Tuesday, November 25, 2014

And Here’s to You, Mr. Nichols . . .

It was Anne Bancroft who won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, but perhaps that title best belonged to the late Mike Nichols. Nichols, who directed Bancroft’s funny and heartbreaking performance as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, seemed to be brilliant at everything he tried. As part of the performing duo Nichols and May, he helped invent a new kind of sketch comedy. He was a celebrated Broadway director, with seven Tony Awards to his credit, for everything from Barefoot in the Park to a celebrated revival of Death of a Salesman to the recent Monty Python musical, Spamalot. In Hollywood, he was a four-time nominee for a Best Director Oscar, taking home the prize for The Graduate.

The feisty young producer LarryTurman was smart enough to see that Nichols, then making a splash as a stage director of Neil Simon comedies, was just the guy to film Charles Webb’s quirky novel about a young college grad who sleeps with his father’s partner’s wife and then falls in love with her daughter. Turman admired Nichols’ fearless spirit, and Nichols obliged with some gutsy moves. Like bringing in comic actor Buck Henry, who had never before written a screenplay, to adapt Webb’s novel, And choosing to score The Graduate with an existing pop album by folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, the first time this now-familiar technique had been tried in a Hollywood production. Most gutsy of all, Nichols gave the leading role to an unknown actor who was convinced – along with much of the entertainment world – that he was all wrong for the part.

Dustin Hoffman, a thirty-year-old with a budding career as an offbeat off-Broadway character actor, could not imagine himself as the twenty-one-year-old Ivy League golden boy of Webb’s novel. As he put it, “This is not the part for me. I’m not supposed to be in movies. I’m supposed to be where I belong: an ethnic actor is supposed to be in ethnic New York, in an ethnic off-Broadway show. You know, I know my place.”  Much of the problem stemmed from Hoffman’s preconception of Benjamin Braddock: “He’s kind of Anglo-Saxon, tall, slender, good-looking chap. I’m short and Jewish.”

The smart money was that the plum part would go to Robert Redford, who was undeniably tall, blond, and handsome. The fact that he’d just been directed by Nichols in the Broadway premiere of  a hit romantic comedy, Barefoot in the Park, seemed to give Redford the inside track. And he auditioned for the role, as did Tony Bill, Charles Grodin, and several other young leading man-types. But Nichols ultimately wasn’t satisfied with these choices. In 1999 he explained in a Film Comment interview how he made his selection: “Dustin has always said that Benjamin is a walking surfboard. And that’s what he was in the book, in the original conception. But I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself.”

This is the unexpected fact about Nichols, that for all his suave showbiz success he remained inside Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, born in Berlin to a Russian-Jewish father and a German-Jewish mother. In 1939, at the age of seven, he fled Nazi Germany along with his younger brother: two little boys crossing the Atlantic alone. At L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center, there’s currently an exhibit called “Light & Noir,” honoring the cinematic contributions of such German emigrés as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann. Mike Nichols deserves a high place on that list. 


  1. I totally agree - a monumental talent - and across such a breadth of artistic outlets. I've enjoyed clips of his performances with Elaine May and of course I've seen many of his movies. I would have liked to see one of his theatrical shows. Did you ever see one of them, Ms. G?

  2. I've never, alas, seen a Mike Nichols production on Broadway, though I've seen road companies of several of his hits, including The Gin Game and (more recently) Spamalot. I'd LOVE to have seen Philip Seymour Hoffman in NIchols' recent revival of Death of a Salesman.