A movie is like a person. Either you trust it or you don't.
Goodbye, Mike Nichols, and Thank You
There are artists whose work informs our sensibilities at critical phases in our lives -- that first album you buy with your own money, that movie you know you will drag every new friend to see -- who define what you consider "entertaining" forever after. When those people are alive and working in your lifetime, it's easy to develop a deeply personal attachment to them; they are the aunts and uncles and cousins who can paint or sing or make you laugh. And if your formative years were spent among very funny, very Jewish people who grew up in New York City, you're going to miss a guy like Mike Nichols very much indeed when they go.
It happened last night that one my favorite, funniest people passed away at the age of 83,
I first knew of Mike Nichols as the male half of the brilliant improvisational comedy team, Nichols and May, alongside gorgeous genius, Elaine May. Then it was pointed out to me (I was still a pre-teen) that he was the director of The Graduate, a movie I enjoyed, but didn't fully understand at first viewing. After that I started noticing he directed lots of movies I liked and that he kept showing up on the Tony Awards. In every endeavor Mike Nichols won critical acclaim and is one of only 12 "EGOTS" in the history of awards: he won Emmy Awards for Wit and Angels in America; a Grammy for An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May; an Oscar for The Graduate, and nine Tony Awards (you can look those up) spanning four decades.
Nichols was born in Berlin in 1931, the son of a Russian Jewish doctor whose family had fled to Germany from Siberia after the Revolution and a local Jewish woman who was vaguely related to Albert Einstein. The family had to flee again in 1939 for obvious reasons. Nichols's father established a place for them in New York, then sent for Mike and his brother (aged 7 and 3 respectively) who traveled alone to meet him. Their mother escaped through Italy to join the family one year later.
Nichols grew up in Manhattan and attended (and dropped out of) the University of Chicago, where he discovered local theater and a pretty girl named Elaine May. Nichols went back to New York to study at the Actor's Studio and by 1955, had joined the Compass Players where May was in residence and whose members later formed the famous Second City troupe. Critical and professional success ensued for the next 50 years.
There will be much to read and remember about Mike Nichols in the coming days, but here is a beauty of a routine I can recite by heart and that will now also make me cry:
Excuse me while I go look up how Tom Lehrer is doing.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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