Visionary Mike Nichols Beat All the Odds
“I smell money, Mike. I smell money.”
That is what producer Joseph Levine told director Mike Nichols after the two watched the final cut of the movie The Graduate.
Levine’s olfactory sense was exceptionally accurate. The Graduate was a box office jackpot. The film cost Levine $3 million to make: it was released in December 1967 and grossed more than $104 million. Remember, that was in an era when the average adult theater ticket cost $1.20.
Those kinds of returns were typical of a Mike Nichols production. When he passed away at the age of 83 in November of 2014, he left behind an enviable track record: the 18 films he directed had returns of over a billion dollars.
The best of them, including The Graduate, The Birdcage, Carnal Knowledge, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, are among the most erudite and entertaining works of their time.
The same can be said of the Broadway and off-Broadway plays he directed. They were impeccably tasteful — Death of a Salesman, The Odd Couple, The Little Foxes, and The Real Thing — and attracted sizable audiences.
Mike Nichols had a complex, wunderkind quality about him that was reflected in all of his work, even those efforts which didn’t quite jell. But there was also a melancholy, sometimes angry side to him — he suffered intermittent bouts of serious depression throughout his life. That side is also evident in his productions.
“Dante says there is a dark forest in the middle of your life,” Nichols said. “You don’t know it’s coming, then you’re in it, then you’re out of it.” In Nichols’ case, he discovered the forest well before middle age.
When he was seven years old, Nichols and his younger brother, Robert, crossed the Atlantic by boat unaccompanied by any adults. The year was 1939 and the family was fleeing Nazi Germany. Nichols’ father, a physician, was in New York awaiting his sons’ arrival; his mother would join them later from Berlin.
Nichols could not speak English and was uncertain about his real first name — it was either Michael Igor or Igor Michael Peschkowsky. This was a mystery he never solved. Whatever sense of identity he had was amorphous at best.
Nichols later told this story as a tragicomedy, which according to biographer Mark Harris, reinforced the notion that he was “a Little Prince, alone on his planet and at home nowhere.”
Once in the United States, his status as a perpetual outsider was cemented when he became completely hairless (including eyelashes). An allergic reaction to a whooping cough vaccine left him with a lifelong inability to grow hair. Nichols’ father refused to let him wear a wig, which meant endless taunting by classmates and others. Mark Harris said that Nichols considered himself “a zero. In every way that mattered, I was powerless.”
That lack of control greatly multiplied when his father suddenly contracted leukemia in 1944. Within two weeks of diagnosis, Nichols’ father was dead. The relationship between the two had been strained — now it was forever beyond repair.
In addition to the heavy emotional turmoil, the death plunged the surviving family members into abject poverty. Nichols’ mother ultimately resolved her situation by marrying another physician — but it was years of struggle for her sons.
How Nichols clawed his way out of a very bleak set of circumstances to become one of the golden boys of entertainment is a study of gritty determination. “Yeah, I had a tough childhood,” he said. “I had all those problems … aren’t all childhoods bad?”
The key break which turned the corner was meeting Elaine May while the two were students at the University of Chicago in the early 1950’s. They formed the best improv comedy team ever — copious record sales, television appearances, club dates, and an unprecedented Broadway run, secured Nichols’ first commercial success.
Branching into directing, first plays and then films, Nichols soon recognized he had a special gift for spotting fresh talent and using it in novel ways.
A prime example of this was the musical score he coaxed out of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel for The Graduate. While filming in Hollywood, Nichols was living in a rental home, playing the Simon and Garfunkel album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, every morning as he was getting ready for work. He couldn’t get the songs out of his head, even while directing scenes on the soundstage.
One morning as he was working with the actors, “I was standing there, I thought, this is our score,” Nichols reported in a radio interview. “Why did it take me so long to understand that this is the score for this picture? And it was the first time anybody had used that particular kind of music for a score, and it defined the movie.”
After some involved negotiation, Simon and Garfunkel played several songs for Nichols, none of which he liked. Simon mentioned they were working on a song about Eleanor Roosevelt — Mrs. Roosevelt became Mrs. Robinson, which paved the way for two best-selling albums and the perfect soundtrack for a groundbreaking movie.
Despite appearances to the contrary, Nichols always described himself as “anything but confident.” His mercurial nature is one of the reasons he burned through three marriages before finding happiness with Diane Sawyer whom he married in April 1988.
It is doubtful that he ever made peace with the medical issues that prevented him from growing hair. Nichols began wearing wigs when he was 13, right after the death of his father. These toupees were cheap and often ill-fitting. That situation changed when his friend Elizabeth Taylor introduced him to Paul Huntley, one of the world’s finest wig makers. From that day forward, he appeared to have a full, natural head of hair. Still, the director had to endure an arduous multi-hour ordeal each morning “to become Mike Nichols.”
Nichols is best remembered today for his remarkable versatility. Very few can operate at such a high level in so many different fields. Nichols is one of only 17 to earn an EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. All these achievements from a boy who arrived in this country with a deck that appeared to be stacked against him. Well done, Mike Nichols.
For further reading, here’s our blog on his collaborator and dear friend Elaine May: https://blog.martinoakscemeteryandcrematory.com/the-unsinkable-elaine-may/