I enjoyed reading Vanity Fair’s oral history of the late director Mike Nichols so much that I couldn’t stop with that article. I had to read about 10 others. Nichols had such a fascinating life. Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, he fled Nazi Germany as a child, traveling alone with his younger brother. He arrived in the U.S. permanently bald due to a reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine — as an adult, he’d wear wigs and fake eyebrows all his life — and knowing two English phrases: “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.” He turned himself into Mike Nichols, one of only 12 “EGOT” winners (EGOT means Emmy, Grammy, Oscar AND Tony awards).
I found my way to this 2000 interview Nichols did with John Lahr for the New Yorker. Before Nichols directed movies including The Graduate, Silkwood and Working Girl and plays including The Odd Couple and Spamalot, his claim to fame was his late 1950s/early 1960s improv comedy act with the brilliant Elaine May. I was struck by one routine that was quoted in the article. It dealt with Charles Van Doren, who in 1957 had an impressive winning streak on Twenty One, a television quiz show. But the show had been rigged, and Van Doren wound up testifying before Congress that he had been given questions and answers in advance. Here’s the Nichols & May bit on the quiz-show scandal:
NICHOLS: Thank heaven for the investigation.
MAY: Oh, yes.
NICHOLS: When I feel worst say to myself, “At least the government has taken a firm stand.”
MAY: Oh, yes. Well, they can’t fool around with this the way they did with integration.
MAY: This is a …
NICHOLS: … moral issue.
NICHOLS: A moral issue.
MAY: Yes! Yes! It is a moral issue.
NICHOLS: A moral issue.
MAY: And to me that is so much more interesting than a real issue.
Basically, over 50 years ago, Nichols and May captured what happens on Twitter and Facebook every damn day in 2015. And it really jumped out at me because I’d just read this comment from comedian Martin Short in Vanity Fair’s oral history:
“What’s fascinating about the Nichols and May stuff, if you play it right now, is that it could have been done yesterday, because it’s not tied to references—it’s tied to human behavior.”
When Nichols died last November of a heart attack at age 83, I spent hours clicking the many links to old Nichols & May clips that were embedded in tributes and obituaries. The Wall Street Journal put together a list of five great ones but, to my great annoyance, the embedded videos have all vanished. Mine will probably disappear too, so watch them ASAP. Here is the classic phone call from May’s hectoring mother to Nichols’s allegedly neglectful and increasingly infantilized adult son. You’ve got to hear May’s tone and timing in her opening line: “Hello, Arthur? This is your mother … DO YOU REMEMBER ME?” (It was inspired by an actual call Nichols received from his own mother.)
And here’s the “$65 funeral” skit, a reaction to journalist Jessica Mitford’s exposé of hidden funeral costs. May as “Miss Loomis, your Grief Lady” starts out by asking a sobbing Nichols where he saw the ad for the inexpensive funeral — “just trying to find out where our trade comes from” — like websites today asking you to check off a box for if you found them by Google, a news story or “other.” Nichols finds out that his choice of mahogany, oak or “nubby plywood” casket costs extra, as does the use of a hearse and driver and the option to actually bury the body.
I could watch Elaine May all day. Here she is in 2003, giving a short but sweet and very funny speech when Nichols received the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award.
I hope you recognize that beaming blonde seen in the reaction shots of Nichols. She’s news anchor Diane Sawyer, Nichols’s fourth wife. From the description of their friends and colleagues, they were very happy together. I do wish she had spoken to Vanity Fair for the oral history.
Here are a few more articles to check out.
- Vanity Fair, January 2013: “Who’s Afraid of Nichols & May?” The duo did a joint interview, one of the few interviews May has done since the 1960s.
- The New Yorker, November 2014: “Postscript: Mike Nichols (1931-2014).” An obituary with a reference to the funeral-home routine.
- People, November 2014: “Inside Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols’s Longtime Romance.”
- One for the fashionistas is Harper’s Bazaar, November 2014: Bazaar republished Nichols’s 2007 comments on collaborating with photographer Richard Avedon on an iconic 1962 Bazaar photoshoot with supermodel Suzy Parker.