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Mike Nichols Appreciation: A Humane, Witty Renaissance Man

Sketch comic turned director turned EGOT, he had the kind of career — and life — that could only happen in the 20th century

To scroll through Mike Nichols‘ “Trivia” page on IMDB is to examine an extraordinary life in show business and to appreciate a life story that could have happened at no other time than the 20th century. And while his work spans a dizzying array of genres, Nichols’ fierce intelligence — and equally powerful sense of compassion — displays itself throughout his singular career.

Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931, Nichols fled Europe at age seven to reunite with his Russian Jewish father, who had already moved to New York City. (His German Jewish mother eventually joined them via an escape to Italy; “Nichols” came from the middle name of his father, Pavel Nikolaevich Peschkowsky.)

Following a private school education, Nichols found a kindred spirit in Elaine May, a teenage divorced mother from a family of Philadelphia-based Yiddish theater performers. (May would, of course, also go on to become an important, idiosyncratic American filmmaker in her own right.)

Describing their partnership in his book “Pictures at a Revolution,” Mark Harris noted, “Both Nichols and May were outsiders who had endured stormy childhoods by sealing themselves behind walls of wit. Both had the ability to stand just far enough apart from the culture around them to observe it with the ruthless detachment of great comedians, and both had an astonishing gift for improvisation; May could lampoon, on the spur of the moment, the stylistic tics and affectations of writers she had never actually read, and Nichols, who had read all of them, knew just how deeply he could tap his own intelligence without scaring the audience away.”

Together, they built a reputation as a comic duo in nightclubs and TV before starring in the Broadway hit “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” directed by Arthur Penn, which also spawned a Grammy-winning cast album. While Nichols and May’s partnership eventually imploded (the two later mended their friendship), Nichols’ entrée to Broadway helped him segue to the next phase of his career as a successful stage director: he took a problematic Neil Simon comedy called “Nobody Loves Me” and shaped it into “Barefoot in the Park,” the show that would earn Nichols the first of his six Tony Awards for directing a play. (He would win nine altogether.)

Harris describes his skill in that world: “Nichols discovered within himself a natural talent for drawing good work out of actors and for guiding playwrights through rewrites without making them feel threatened or trampled.”

Nichols’ deftness at eliciting fine performances translated from stage to screen, as he dazzled the world in his first at-bat as a film director with 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the biggest movie stars in the world at that time, but it took Nichols (and Edward Albee’s great dialogue) to remind the public that the slumming celebs from “Cleopatra” and “The V.I.P.s” were still powerful actors.

He then accomplished the opposite of a sophomore slump with 1967’s “The Graduate,” a film that encapsulated baby boomer discontent with more precision than perhaps any other single piece of work from that era, turning Dustin Hoffman into a screen icon in the process.

It’s hard to pigeonhole Nichols’ work, although many of his films manage to take a sardonic look at the state of the world without sacrificing compassion for his troubled characters, all of whom are just trying to make their way through. Whether it’s Alan Arkin‘s Yossarian in “Catch-22”; the confused, love-starved, horny protagonists of “Carnal Knowledge” and “Closer”; or the flawed but indefatigable heroines of “Silkwood,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Working Girl,” and “Primary Colors,” Nichols demonstrated time and again a willingness to be trenchant about circumstances but understanding regarding the people in them.

That’s a gift that stayed with him throughout his life — he was past his 70th birthday when he created two heartfelt and powerful pieces for HBO, “Angels in America” and “Wit.”

Sure, there were some misfires along the way (a growing chorus of fans defend “The Fortune”; not so much “What Planet Are You From?”) but Nichols’ biography contains more than any one article can accurately recap, from his marriages (Diane Sawyer, his fourth spouse, stayed with him from 1988 through his death this week) to his accomplishments as a breeder of Arabian horses to the 17 Academy Award-nominated performances under his direction to his standing as one of a dozen or so winners of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT).

A survivor of horrors, Mike Nichols would become an empathetic chronicler of the best and worst of humankind — and always with a sense of humor.