FLASH FRIDAY: A Mike Nichols Remembrance - Brilliance On Broadway, In Hollywood & Far Beyond
In honor of his death, today we salute one of the most renowned and respected directors on Broadway, in Hollywood and far beyond, the one and only Mike Nichols.
The Designated Mourner
Actor, writer, director, producer, raconteur, legend - the many applicable titles possessed and perfected by iconic Hollywood and Broadway multi-hyphenate Mike Nichols are astounding to consider now, particularly in light of news of his death from cardiac arrest at the age of 83 earlier this week. Expectedly, the lights will be dimmed on Broadway in honor of him tonight, just as all of Hollywood will no doubt pause for a moment to remember him, as well - yet, all any of us need to do is explore one of the many marvelous entertainment entities he created over the course of his 60 years in show business to be reminded of why there never was and never will be another Mike Nichols. Ever. As sophisticated as he was funny, as adept in comedy as he was in drama, as effective an actor as a director and just as notable as a producer - if only for Broadway mega-smash ANNIE alone, not to mention the subtly revolutionary FAMILY TV series and the Oscar-winning THE REMAINS OF THE DAY - Mike Nichols was a true blue iconoclast who leaves behind a remarkable resume overflowing with works of 20th and 21st century art of major prominence, influence and import.
Before all the Broadway sell-outs and Hollywood hits, though, not to mention all the awards, Mike Nichols first came to prominence in the entertainment realm as half of the comedy duo Nichols & May, who began humbly as part of the Second City forerunner the Compass Players in Chicago after Nichols met caustic young actress Elaine May while attending the University of Chicago and performing in plays there, among them August Strindberg's MISS JULIE and William Butler Yeats's PURGATORY. Nichols and May soon become synonymous with their hilarious stand-up routines as represented on a series of live recordings and frequent nightclub and TV appearances. The apotheosis of Nichols & May occurred with their Broadway debut in AN EVENING WITH MIKE NICHOLS & ELAINE MAY in 1960, whose recording went on to win the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. Their partnership continued behind the scenes despite them rarely re-teaming onstage following a falling out shortly thereafter that, with May polishing scripts and writing final drafts for some of Nichols's most recognizable properties, among them THE BIRDCAGE and PRIMARY COLORS.
Nevertheless, it is the Broadway stage that became the first home for Nichols following his time as a stand-up success - and, even then. Starting out with a huge hit the likes of which Broadway still rarely sees now or ever, Nichols began a fruitful partnership with formidable 1960s playwright Neil Simon in 1963, kicking off with BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, whose success was repeated if not outright supplanted by their collaborative follow-up, THE ODD COUPLE. Two modern classics in roughly two years - a feat Nichols would duplicate when he moved full-fledged to film, incidentally. Nichols earned not one, but two TONY AWARDS for his efforts on both Simon projects (the latter shared with LUV), continuing to work with Simon on many endeavors in the coming years and decades, including PLAZA SUITE in 1968, for which Nichols received his third Tony Award for Best Director, as well as THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE in 1971, earning him Tony Award number 4. During this time Nichols also directed a number of notable stage properties ranging from eventual long-running hit Murray Schisgal's LUV to THE KNACK Off-Broadway to Lillian Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES, not to mention the Broadway musical THE APPLE TREE, featuring a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Nonetheless, his attentions were becoming increasingly divided ever since he had found a comely new mistress - namely, Hollywood.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is a striking, acidic and audacious examination of married life as only three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee could and would envision it and the subsequent feature film adaptation starring hotshot Hollywood uber couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor cemented Nichols's place as not only a major Broadway director, but a prominent player in all of the entertainment realm - soon, with the Best Director Academy Award statuette to prove it. Nichols matched the success of the masterful Albee stage-to-screen translation - with that film breaking down censorship boundaries and becoming the first movie, along with BONNIE & CLYDE the same year, to present parental advisory warnings to prospective attendees - with his next feature film, THE GRADUATE. Imaginatively integrating the unforgettable Simon & Garfunkel music of the era into the tapestry of the drama and overall mise en scene of the film itself, Nichols is credited with kicking off a whole new era of Hollywood films aimed at the younger generation, featuring their fashion, stars, music, and, most importantly, their stories, with THE GRADUATE acting as a foremost example. Unfortunately, the dense and tonally tricky CATCH-22, based on the popular Joseph Heller novel of the same name, failed to incite the same excitement as Nichols's first two films, though his next, the daring CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, broke down boundaries once again, presenting one of the most risqué and detailed treatises on modern sexuality and relationships that had been seen on film in America until that time. Nevertheless, a flop streak continued after that, with the visually impressive but dramatically inert THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN coming next and the tone-deaf slapstick antics of THE FORTUNE arriving after that. Just as he expanded his horizons from Broadway to Hollywood the decade before, Nichols then once again ventured out into new territory as a means to re-inspire his muse - this time, with television.
