‘Mike Nichols’ Captures a Star-Studded Life That Shuttled Between Broadway and Hollywood
When writer and director Mike Nichols was young, he had an allergic reaction to a whooping cough vaccine. The result was a complete and lifelong inability to grow hair. One way to read Mark Harris’ crisp new biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, is a gentle comedy about a man and his wigs.
He got his first set (hair, eyebrows) before going to college. It was dark. Nichols attended the University of Chicago, where Susan Sontag was also a student. One reason they weren’t together, Harris writes, is that “she was thrown off his wig.”
Nichols moved to Manhattan to do it as a comedian. A friend said she would go into his tiny apartment and “the smell of acetone” – wig glue remover – “would just slap you in the face.”
Nichols became famous in his mid-20s. His improvised comedy routines with Elaine May, whom he had met in Chicago, were fresh and irresistible. They went to Broadway in 1960, where Nichols met Richard Burton. He would meet Elizabeth Taylor through Burton.
On the set of Cleopatra, Taylor asked the production hairstyle designer, “Do you make personal wigs? Because I have a dear friend who’s doing a comic in New York and he’s wearing one of the worst wigs I’ve ever seen. “It wasn’t long before Nichols’ toupees were unrivaled.
“It takes me three hours every morning to become Mike Nichols,” he told actor George Segal. He had a sense of humor. He would tell how his son Max crawled into bed next to him and, when he only saw the back of his head, shouted: “Where is Papa’s face?”
I’ve talked about hair and the lack of it for too long. But growing up bald, said Nichols’ brother, “was the defining aspect of his childhood.”
Nichols’ talent as a director was his ability to locate and easily pull in the details that make up a character. If he had made a movie of his own life the wig scenes would have been great – satirical and melancholy. He may have put a bathroom mirror mount on the Beatles’ early cover of “Lend Me Your Comb”.
His awkwardness made him wary. He became a student of human behavior. When he finally got the chance to direct, it was like he’d been preparing for it all his life.
Nichols’ first two films were “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate” – the first angry, daring and grown-up, the second defining the zeitgeist. At almost the same moment, he staged four successive hit pieces. Oscars, Tony Awards and a landslide of wealth followed.
He made up for his time as an outsider with all his might. He collected Arab horses and Picassos and made friends with Jacqueline Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein and Richard Avedon. He was a cocky prince who became a master of what Kenneth Clark liked to refer to as a “swimming bell,” a way of moving through elite society like a barge of silver and silk.
Nichols was born in Berlin in 1931 as Michael Igor Peschkowsky (or Igor Michael, it’s unclear). His father, a doctor, was a Russian Jew who changed the family name to Nichols after the family emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. The family had some money, and one of Nichols’ father’s patients in New York was pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Nichols attended good schools in Manhattan, including Dalton.
Mark Harris, whose new book is “Mike Nichols: A Life”.Recognition…David A. Harris
At the University of Chicago he became an omnivore and movie viewer. His joke withered; People were afraid of him. May’s joke was even more devastating. They were made for each other. They were never really a romantic couple, Harris writes, although they may have slept together once or twice early on.
Harris is the author of two previous books, “Pictures of a Revolution: Five Films and the Birth of New Hollywood” and “Five Came Back: A History of Hollywood and World War II”. He’s also a longtime entertainment reporter with a talent for shooting scenes.
He’s at his best on Mike Nichols: A Life when he takes you on a production. His chapters on the making of three films – “The Graduate,” “Silkwood” and “Angels in America” - are wonderful: smart, tight, intimate and funny. They feel that he could turn anyone into a book.
Nichols was a director of an actor. He was avuncular, a charmer, broad in his human sympathies. He was trying to figure out what an actor needed and provide it. He could put a well-polished fingernail on a tick that wanted to be a hook. But he had a steely side.
He fired Gene Hackman on The Graduate during the first week. Hackman played Mr. Robinson and it didn’t work out, partly because he looked too young for the role at 37.
Sacrificing someone early on could be a motivator for the remaining cast, he learned. He fired Mandy Patinkin at the beginning of the filming of “Heartburn” and brought in Jack Nicholson to play Meryl Streep’s faithless husband.
One reason the chapter in Nichols’ film about Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” is so rich is because Harris, who is married to Kushner, had access to the playwright’s diary.
Nichols turned to projects like “Angels in America” to bolster his serious side. But in everything he did, he found it funny. He knew instinctively that tragedy mostly speaks to the emotions while comedy touches the mind.
Nichols presided over a lot of crap with George C. Scott, expensive flops like “The Day of the Dolphin”; “The Fortune” with Nicholson and Warren Beatty; and “What planet are you from?” with Garry Shandling. Reading Harris’ accounts of the making of these films is like watching a cook strain his supplies.
Nichols’ Broadway flops included a production of “Waiting for Godot” with Steve Martin and Robin Williams. His mistakes shook him. He was battling depression (one of his vanity labels read “ANOMIE”) and had suicidal thoughts after being treated with Halcion, a benzodiazepine. Harris wrote that he had “an almost punitive need to prove the opposite to his critics.”
He had a manic side. He snorted his stake in cocaine and used crack for a while in the 1980s. You imagine him racing back and forth from the movie to Broadway on the latter as if coming through a series of constantly swinging cat doors.
Harris describes the numerous collaborations in his field with Streep and Nora Ephron. Nichols has been married four times. His last marriage to Diane Sawyer was ongoing.
Nichols was hard to get to know, and I’m not sure we’ll get him much better by the end of Mike Nichols: A Life. He was a man in constant motion, and Harris chases him with patience, clarity, and care.