Normally, when we see a movie, a play or a tv production we focus on the actors, the story, or, perhaps, the music. We give little thought to the identity of the director. Most of us fail to realize the crucial role of the director in the success or failure of the production.
Essentially, the director is responsible for everything, selecting the music, deciding in which scenes various pieces will be played, selecting the actors and handling their various and sometimes conflicting egos and personalities in order to get the most out of them, dealing with the producers, etc. Most of his work is behind the scenes and the public is unaware of it except when there is a problem that makes the news. Few directors become household names. Usually, it takes an award nomination or two. How many movie, Broadway or tv directors can you name? I would guess, not nearly as many as actors and musicians.
Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky was born in Berlin on November 6, 1931. In 1939, at the age of seven, his brother and he emigrated to the US to join his father, who had emigrated earlier. As recounted in the best-selling book “Faces in America” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., when he arrived he only knew two phrases in English – “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.” I can understand the first one, but the second is an odd one. His mother joined the family later.
Mikhail’s father changed the family name to Nichols, and Mikhail became Michael. The family settled in NYC, near Central Park, and lived comfortably as Mike’s father had a successful medical practice. Mike attended private schools and college at the University of Chicago, where he studied pre-med, but upon graduation he decided on the entertainment business.
In 1953 he got a job at a classical music station as an announcer. While there, he met Elaine May, his first love. They teamed up as a successful comedy duo for eight years until they broke up to pursue other opportunities. According to a review in “Vanity Fair” “Nichols and May combined the political and social satire of (Mort) Sahl and (Lenny) Bruce with the inspired comic skits of (Sid) Caesar and (Imogene) Coca.” If they had stuck together, who knows. The world might have gained a comedy team but been deprived of one of the most successful directors of the last 50 years. Later, Nichols, trying to find his niche, studied acting under the reknowned Lee Strasberg and worked at Chicago’s Compass Players, which was a predecessor of Second City.
Mike got his big break in 1963 when he was hired to direct Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” on Broadway. The play was a rousing success and so was Mike. The play ran for 1,530 performances, and Mike won the first of his nine Tonys. Next, he directed another Simon play, “The Odd Couple,” which ran for 966 performances and for which he won another Tony for Best Director.
Later he enjoyed great success directing movies and tv productions. Perhaps, his two biggest movie successes were “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” “The Graduate” (1967) became one of the highest grossing films in history up to that point. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, which Nichols won. Additionally, Nichols gets credit for insisting on casting an unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, to play the lead. It had been widely assumed that Robert Redford would play the lead because he was more established and famous and bore a physical resemblance to the character as described in the book. Redford would have been the safe choice, but Nichols went out on a limb for Hoffman, who greatly appreciated the risk Nichols took and never forgot it. As we know, Hoffman delivered an outstanding performance, was nominated for an Academy Award, and has gone on to become one of the finest actors of his generation. Also, Nichols selected Simon and Garfunkel to write the music. Two of the songs, “Sounds of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” have become classic hits, and “Mrs. Robinson” won a Grammy. In addition, the placement of these songs in the movie, particularly “Sounds” in the opening scene, which was Nichols’ doing, added significantly to the audience’s understanding of the movie. William Daniels, who played Hoffman’s father, noted later that upon first hearing “Sounds” his reaction was “Oh, wait a minute. That changed the whole idea of the picture for me.” Right away, he knew this would be a serious movie, not a another comedy. I remember that when I first saw the movie, “Sounds” grabbed my attention, and I was hooked.
Each of the four main actors and actresses in “Virginia Woolf” – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal – were nominated for “Oscars,” with Dennis and Taylor winning. Overall, the film won five Academy Awards and was one of only two movies to receive nominations in every eligible category (13). The list of successful movies Nichols directed in his long and stellar career, such as “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” and “The Birdcage,” goes on and on.
Some little-known facts about Nichols’ personal life:
1. He was a third cousin twice removed of Albert Einstein’s on his mother’s side.
2. At the age of four he lost all of his hair while being treated for whooping cough. As a result, he remained bald for the rest of his life and wore wigs to conceal it.
3. He was married four times. The first three ended in divorce; the last one, to newswoman Diane Sawyer, lasted until his death. He had a total of three children by those marriages.
4. One of his hobbies was breeding Arabian horses at his farm in Connecticut.
Mike was not only one of the most successful directors of his generation but also one of the most versatile. As an indication of his versatility, Mike was one of the few people to have won an ”EGOT,” that is, an “Emmy,” a “Grammy” an “Oscar” and a “Tony.” In all, he won four Emmys, one Grammy, one Oscar, and nine Tonys. In addition, he was known as a director who got the most out of performers. Many of them won awards for performances in productions under his direction.
At 7:45 pm on November 20 Mike received the ultimate Broadway tribute. The lights were dimmed for one minute in his memory. Rest in peace, Mike. You will be sorely missed.