The lives of a typical middle class American family were presented weekly in the hit dramatic series FAMILY, which ran for four seasons from 1976 through 1980, cataloging the growing disenchantment and blasé modern milieu of many participants in the period with subtlety, heart and effectiveness. Nichols would return to television throughout the rest of his career after that, creating works as varied as GILDA LIVE!, two Whoopi Goldberg HBO specials and also two simply perfect adaptations of culturally important plays at the turn of the millennium - Margaret Edson's cancer tale WIT and Tony Kushner's Pulizer Prize-winning AIDS epic ANGELS IN AMERICA, winning Best Direction Emmy Awards for both efforts. Notable films continued throughout the 1980s, too, including HEARTBURN and WORKING GIRL, yet his twofer of Broadway smashes undoubtedly dominate the time period - Tom Stoppard's THE REAL THING and David Rabe's HURLYBURLY, the former for which Nichols earned his fifth Tony Award. So, too, would the true-life-based SILKWOOD turn out to be another important film in the canon of Nichols, as well, with his teaming on that project with Meryl Streep leading to a lifelong friendship and artistic partnership leading all the way to this year when it was announced he would direct her in an HBO film.
Besides having a hand in shaping and acting as lead producer on the hit Broadway musical ANNIE, as original Annie herself, Andrea McArdle, recently recounted in our InDepth InterView (available here), Nichols also offered assistance to master director Tommy Tune on the Tony Award-winning MY ONE AND ONLY a few years later, and also continued to champion the work of Neil Simon with the big screen version of BILOXI BLUES. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE kicked off the 1990s in grand fashion, though Nichols would present one of the biggest hits of his career a few years later with the American adaptation of adored French farce LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, titled THE BIRDCAGE. REGARDING HENRY, WOLF and PRIMARY COLORS all showed cinematic evidence of Nichols's continued command of celluloid during this time, though they understandably failed to reach the highs of his biggest early hits. On Broadway, Nichols directed Ariel Dorfman's searing survival tale DEATH & THE MAIDEN before embarking on a memorable millennial Shakespeare In The Park production of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL. Indeed, the 2000s saw Nichols continuing to spread his talent evenly and copiously throughout various media, with the flop WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? evened out by his stupendous aforementioned TV adaptations of plays for HBO and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE receiving a 21st century sister piece in the form of Nichols's film adaptation of Patrick Marber's CLOSER. Additionally, Nichols teamed with A FEW GOOD MEN and recognizable TV scribe Aaron Sorkin for the impressive CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR in 2007, which would turn out to be his final film as director.
Nichols ended his career right where he began it - on the stage. Winning his sixth Tony Award for SPAMALOT in 2005, Nichols also returned to acting via his participation in Wallace Shawn's character study THE DESIGNATED MOURNER, and also helmed a Whoopi Goldberg anniversary show on the Great White Way during this time. Closing out his career on a high, Nichols staged two classic plays in star-studded revivals this decade, as well, with a stately new production of Arthur Miller's seminal DEATH OF A SALESMAN starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (winning another Best Director Tony Award) as well as a new revival of Harold Pinter's romantic labyrinth BETRAYAL, starring real husband and wife Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. At the end of his life, Nichols was intending on embarking on yet another collaboration with Meryl Streep as well as considering directing the J.J. Abrams-scripted ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO, whose title now rings out ironically in his unexpected death. Additionally, Frank Rich has recently revealed he is produced a documentary on the life and career of Nichols, directed by Douglas McGrath, which Nichols had also been involved with overseeing in the last months of his life.
In death, just as in life, Nichols was always working on something new - and on the cusp of the next great thing.
Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
So, now, let's take a look at some of the most notable entries in the incredible life and career of Mike Nichols.
First, a vintage Nichols & May clip, this one going back to 1959.
May remembers Nichols in her own special way at his AFI tribute.
Next, the stormy start of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
Now, a look at THE GRADUATE.
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE completed a trio of early Nichols masterworks.
Mike Nichols accepts his 1984 Tony Award for THE REAL THING.
SILKWOOD was the first of many collaborations with Meryl Streep.
HEARTBURN found Streep teaming with Nichols and Jack Nicholson.
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE was another Meryl Streep partnership with Nichols.
Meryl Streep salutes Mike Nichols.
Whoopi Goldberg was another continual collaborator of Nichols.
What would ANNIE be without the involvement of Mike Nichols?
THE APPLE TREE was another musical hit that Nichols directed.
SPAMALOT found Nichols returning to his theatrical roots later on in his career.
WORKING GIRL was yet another big hit on Nichols's resume.
Emma Thompson discusses her involvement in WIT.
ANGELS IN AMERICA was an unprecedented major TV event.
Don't miss another masterful Broadway to Hollywood translation courtesy of Nichols, CLOSER.
Plus, Nichols caps his cinematic career with CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR.
Lastly, see Mike Nichols accept his 2012 Tony Award for Best Director.
As a special bonus, with a dash of irony, here is Nichols & May's "$65 Funeral" skit.
So, what is your absolute favorite memory of Mike Nichols? Furthermore, what is your personal pick for his best work on Broadway? What about the finest of his many film masterpieces? With a career trajectory this expansive and a talent this versatile, it would be virtually impossible to answer incorrectly. Perhaps the true question to ask of this seemingly inhumanly gifted artist really is: what planet was he from?! With work so undeniably filled with passion, joy, heartbreak, love and humanity, the answer still remains: Earth. And, now, heaven.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro