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Mike Nichols, original name in full Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, (born November 6, 1931, Berlin, Germany—died November 19, 2014, New York, New York, U.S.), American motion-picture, television, and stage director whose productions focus on the absurdities and horrors of modern life as revealed in personal relationships.
Early life and stage work
At age seven, Nichols emigrated with his family from Germany to the United States, before the outbreak of World War II. He attended the University of Chicago (1950–53), studied acting under Lee Strasberg in New York City, and then returned to Chicago, where, with Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Barbara Harris, and Paul Sills, he formed the comic improvisational group The Compass Players. Nichols and May then traveled nationwide with their social-satire routines, and from 1960 to 1961 they performed on Broadway in An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. The recording of their show won Nichols and May a Grammy Award for best comedy album of the year.
In 1963 Nichols directed his first Broadway show, the highly praised Neil Simon comedy Barefoot in the Park, for which he won a Tony Award. For his next two stage productions, Luv (1964–67) and Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965–67), Nichols won another Tony.
Early films: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge
In 1966 Nichols made his film-directing debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a corrosive adaptation of Edward Albee’s 1962 play about two couples who reveal shocking secrets during the course of an evening. The drama was a sensation upon release, owing to its explicit language and the presence of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as a dysfunctional married couple. A box-office hit, it received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, and Nichols was also Oscar-nominated, as were Taylor (who won for best actress), Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis (who won for best supporting actress); the film also earned seven other Oscar nods.
Nichols’s second film made an even greater impact. The Graduate (1967), based on a novel by Charles Webb, starred a relatively unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman as a recent college graduate who has an affair with an older woman (Anne Bancroft as the seductive Mrs. Robinson) and then finds himself in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross). With its portrayal of malaise and alienation, the film spoke to the youth culture in a way that none had since Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and it became one of the highest-grossing movies of the decade. Nichols won an Academy Award for his direction—a flashy turn that borrowed from several European directors—and the picture, Hoffman, Bancroft, Ross, Robert Surtees’s cinematography, and the screenplay by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham were also Oscar-nominated.
Throughout his career, Nichols continued to work on Broadway, and in 1968 he won a Tony Award for directing Simon’s Plaza Suite. His next film project was an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s antiwar cult classic, Catch-22. Perhaps expectations for Nichols’s screen version were unrealistically high, but it did not fare well when it was released in 1970, failing to please either fans of the novel or casual moviegoers, who may have been put off by the picture’s surfeit of surrealistic black humour. The eclectic cast included Alan Arkin, Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Buck Henry (who wrote the screenplay), and Charles Grodin.
Carnal Knowledge (1971), however, won many critics back to Nichols’s side, but it too was controversial for its frank and realistic treatment of sex. The drama presents a trenchant but painfully sad portrait of two former college friends (Jack Nicholson and Garfunkel) as they struggle in various relationships from the 1940s through the sexual revolution of the ’60s. Ann-Margret, Candice Bergen, Carol Kane, and Rita Moreno portrayed the women who try to love them. The film was a success at the box office, and Nicholson’s performance as an emotionally empty, predatory chauvinist helped solidify his stardom.
After earning yet another Tony Award for directing Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971–73) on Broadway, Nichols moved on to the big-budget film The Day of the Dolphin (1973), which starred George C. Scott as a scientist whose trained talking dolphins are kidnapped by extremists, who plan to use the animals to assassinate the president. A curious addition to Nichols’s filmography, it tried unsuccessfully to blend comedy, thriller, and science fiction while addressing environmental issues, and it failed to find an audience. Nichols did not fare much better with the frenetic comic caper The Fortune (1975), which featured Nicholson and Warren Beatty as a pair of 1920s con artists who first romance an heiress (Stockard Channing) and then try to steal her inheritance. Although Beatty and Nicholson demonstrated some talent for slapstick, this was not the type of showcase in which audiences wanted to see them, and only later did The Fortune come to be appreciated as an intelligent, offbeat film.
Nichols subsequently returned to the theatre, and in the late 1970s he directed several Broadway productions, earning Tony nominations for Streamers (1976–77), Comedians (1976–77), and The Gin Game (1977–78). During this time, he also coproduced Annie (1977–83), which won a Tony for best musical.