After Nichols and May disbanded their act in 1961, Nichols began directing plays. He soon earned a reputation as a skilled Broadway director with a flair for creating innovative productions and the ability to elicit polished performances from actors. His debut Broadway play was Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park in 1963, with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. He next directed Luv in 1964 and in 1965 directed another Neil Simon play, The Odd Couple. Nichols received a Tony Award for each of those plays. Nearly five decades later, he won his sixth Tony Award as best director with a revival of Death of a Salesman in 2012. During his career, he directed or produced over twenty-five Broadway plays.
Along with an Academy Award, Nichols won a Grammy Award (the first for a comedian born outside the United States), four Emmy Awards and nine Tony Awards. He was also a three-time BAFTA Award winner. His other honors included the Lincoln Center Gala Tribute in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2010. His films garnered a total of 42 Academy Award nominations and seven wins.
Mike Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany, the son of Brigitte (née Landauer) and Pavel Peschkowsky, a physician. His father was born in Vienna, Austria, to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. Nichols' father's family had been wealthy and lived in Siberia, leaving after the Russian Revolution, and settling in Germany around 1920. Nichols' mother's family were German Jews. His maternal grandparents were anarchist Gustav Landauer and author Hedwig Lachmann. Nichols is a third cousin twice removed of scientist Albert Einstein, through Nichols' mother.
In April 1939, when the Nazis were arresting Jews in Berlin, seven-year-old Mikhail and his three-year-old brother Robert were sent alone to the United States to join their father, who had fled months earlier. His mother eventually joined the family, escaping through Italy in 1940. The family moved to New York City on April 28, 1939. His father, whose original Russian name was Pavel Nikolaevich Peschkowsky, changed his name to Paul Nichols, Nichols derived from his Russian patronymic. He had a successful medical practice in Manhattan, enabling the family to live near Central Park.
Nichols' youth was difficult because by age 4, following an inoculation for whooping cough, he had lost his hair, and consequently wore wigs for the rest of his life. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1944 and attended public elementary school in Manhattan (PS 87). After graduating from the Walden School, a private progressive school on Central Park West, Nichols briefly attended New York University before dropping out. In 1950, he enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Chicago. He later described this college period as "paradise," recalling how "I never had a friend from the time I came to this country until I got to the University of Chicago."
While in Chicago in 1953, Nichols joined the staff of struggling classical music station WFMT, 98.7 FM, as an announcer. Co-owner Rita Jacobs asked Nichols to create a folk music program on Saturday nights, which he named "The Midnight Special." He hosted the program for two years before leaving for New York City. Nichols frequently invited musicians to perform live in the studio and eventually created a unique blend of "folk music and farce, showtunes and satire, odds and ends," along with his successor Norm Pellegrini. The program endures today in the same time slot.
Nichols first saw Elaine May when she was sitting in the front row while he was playing the lead in a Chicago production of Miss Julie, and they made eye contact. Weeks later he ran into her in a train station where he started a conversation in an assumed accent, pretending to be a spy, and she played along, using another accent. They hit it off immediately, which led to a brief romance. Later in his career, he said "Elaine was very important to me from the moment I saw her."
In 1953, Nichols left Chicago for New York City to study method acting under Lee Strasberg, but was unable to find stage work there. He was invited back to join Chicago's Compass Players in 1955, the predecessor to Chicago's Second City, whose members included May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, and Nancy Ponder, directed by Paul Sills. In Chicago, he started doing improvisational routines with May, which eventually led to the formation of the comedy duo Nichols and May in 1958, first performing in New York City.
They performed live satirical comedy acts and eventually released three records of their routines, which became best-sellers. They also appeared in nightclubs and were on radio and television. Jack Rollins, who later became Woody Allen's manager and producer, invited them to audition and was most impressed: "Their work was so startling, so new, as fresh as could be. I was stunned by how really good they were, actually as impressed by their acting technique as by their comedy. . . I thought, My God, these are two people writing hilarious comedy on their feet!
