Fall, 1949. Igor Michael Peschkowsky, a German Jewish emigre raised in Nazi-era Berlin and then New York City, arrives by train for the first day of his freshman year at the University of Chicago.
He looks like a personality not yet secure, or comfortable. Years earlier the singular-looking character had been rendered hairless, living at the mercy of cheap wigs and his considerable self-consciousness, following an allergic reaction to a whooping cough vaccine.
By 1949, the insular, sarcastic young man —”a prick,” as he described himself later, and often — was going by the name Mike Nichols. But he was not yet the Mike Nichols.
Nichols, best known as a Tony- and Oscar-winning director, wrote and rewrote his own story through success, adulation, depression, addiction, recovery, four marriages, hits, flops and long periods of creative and personal fulfillment. On stage, Nichols brought an unexpected touch of realism to Neil Simon’s early hits, “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple.” On screen, Nichols’s bracing first two films, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate,” turned him into a New Hollywood superstar, riding high for a fall, which came soon enough with “Catch-22.” Then, a smaller-scale, scandalous success with “Carnal Knowledge.” And then so much more, in movies and on stage and in his own turbulent life — it cried out for the right book to make sense of it all.
That book is “Mike Nichols: A Life,” a superb new biography by Mark Harris, due out Tuesday.
Harris, a New York magazine contributor, is the author of “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” (2008) and “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” (2014). Each of those books brought significant turning points in film history into illuminating focus. They are panoramic; the Nichols biography is Harris’s first single-subject, multi-story adventure, more deep-focus than widescreen, and all the better for it.
In Chicago, from ages 17 through 25, Nichols met one little piece of destiny after another. At the University of Chicago, a cafeteria busboy and fledgling theater student named Paul Sills befriended Nichols, who used to linger there so he could finish up other students’ leftovers.
Sills was the son of Viola Spolin, who wrote the seminal text “Improvisation for the Theater.” Sills and Nichols started doing plays together on campus, in a group called Tonight at 8:30. In 1953, with co-founders David Shepherd and Eugene Troobnick, Sills opened the Playwrights Theatre Club on North LaSalle Street. The troupe included Nichols, Ed Asner, Barbara Harris — and Elaine May, who “loathed” Nichols on sight but became his greatest stroke of luck.
They understood each other, loved a lot of the same books and music, and their senses of humor were more than just simpatico. They gravitated toward the comedy of behavior, not the comedy of the typical mid-century slam-bang comic. Even in the context of their scripted “Total Mediocrity Award” sketch at the 1959 Emmys — a withering beaut, all these decades later — the level of exaggeration is sublimely subtle.
“Right away, Nichols and May saw the far-reaching possibilities of improvisation,” said Anne Libera, director of Comedy Studies at Second City and assistant professor of comedy writing and performing at Columbia College, in a recent phone interview. “Truthfully, we’re all still trying to be them. Much of the history of Second City is just people trying to somehow create that same kind of magic.”
The Playwrights Theatre Club begat The Compass Players, which begat Second City. Nichols’ improv skills were, for a long time and by his own admission, not good. He and May kept working together, brief, awkward lovers in the early stages and then, for half a century, even with serious rows, friends and colleagues until Nichols’ death in 2014.
While in Chicago in his early 20s, Nichols also worked as an announcer for the classical station WFMT, new on the Chicago cultural scene in the early ’50s. He started the folk/novelty/variety program “The Midnight Special,” which continues to this day.
“None of this could’ve happened in New York,” said longtime WFMT producer and host Rich Warren in a phone interview. WFMT, Second City, the Old Town School of Folk Music — these hardy, often interlocking components of the scene then spoke to the reason people came to Chicago in the first place.
In the ’50s, especially, Warren said, “People didn’t come here to ‘make it.’ They came here to try things out. To explore.”
Nichols would come back to Chicago for one more project in 2005: the successful out-of-town Broadway tryout of “Spamalot.”
