Mike Nichols arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Nazi Germany with the ability to speak only two sentences in English: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”
Most Americans who knew Nichols as Elaine May’s improv partner, or the director of films such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Graduate” and “Silkwood,” may not have even realized English was his second language. He not only spoke the language like a native, but understood the American character, its core and conflicts, as only a great artist could.
Nichols, who died after suffering a heart attack at 83 in November 2014, is the subject of an “American Masters” documentary directed by Elaine May and premiering on Friday, to kick off the PBS series’ 30th anniversary.
“Mike Nichols” isn’t an acme of filmmaking – most of it features Nichols talking to film, TV and theatrical producer Julian Schlossberg, with a stingy selection of archival clips, and a handful of former colleagues talking about how brilliant, funny and smart he was. And yet, every time May cuts away from Mike Nichols talking, you’re impatient for her to get back to him, which only underscores why you entirely believe people like Bob Balaban, Meryl Streep, Stanley Donen, Neil Simon and Matthew Broderick when they proclaim him a singular genius.
Nichols arrived in the United States as Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in 1939. He wasn’t an especially good student and ended up going to the University of Chicago because it was one of two colleges that didn’t require students to take the college boards – Nichols hadn’t cared enough to take them. College was mostly a chance to chase girls and have fun. His life changed when he saw “A Streetcar Named Desire” on stage with Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter.
His newfound interest in theater led him to the Compass Players and Second City, where he describes himself as having been painfully inept at improv for weeks.
And then he wasn’t. He found his talent and he found Elaine May. The two formed an improv team whose success eventually led them to “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May” on Broadway in 1960, as well as TV appearances.
Fame proved their undoing as collaborators, though. Being famous and doing eight shows a week was especially hard on May, Nichols says. Other comedy teams had broken up before – Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis lasted a decade, from 1946 to 1956 – but they were best known for their film work. Nichols and May were known for TV appearances and their Broadway show. Nonetheless, their split was heartbreaking for a new generation of fans who valued a more intellectual brand of comedy befitting the dawn of the ’60s.
Nichols had trouble adjusting to not being, as he puts it, “half of something” anymore. He directed a version of Jules Feiffer’s “Passionella” in New Jersey, but didn’t realize he was meant to be a director until the producer Saint Subber drafted him to oversee a new play by Neil Simon called “Barefoot in the Park,” with a young Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Nichols won the first of many Tony awards as a director for the play.
Nichols struck gold his first time out on Broadway and did the same with his first film, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal. It was a great film, but his next was to be an indelible distillation of American cultural deterioration in the late 20th century: Although some critics wrongly labeled “The Graduate” as a comedy about the generation gap, in fact, it was a film about materialism and hollow values. With its screenplay by Buck Henry, “The Graduate” is a probing descent into the American psyche, mirrored in Benjamin Braddock’s descent into his own psyche, as represented by the opening scenes of an airliner landing in Los Angeles.
May’s film doesn’t try to be either a comprehensive catalog of Nichols’ achievements or a thorough biography of his marriages and children. It doesn’t have to: It’s far more interesting to consider what Nichols has to say about high and low points in his career. It becomes even easier for us to understand why Streep and Broderick, among others, are so lavish in their praise for his style as a director when Nichols displays unusual insight about himself. We believe him when he says that having a flop was important to him as a film director. Expectations were so high about what he could do that they presented an obvious burden for him. Having a flop meant you could “get past it and get back to your real life.”
May’s film is one of two documentaries on Nichols scheduled for TV this year. The other, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” will air on HBO next month, but premiered at Sundance in January. It doesn’t matter who got there first, though: There’s more than enough material in the singular life and career of this most American artist for a dozen documentaries
“American Masters: Mike Nichols” airs 9 p.m. Friday on UNC-TV