In 1960, Nichols and May opened the Broadway show An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, directed by Arthur Penn. The LP album of the show won the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. Personal idiosyncrasies and tensions eventually drove the duo apart to pursue other projects in 1961. About their sudden breakup, director Arthur Penn said, "They set the standard and then they had to move on," while talk show host Dick Cavett said "they were one of the comic meteors in the sky." Comedy historian Gerald Nachman describes the effect of their break-up on American comedy:
Nichols and May are perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era. When Nichols and May split up, they left no imitators, no descendants, no blueprints or footprints to follow. No one could touch them.
They later reconciled and worked together many times, such as on the unsuccessful A Matter of Position, a play written by May and starring Nichols. They appeared together at President Jimmy Carter's inaugural gala, in 1977, and in a 1980 New Haven stage revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Swoosie Kurtz and James Naughton. May scripted Nichols' films The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998). In 2010, at the AFIs "Life Achievement Award" ceremony, May gave a humor-filled tribute to Nichols.
After the professional split with May, Nichols went to Vancouver, B.C. to work in the theater directing a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and acted in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan.
In 1963, Nichols was chosen to direct Neil Simon's play Barefoot In The Park. He realized at once that he was meant to be a director, saying in a 2003 interview: "On the first day of rehearsal, I thought, 'Well, look at this. Here is what I was meant to do.' I knew instantly that I was home". Barefoot in the Park was a big hit, running for 1530 performances and earning Nichols a Tony Award for his direction.
This began a series of highly successful plays on Broadway (often from works by Simon) that would establish his reputation. After an off-Broadway production of Ann Jellicoe's The Knack, Nichols directed Murray Schisgal's play Luv in 1964. Again the show was a hit and Nichols won a Tony Award (shared with The Odd Couple). In 1965 he directed another play by Neil Simon, The Odd Couple. The original production starred Art Carney as Felix Ungar and Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison. The play ran for 966 performances and won Tony Awards for Nichols, Simon and Matthau. Overall, Nichols won nine Tony Awards: including six for Best Director of either a play or a musical, one for Best Play, and one for Best Musical.
By 1966, Nichols was a star stage director and Time magazine called him "the most in-demand director in the American theatre." Although he had no experience in filmmaking, Warner Bros. invited Nichols to direct a screen adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis. The film was critically acclaimed, with critics calling Nichols "the new Orson Welles", and a financial success, the number 1 film of 1966.
The film was considered groundbreaking for having a level of profanity and sexual innuendo unheard of at that time. It won five Academy Awards and garnered thirteen nominations (including Nichols' first nomination for Best Director), earning the distinctions of being one of only two films nominated in every eligible category at the Oscars (the other being Cimarron), and the first film to have its entire credited cast nominated for acting Oscars. It also won three BAFTA Awards and was later ranked #67 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
His next film was The Graduate (1967), starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. It became the highest-grossing film of 1967 and one of the biggest grossing films in history up to that date. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, with Nichols winning as Best Director. In 2007, it was ranked #17 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
However, getting the film made was difficult for Nichols, who, while noted for being a successful Broadway director, was still an unknown in Hollywood. Producer Lawrence Turman, who wanted only Nichols to direct it, was continually turned down for financing. He then contacted producer Joseph E. Levine, who said he would finance the film because he knew of Nichols' reputation as a Broadway director, and because he heard that Elizabeth Taylor specifically wanted Nichols to direct her and Richard Burton in Virginia Woolf. With financing assured, Nichols suggested Buck Henry for screenwriter, although Henry's experience had also been mostly in improvised comedy, and had no writing background. Nichols said to Henry, "I think you could do it; I think you should do it."
Nichols also took a chance on using Dustin Hoffman, who had no film experience, for the lead, when others had suggested using known star Robert Redford. Hoffman credits Nichols for having taken a great risk in giving him, a relative unknown, the starring role: "I don't know of another instance of a director at the height of his powers who would take a chance and cast someone like me in that part. It took tremendous courage."