Harris, 57, got to know Nichols when his husband, playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, worked extensively with Nichols on the HBO “Angels in America” adaptation.
“That was a particular challenge to write about,” Harris told me in a recent Zoom interview. “Like any reporter, I used what I already knew about the experience. And then I made my husband sit down for an interview, which he griped about endlessly until he did it and then he was great. By the time I got to know Mike, in 2001, all the hard lessons of the past for him had been deeply incorporated inside who he was. He became an extraordinarily thoughtful and generous person, and the settled, confident, but still striving and interested and engaged artist he always wanted to be.”
Harris talked to “about 250 people for the book,” he said, but “there were four or five that you might called irreplaceable. Elaine May was the only person who could’ve told the Chicago part of the story. What really struck me was her feeling about those years was just so immediate. There’s a place in the book when she describes a disastrous sketch she and Mike came up with. She was describing it to me, 55 years after it happened, to make a point: that they learned early on they couldn’t just have a concept, but that they needed an idea of how it would actually play out on stage. Leaving your partner hanging, the awfulness of that, realizing the lighting guy was going to have to end the sketch by turning up the lights — it was as if Elaine were reliving it as she was telling it.”
It took Harris four-and-a-half years to write “Mike Nichols: A Life.” “I really loved having a big cast of characters and plotlines in my first two books. With this one I knew I was going to be at the mercy and the service of a life. There was nobody to cut away to. Going in, I thought: What if there are gaps that are incomprehensible to me and I don’t know how to fill in? And can I make this make sense as a narrative without over-manipulating it into being a narrative? Lives aren’t really neat narratives, and I don’t think lives operate on a single thesis. It’s deadly for a book to hinge on a single point the author’s trying to prove, over and over.”
Harris started digging. He talked to actors, friends, colleagues from all parts of Nichols’ various lives, hoping “along the way that if I did enough research and I told this in order, it would make sense as an ongoing story rather than just a series of disconnected acts or decisions. But I didn’t really know that was going to happen until I was very, very deep into the research.”
His first Mike Nichols film? “I think I saw ‘Day of the Dolphin’ when I was 9,” he said, smiling. “I loved it! I didn’t see any problem with talking dolphins being trained to assassinate the president. I thought that was a rock-solid premise. I suppose the first of his I saw when I was old enough to register that movies had directors was ‘The Graduate.’ The things that drove Mike were various. His career decisions weren’t made with the idea of building a unified, coherent body of work. They were made, in the theater and the movies, by what he wanted to work on right then, at that moment. And by asking: ‘What can I bring to it?'”
The late Jack Rollins, Woody Allen’s manager who took on Nichols and May as nightclub clients in their early days, once said he loved their material but didn’t know whether to laugh or cry sometimes. Their best sketches, Harris said, “felt like bits of life. They’d work these things in — conversational tics, pieces of physical behavior like the cigarette business in the sketch ‘Teenagers‘ — that nobody had seen before. It was the comedy of recognition. Later, with the work he did with Neil Simon, he could take scripts that, if you didn’t know how to play them, could seem like assembly lines of gags and one-liners. Mike brought this kind of hyper-observant naturalism to the performances that really did make people feel like they were seeing something new.”
There are ways, Harris said, in which Nichols “had a very unique life. But his was also an emblematic 20th-century life. He was an emigrant, an outsider, a loner. He had to invent himself.” His college years may not have been very different from a million other college experiences, if you take out the extraordinary collection of performers and creators he met at the University of Chicago.
“You get to college,” Harris said, “and your future is not mapped out. Young people, particularly if they’re going into the arts, feel like there is no clear career path, no guaranteed job possibilities. They don’t know how to get from the outside to the inside. That was Mike. And while it’s not possible now for someone to become famous overnight, as Mike and Elaine did in the course of one 1958 TV appearance (on NBC’s “Omnibus”), I think the story of how they invented themselves as young college students when they met in Chicago — that holds some resonance for young people today.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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