Mike Nichols

On this date in 1931, Mike Nichols (né Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky), future luminary of stage and screen as an actor, director, producer and writer, was born in Berlin. His Jewish physician father, Pavel Nicholaiyevitch Peschkowsky, fled Russia to escape the Bolsheviks and then left Germany in 1938 to escape the Nazis, anglicizing his name to Paul Nichols in New York City.

Nichols and his younger brother were 7 and 3 when they boarded a ship to New York several months later, but their mother was left behind while convalescing from life-threatening deep vein thrombosis. Her father was a socialist intellectual and radical agitator who “was interested in religion as a field of research but had no use for it in his home, nor did his wife,” according to Mark Harris, author of Mike Nichols: A Life (2021). Harris’ husband is playwright Tony Kushner.

Nichols at age 4 had an allergic reaction to whooping cough vaccine, which made him bald and unable to grow hair ever again. At his segregated Jewish school, he would try to hide it under a cap, and for the rest of his life he remained sensitive about it and having to wear a wig and false eyebrows. Nor did this emotional adult have lashes to slow his tears.

He met Elaine May while attending the University of Chicago and playing the lead in Strindberg’s play “Miss Julie.” It was the start of their collaboration as the improv act Nichols and May that led to national fame and a fair amount of fortune via television appearances. They were soulmates intellectually and professionally for much of the rest of his life but were romantic partners only briefly. They won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 1962.

It’s daunting to try to recap Nichols’ accomplishments in this limited space. He directed or produced over 25 Broadway plays and consulted on numerous others. Start with 1963, when he was chosen to direct Neil Simon’s “Barefoot In The Park. It ran on Broadway for 1,530 performances and earned him a Tony Award, the first of nine he would win as producer or director. Directing Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” starring Art Carney and Walter Matthau, brought him another in 1965. Others followed for “Plaza Suite,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “Annie,” “The Real Thing,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and a 2012 revival (when he was 80) of “Death of a Salesman.” 

On to Hollywood: Best Director Oscar for “The Graduate” (1967) and nominations for “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Remains of the Day” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Primetime Emmys: “Wit” (2001) and Kushner’s “Angels in America” (2003). 

His other movies: “Catch-22” (1970), “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973), “The Fortune” (1975), “Gilda Live” (1980), “Silkwood” (1983), “Heartburn” (1986), “Biloxi Blues” (1986), “Working Girl” (1988), “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), “Regarding Henry” (1991), “Wolf” (1994), “The Birdcage” (1996), “Primary Colors” (1998), “What Planet Are You From?” (1998), “Closer” (2004) and finally, “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007).

Nichols was married four times and had two daughters and a son. He married television journalist Diane Sawyer on Martha’s Vineyard in 1988 when he was 58 and she was 44. It was her first marriage. His truly was a lifestyle of the rich and famous, with frequent worldwide travel and expensive homes. At one point he owned and stabled 80 horses, mostly Arabians.

Growing up, “No one in my family would have known how to have a Jewish holiday,” Nichols said. His three children “were not raised in any faith.” Once when his son Max asked if they could celebrate Jewish holidays the next year, Nichols suggested they go to “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels’ seder to start learning about that tradition, but Max soon dropped the celebration idea. (Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish, by Abigail Pogrebin, 2005)

The last Broadway play he directed, the 2013 revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” was panned by most critics. Nichols’ health was declining measurably, hastened by years of heavy smoking (including crack cocaine in the mid-’80s) and his gourmand proclivities. He died at age 83 of a heart attack at home a few hours after going out for dinner with Sawyer and his children. A small private service was held at a nearby funeral home. D. 2014. 

PHOTO: Nichols at the premiere of “Charlie Wilson’s War” in 2007 at Universal Studios in Hollywood; photo by Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com 

Freedom From Religion Foundation