The quality of the cinematography was also influenced by Nichols, who chose Oscar winner Robert Surtees to do the photography. Surtees, who had photographed major films since the 1920s, including Ben Hur, said later, "It took everything I had learned over 30 years to be able to do the job. I knew that Mike Nichols was a young director who went in for a lot of camera. We did more things in this picture than I ever did in one film."
Nichols also chose the music by Simon and Garfunkel. When Paul Simon was taking too long to write new songs for the film, he used existing songs, originally planning to replace them with newly written ones. In the end only one new song was available, and Nichols used the existing previously released songs. At one point, when Nichols heard Paul Simon's song, "Mrs. Roosevelt," he suggested to Simon that he change it to "Mrs. Robinson." The song won a Grammy after the film was released and became America's number 1 pop song. Nichols selected all the numerous songs for the film and chose which scenes they would be used in. The placement and selection of songs would affect the way audiences understood the film. Even actor William Daniels, who played Hoffman's father, remembers that after first hearing the songs, especially "The Sound of Silence," he thought, "Oh, wait a minute. That changed the whole idea of the picture for me," suddenly realizing the film would not be a typical comedy.
Nichols had previously returned to Broadway to direct The Apple Tree, starring Second City alumna, Barbara Harris. After doing The Graduate, he again returned to the Broadway stage with a revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in 1967, which ran for 100 performances. He then directed Neil Simon's Plaza Suite in 1968, earning him another Tony Award for Best Director. He also directed the short film Teach Me! (1968), which starred actress Sandy Dennis.
Nichols' next film was a big-budget adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 (1970) followed by Carnal Knowledge (1971) starring Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen. The latter film was highly controversial upon release because of the casual and blunt depiction of sexual intercourse. In Georgia, a theatre manager was convicted in 1972 of violating the state's obscenity statutes by showing the film, a conviction later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Jenkins v. Georgia.
Nichols then returned to Broadway to direct Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1971. The play won Nichols another Tony Award for Best Director. In 1973 Nichols directed a revival of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya on Broadway starring George C. Scott and with a new translation by himself and Albert Todd. In 1973 Nichols directed the film The Day of the Dolphin starring George C. Scott, based on the French novel Un animal doué de raison (lit. A Sentient Animal) by Robert Merle and adapted by Buck Henry. The film was not successful financially and received mixed reviews from critics. Nichols next directed The Fortune (1975), starring Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Stockard Channing. Again, the film was a financial failure and received mostly negative reviews. It was Nichols' last feature narrative film for eight years.
Nichols then returned to the stage with two moderately successful productions in 1976; David Rabe's Streamers opened in April and ran for 478 performances. Trevor Griffiths's Comedians ran for 145 performances. In 1976 Nichols also worked as Executive Producer to create the television drama Family for ABC. The series ran until 1980.
In 1977 Nichols produced the original Broadway production of the hugely successful musical Annie, which ran for 2,377 performances until 1983. Nichols won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Later in 1977, Nichols directed D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game. The play ran for 517 performances and won a Tony Award for Best Actress for Jessica Tandy.
In 1980 Nichols directed the documentary Gilda Live, a filmed performance of comedian Gilda Radner's one-woman show Gilda Radner Live on Broadway. It was released at the same time as the album of the show, both of which were successful. Nichols then directed two unsuccessful shows: Billy Bishop Goes to War, which opened in 1980 and closed after only twelve performances, and Neil Simon's Fools, in 1981, which closed after forty performances.
Returning to Hollywood, Nichols' career rebounded in 1983 with the film Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep, Cher and Kurt Russell, based on the life of whistleblower Karen Silkwood. The film was a financial and critical success, with film critic Vincent Canby calling it "the most serious work Mike Nichols has yet done." The film received five Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nomination for Nichols.
