Mike Nichols, from ‘Barefoot’ to ‘Betrayal’

A director whose stage career spanned improv, tragedy, even musicals, as well as some very fine film adaptations of plays.

With the death of director Mike Nichols on Nov. 20 in Manhattan at the age of 83,  the theatre and film worlds lost an era- and genre-spanning titan. In a multihyphenate, multimedia career, Nichols was one of the few directors whose talent exceeded the confines of the tools that he used, whether that was a movie camera, or a playscript or an actor. Case in point: He was an EGOT winner, having received four Emmys, one Grammy, one Oscar and nine Tonys. He was also a Kennedy Center honoree in 2003.

Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin on Nov. 6, 1931, Nichols emigrated to the U.S. when he was seven as part of a Jewish family fleeing the Nazis. After a career in improv with the Compass Players and a prolific series of comedy shows and records with Elaine May, Nichols cut his directing teeth in the theatre. Early in his career, he directed Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965). His Broadway resume for the next few decades varied widely, from the aforementioned comedies to dramas (Uncle Vanya in 1973, Death of a Salesman in 2012) and musicals (Spamalot in 2005).

Nichols was working right into his twilight years; his final directing credit was last year’s high-profile revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz.

In 1977, Nichols made his first foray into producing with Annie; later producing credits included Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1984, with his company Icarus Productions) and Whoopi Goldberg’s eponymous one-woman show in 1984 and 2004.

Among his many works for the screen were some definitive filmed adaptations of iconic stage works, starting with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Margaret Edson’s Wit.

No less than performing, his life was dedicated to a parallel career as a teacher and mentor. With Paul Sills and George Morrison, he founded the New Actors Workshop.

In an interview last year, he told American Theatre senior editor Rob Weinert-Kendt, about the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the comic gift.

“One of the things about being funny and knowing about funny: You can nail the currently popular thing, you can show us how funny that is,” Nichols said. “That’s how you discover in your own work that you’re funny; you can take whatever is the rage at the moment, and show us that it’s just one more dodge, one more number. But you don’t know it till you do it. It’s somewhere near anger, that ability. And because it is, it’s something that you juggle. It’s like having a racehorse in your barn. You have to treat a little differently, feed it different food. It’s not something you can do every year; we all use it up.”

Realizing he’d just talked for a while about being funny, he added, with flawless self-deprecation, “Once you start defining what’s funny, you’re an asshole.”

In honor of his varied and milestone-filled career: here is a highlight reel of Nichols’ career, with his insight on each project.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“I think I served Edward Albee and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton well, and did what I set out to do, which was to let Virginia Woolf take place on screen. I did not intrude myself terribly. I protected Albee’s idea from misunderstanding, slurring or twisting.”

From the same interview, though on a different subject: “It’s very depressing to be described as a success, a maker of hits. Not to mention names, but some people have worked for twenty years in the theatre on the strength of one hit. Who wants to be a success? That’s an odd profession. I didn’t know how great a man Fellini was until Giulietta. A beautiful failure!” —Newsweek

Spamalot

“With Spamalot, I didn’t want to direct a musical and especially a comedy musical. They kept asking me, and I said, ‘No, please go away!’ It seemed like a lot of work. They said, ‘Well, just come to a reading.’ So we had a reading, and I was lost, because it was so funny. So I said: ‘Oh, fuck it! Why not?’ But I didn’t know what it was about until rehearsals began, and one of the cast says they’re the knights of the ‘rind’ table—pronouncing ’round’ like ‘rind’ [in the upper-class British way]. Then I realized Spamalot is about class, because the English only have one subject, and that’s class.” —Hollywood Reporter

Death of a Salesman

“My experience with [plays by Anton] Chekhov and [Samuel] Beckett was…that they get harder and harder as you go. But with Salesman, surprisingly, because it’s fully as great a play as those others, it did welcome us and come toward us day by day. And then we did a fairly smart thing, which is that we had a workshop just for ourselves for almost a month, and nobody ever saw it and we didn’t perform it, but we just worked on it. And then, as per plan, we went away for over three and a half months.

“And then when we came back, we went into rehearsal and then finally got onstage and did it. And the three-and-a-half months living and doing other things made a surprisingly big difference. It just sank into everybody and took enormous strides all on its own, and that was both exciting and surprising in its extent. And also, it was a clue to what was going to continue to happen, which is that it just burrowed deeper and deeper into the actors and [the actors] into one another, and they have become a family. And what goes on between them…in my experience, I’ve never seen it quite like this.” —NPR

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