still, when you contemplate that mountain of work with the honors it engendere —pictures pop in your mind: the young Nichols (with his partner in standup and recorded comedy Elaine May), a kind of smart and confident grin on his face, thin black tie, as if he knew something and what it was would be smart and funny. Even though many of the films and movies (some were films, some were movies) treaded into dark and moody waters, there was something sharp as well as insouciant about his directorial touch, a distanced lightness that often proved irresistible.
And a question arose: Who knew he was 83?
In his pictures—even though in his last years, he looked frail, such as when he received the Tony for best direction for the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman—he still managed also to look like somebody who could take over the role of Puck from “Midsummer,” still boyish in his years.
We all—some more than others—remember his first successes—the film version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," Edward Albee’s poetic screaming match, the Liz and Dick show at its apex, with Burton giving one of his finest performances in 1966 and the groundbreaking “The Graduate," starring Dustin Hoffman as a naïf who was seduced by Mrs. Robinson—aka Ann Bancroft—and told to go into “plastics” in 1967. That film spoke to a generation of young people as much as Bob Dylan did—they listened to him and Simon and Garfunkel, if they happened to be less political but more sensitive. Nichols won an Oscar for Best Director.
In 1967, he made his Broadway debut directing a slim romcom of the theater called “Barefoot in the Park," starring the soon to be uber-star Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Nichols won a Tony for Best Director, the first of nine. (“Death of a Salesman” was the last). He achieved EGOT, winning four Emmys, one Grammy, one Oscar and Nine Tonys.
This from a guy who entered life as one Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, born in Berlin, the son of soon-to-be-Russian-Jewish immigrants to New York. The record has it that he and his younger brother were sent to the United States in 1939, to escape the Nazis. He was an actor, bought horses, and was married four times, the last to the elegantly blonde newscaster Diane Sawyer, since 1988.
His forays into theater began with his stand up act with his good friend May from a troupe in Chicago which eventually became Second City, from which a generation of Saturday Night Live performers erupted.
But it’s the work on screen, the work on stage (and two spectacular forays into cable films, “Angels in America” and “Wit,” adapted from plays) that mattered and are, if not exactly revealing or telling about Nichols, the private man, certainly about Nichols and his ingenious gift for diversity and versatility.
Yet, the lightness prevails in almost everything he touched. It prevailed in an obvious way in directing Neil Simon plays for instance, and any number of classic plays, but also in some of his sharper work on screen—the dark, almost ugly “Carnal Knowledge,” in which Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel played harried and competitive skirt chasers, the smart comedy “Heartburn,” set mostly in Washington (with some of it filmed in Georgetown), with Nicholson and Meryl Streep channeling Carl Bernstein and Norah Ephron, and the hugely popular “Working Girl,” starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.
He could do anything—the song “Be A Clown” comes up for air often, especially in the gut-splitting “The Birdcage," a sort of straight (no music) version of “La Cauge aux Folles”, which featured Robin Williams, the irrepressible Nathan Lane, and a very funny Gene Hackman.
You never knew with Nichols: there would be the Simons-“Plaza Suite” and “The Odd Couple," followed by a production of “Uncle Vanya,” the horrifyingly tough anti-war play “Streamers,” Tom Stoppard’s incisive play about marriage, “The Real Thing," “The Seagull” and, finally, “Death of a Salesman.” Of course, who could have predicted in this bunch a producing credit for “Annie,” or a directing credit, yes, for “Spamalot.”
He also had duds: “Billy Bishop Goes to War” and “Fools” on stage, ‘Day of the Dolphin” and “What Planet are You From?” in film.
Nichols’ version of Joseph Heller’s cult classic “Catch 22” is considered one of his duds by many critics. But if a criteria for a fine film is the fact that, after a number of decades, you still remember World War II bombers, rising and falling at an Italian airfield, Alan Arkin as the anarchic hero, Yossarian trying logically and helplessly to stay alive, and a bewildering Major Major, then failure, though it might have been, it succeeded in capturing an elusive book. It operated like a giant hallucination in 1970, which now seems like a hallucination, too.
That mountain that Nichols left behind, that’s no hallucination. That’s real.