Later that year Nichols and Peter Stone helped to fix up and rewrite the musical My One and Only just days before its Boston premiere. The show eventually went to Broadway and ran for 767 performances, winning Tony Awards for Best Actor, Best Choreography (both for Tommy Tune) and best Supporting Actor (Charles "Honi" Coles).
In 1984 Nichols directed the Broadway premiere of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. The New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote that "The Broadway version of The Real Thing - a substantial revision of the original London production - is not only Mr. Stoppard's most moving play, but also the most bracing play that anyone has written about love and marriage in years." The play was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won five, including a Best Director Tony for Nichols.
Nichols quickly followed this success with the Broadway premiere of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, also in 1984. It was performed just two blocks away from the theater showing The Real Thing. It was nominated for three Tony Awards and won Best Actress for Judith Ivey.
In 1983 Nichols had seen comedian Whoopi Goldberg's one woman show, The Spook Show and wanted to help her expand it. Goldberg's self-titled Broadway show opened in October 1984 and ran for 156 performances. Rosie O'Donnell said that Nichols had discovered Goldberg while she was struggling as a downtown street artist: "He gave her the entire beginning of her career and recognized her brilliance before anyone else." In 1986 Nichols directed the Broadway premiere of Andrew Bergman's Social Security and in 1988 directed Waiting for Godot, starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Williams cited Nichols and May as among his early influences for performing intelligent comedy.
Also in 1988, Nichols made the film Heartburn starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, which received mixed reviews. In 1988 Nichols completed two feature films. The first was an adaptation of Neil Simon's autobiographical stage play Biloxi Blues starring Matthew Broderick, also receiving mixed critical reviews. Later in 1988, Nichols directed one of his most successful films, Working Girl starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver. Working Girl was a huge hit upon its release. It also received mostly positive reviews from critics with an 84% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 73 metascore at Metacritic. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Director for Nichols) and won the Academy Award for Best Song for Carly Simon's "Let the River Run".
At one point in the 1980s, Nichols—who was prone to bouts of depression—reported that he had considered suicide, a feeling apparently brought on by a psychotic episode he experienced after taking the drug Halcion.
In the 1990s, Nichols directed several more successful, well-received films including Postcards from the Edge (1990) starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine; Primary Colors (1998) starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson; and The Birdcage (1996), an American remake of the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest. Both The Birdcage and Primary Colors were written by Elaine May, Nichols' comedy partner earlier in his career. Other films directed by Nichols include Regarding Henry (1991) starring Harrison Ford and Wolf (1994) starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. When he was honored by Lincoln Center in 1999 for his life's work, Elaine May—speaking once again as his friend—served up the essence of Nichols with the following:
"So he's witty, he's brilliant, he's articulate, he's on time, he's prepared and he writes. But is he perfect? He knows you can't really be liked or loved if you're perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing."
In the 2000s Nichols directed the films What Planet Are You From? (2000), Closer (2004) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007), a political drama that was ultimately his final feature film. What Planet Are Your From? received mixed reviews from critics, while Closer and Charlie Wilson's War received generally positive reviews and were both nominated for Academy Awards, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards. Nichols also directed widely acclaimed adaptations of Wit (2001) and Angels in America (2003) for television, winning Emmy Awards for both of them.
In 2012, Nichols won the Best Direction of a Play Tony Award for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In April 2013, it was announced that he would direct Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in a Broadway revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal. The play began its limited run on October 1 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, opening on November 3 through January 5, 2014. Nichols was also in talks to direct a film adaptation of Jonathan Tropper's novel One Last Thing Before I Go. The film was to be produced by J.J. Abrams, who previously wrote the Nichols-directed film Regarding Henry (1991).
Nichols was a contributing blogger at The Huffington Post. He was also a co-founder of The New Actors Workshop in New York City, where he occasionally taught. In addition, he remained active in the Directors Guild of America, interviewing fellow film director Bennett Miller on stage in October 2011 after the Guild's screening of Miller's Moneyball.
