Berlin-born director Mike Nichols (nee Peschkowsky) made a lengthy career of producing edgy, irreverent films that both cleaned up at the box office and spoke volumes about contemporary culture. Just examine his breakout film The Graduate (1967). Shot boldly in the French New Wave style, Nichols wrecked America’s picture-perfect façade of white picket fences and neatly-trimmed yards to reveal the cultural disenchantment spreading to the suburban middle and upper-middle classes. And his vision proved immensely popular with moviegoers and the Academy, which nominated the film for seven Oscars® and awarding it one—Best Director.
Born in Berlin on November 6, 1931, Nichols’ family left for America when he was seven, just as the Nazis were stepping up their anti-Semitic and eventually genocidal cause. In the U.S., Nichols attended the University of Chicago where he was bitten by the acting bug; he moved to New York and studied with Lee Strasberg and eventually returned to the Windy City where he performed comedy alongside Elaine May. The two would star in the successful “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” on Broadway from 1960 to 1961. Nichols remained heavily involved with theater and got his directorial start staging such Neil Simon comedies as “The Odd Couple.”
Nichols’s transition from stage direction to screen could not have gone more smoothly or successfully. His first two films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1966) and The Graduate, earned a landslide of Oscar® nominations, rave reviews and box office returns. He followed up these two successes with Catch-22 (1970), which fell short of a hit, and then quickly got back on track with Carnal Knowledge (1971)—a groundbreaking, sexually-explicit film for its time.
Unfortunately, Nichols’s The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and The Fortune (1975) could not match the drawing power of his earlier work. And it was not until 1983’s Silkwood, the powerful story based on a real-life nuclear plant whistleblower Karen Silkwood, that Nichols achieved his former glory. Nichols would then please critics and moviegoers with a string of enviable hits: Heartburn (1986), based on Nora Ephron’s eponymous novel about her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein; Working Girl (1988), the Melanie Griffith comedy exploring 1980s corporate culture, and Postcards from the Edge (1988), based on Carrie Fischer’s autobiographical novel about substance abuse and family dysfunction. He also helmed the widely-lauded Biloxi Blues (1988), the adaptation of the Neil Simon play with hilarious performances by Matthew Broderick and especially Christopher Walken.
Nichols’s work in the 1990s has met uneven results. Primary Colors (1992), a peek behind the scenes of President Clinton’s first presidential campaign based on “Newsweek” scribe Joel Klein’s book, struggled to find an audience as it was overshadowed by Clinton’s and Monica Lewinsky’s travails during the Republican-led impeachment hearings. And What Planet Are You From? (2000) starring Gary Shandling performed dismally. But he produced an acclaimed adaptation of the Kazua Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day (1993) and The Bird Cage (1996), an adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles (1978), was a runaway success with funnyman Robin Williams and stage star Nathan Lane whooping it up as a gay couple. The cable TV movie “Wit” 2001 proved a powerful adaptation of the play about a stern English professor (Emma Thompson) whose struggle against cancer teachers her the value of compassion.
He also helmed “Angels in America” (2003), a seraph- and star-studded cable TV adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play which examined the AIDS crisis and culturally fractious era of Reagan’s America.
For his achievements as a director, Mike Nichols received in December 2003 a Kennedy Center Medal, along with such luminaries as Loretta Lynn, James Brown and Carol Burnett. In 2010 he was awarded an AFI lifetime achievement award.
Nichols continued to direct into the late 2000’s with movies such as Closer (2004) and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). In 2012 he returned to the stage with an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and stayed there for a revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal starring Daniel Craig and Rachael Weisz. Nichols died November 19, 2014.