Los Angeles Times


Director and funny guy Mike Nichols is celebrated in a new PBS documentar­y.

- By Susan King

Mike Nichols was a stranger in a strange land when he and his family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and immigrated to New York. He was 7.

“When he came here, he only knew two lines of English: ‘I don’t speak English’ and ‘Please don’t kiss me,’ ” said a good friend, producer Julian Schlossber­g (“American Masters: Nicholas & May: Take Two.”)

Less than 20 years later, Nichols and improv partner Elaine May were changing the face of American comedy with their sharp, brilliant banter.

As a director, he won numerous Tony Awards, including for Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Plaza Suite,” and the 2012 revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

He earned an Oscar nomination for his first feature, 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and won the Academy Award for 1967’s “The Graduate,” which made a star of Dustin Hoffman.

Along the way, he directed such films as 1970’s “Catch-22,” 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge,” 1983’s “Silkwood” and 1988’s “Working Girl,” plus the Emmy Awardwinni­ng 2003 HBO miniseries “Angels in America.”

And now, 14 months after his death at age 83, this Renaissanc­e man is the subject of a new documentar­y, “Mike Nichols: American Masters,” which premieres Friday on PBS.

Directed by May, the documentar­y features a fun, revealing interview with Nichols from last decade conducted by Schlossber­g, interviews the producer did with Nichols’ friends and colleagues, including Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Simon, Matthew Broderick and Hoffman, and clips from Nichols’ film, theater and TV projects.

(A second Nichols documentar­y — “Becoming Mike Nichols” — premieres on HBO on Feb. 22.)

Both Schlossber­g and Balaban, who made his Broadway debut in “Plaza Suite” and appeared in “Catch-22,” believe Nichols was the most brilliant person they ever knew.

“He had the ability to really be able to talk with you and unwittingl­y ... you realized you were also being educated,” said Schlossber­g.

Nichols, noted Balaban, “was so erudite. He was rather a joyous and lovely person to be around.”

But his intelligen­ce could also be a bit intimidati­ng.

“When we were on the set of ‘Catch-22,’ Mike, [screenwrit­er] Buck Henry and [star] Tony Perkins would play word games involving books and titles of things, most of which I had never heard of,” said Balaban. “I inadverten­tly became part of the game, and I would show the lack of my depth of knowledge.”

Nichols turned to directing after he and May went their separate ways in the early 1960s. In the documentar­y, Nichols talks about realizing how well suited he was for directing when he began rehearsals on his Broadway show “Barefoot in the Park,” starring Robert Redford.

“He says in the show, ‘I know what I am doing,’ ” said Schlossber­g. “‘This is what I am meant to do. I didn’t know I was meant to do this. ”’

Nichols had an uncanny knack with actors. “Having studied with Lee Strasberg, he knew how to direct instinctiv­ely,” said Schlossber­g.

Nichols was signed to make his feature directoria­l debut with “The Graduate.” But Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor wanted him for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” So Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner called “Graduate” executive producer Joseph E. Levine to see if he would allow Nichols to make “Woolf ” first.

“I was friendly with Joe Levine,” Schlossber­g said. “I said, ‘That was really kind of you,’ and he said, ‘Let him learn on Jack Warner’s money.’ ”

Nichols had an impeccable eye for casting. “Right down to taking someone like Dustin Hoffman, who at the time was clearly not the image of a movie star,” said Schlossber­g. “I think he was often able to see in [actors] what people couldn’t see, like with Cher in ‘Silkwood’ and Ann-Margret in ‘Carnal Knowledge.’ He was able to take people who had one image and would change it around.”

For Balaban and his circle of friends, Nichols was “always a god and continues to be a god, though he’s gone. I think some of his most visible work in the last 10 years [of his life] was onstage. And the things he did were wonderful, highly memorable and very highly regarded. His ‘Death of a Salesman’ was one the best production­s I’ve ever seen. He was operating on all cylinders.”


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 ?? The Nichols Family ?? A YOUNG Mike Nichols with his mother. His family immigrated to U.S. in 1939.
The Nichols Family A YOUNG Mike Nichols with his mother. His family immigrated to U.S. in 1939.

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