In January 2016, PBS aired Mike Nichols: American Masters, an American Masters documentary about Nichols directed by his former improv partner, Elaine May. On February 22, 2016, HBO aired the documentary Becoming Mike Nichols.
After his early successes as a stage and film director, Nichols had developed a reputation as an auteur who likes to work intimately with his actors and writers, often using them repeatedly in different films. Writer Peter Applebome noted that "few directors have such a gift for getting performances out of actors." During a half-year period in 1967 he had four hit plays running simultaneously on Broadway, during which time his first Hollywood feature, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had also become a popular and critical success. Combined with his second film, The Graduate, in 1967, the two films had already earned a total of 20 Oscar nominations, including two for Best Director, and winning it for The Graduate.
Nichols was able to get the best out of actors regardless of their acting experience, whether an unknown such as Dustin Hoffman or a major star like Richard Burton. For his first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, each of the four actors was nominated for an Oscar, with Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis winning. Burton later said, "I didn't think I could learn anything about comedy - I'd done all of Shakespeare's. But from him I learned," adding, "He conspires with you to get your best."
However, it was Taylor who chose Nichols to be their director, because, writes biographer David Bret, "she particularly admired him because he had done a number of ad-hoc jobs to pay for his education after arriving in America as a seven-year-old Jewish refugee." Producer Ernest Lehman agreed with her choice: "He was the only one who could handle them," he said. "The Burtons were quite intimidating, and we needed a genius like Mike Nichols to combat them." Biographer Kitty Kelley says that neither Taylor nor Burton would ever again reach the heights of acting performance they did in that film.
The same style of directing was used for The Graduate, where, notes film historian Peter Biskind, Nichols took Dustin Hoffman, with no movie acting experience, along with Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross and others, and managed to get some of their finest acting on screen. This ability to work closely with actors would remain consistent throughout his career. Hoffman credits Nichols for permitting the realistic acting needed for the satirical roles in that film:
It's Nichols's style—he walks that edge of really going as far as he can without falling over the cliff, into disbelief. It's not caricature. That's the highest compliment for satire.
In a similar way, Jeremy Irons, who acted in the play The Real Thing, said that Nichols creates a very "protective environment: he makes you feel he's only there for you," while Ann-Margret, for her role in Carnal Knowledge, felt the same: "What's wonderful about Mike is that he makes you feel like you're the one that's come up with the idea, when it's actually his."
Nichols was married four times. The first three ended in divorce; the last ended upon his death. His first marriage was to Patricia Scott; they were married from 1957 to 1960. His second was to Margot Callas, a former "muse" of the poet Robert Graves, from 1963 to 1974; the couple have a daughter together, Daisy Nichols. His third marriage, to Annabel Davis-Goff, produced two children, Max Nichols and Jenny Nichols; they were divorced in 1986. His fourth was to former ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer, whom he married on April 29, 1988. Although none of his wives were Jewish and his children were not raised in any faith, they identify as Jewish. His son Max married ESPN journalist Rachel Nichols.
Nichols' grandfather, Gustav Landauer, was a leading theorist on anarchism in the early 20th century. According to research done by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, for the PBS series Faces of America (2010), Nichols is related to Albert Einstein, who was a third cousin on his mother's side.
Among Nichols' personal pursuits was a lifelong interest in Arabian horses. From 1968 to 2004, he owned a farm in Connecticut and was a noted horse breeder. Over the years, he also imported quality Arabian horses from Poland, some of which later resold for record-setting prices.
Nichols died of a heart attack on November 19, 2014, at his apartment in Manhattan. During the 87th annual Academy Awards ceremony of February 22, 2015, Nichols was featured in the anchor or "hammer" position of the In Memoriam feature.Nichols and May – Improvisations to Music (1959) Mercury
Nichols and May – An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960) Mercury
Nichols and May – Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors (1962) Mercury MG 20680/SR 60680
Nichols and May – In Retrospect (1982) Polygram, re-released as compact disc in 1996