Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

For years, colleagues and friends tried coaxing and chivying Mike Nichols into writing his autobiography and telling just how the whole shebang unfolded: the wunderkind comedy partnership with Elaine May that set things spinning in the late 1950s and led to Nichols’s prodigious career as a theater director, which led—seamlessly—to his equally notable career as a filmmaker. Movie project No. 1: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Sophomore effort: The Graduate.

Nichols treated the book idea as a great gag. Another Fucking Beautiful Day was the title he offered for an account of his early days in Hollywood. He later suggested The Wrong Jew as the handle for a biography. Don’t bother looking on Amazon.

Instead, there’s the far less flashily named Mike Nichols: A Life, Mark Harris’s deeply researched and readable if less than fully satisfying biography of the man who remade comedy and himself.

Nichols with Elaine May on the 1960 CBS Special The Fabulous Fifties. When their comic partnership broke up, Nichols discovered that what he really wanted to do was direct.

His was quite the origin story, and Harris tells it well. Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931 (or maybe it was Igor Michael; accounts differ). His doctor father, Pavel, was Russian; his mother, Brigitte, German. Let’s just say that talent and brains ran in the family. Maternal grandmother Hedwig Lachmann adapted Oscar Wilde’s Salomé into a libretto for Richard Strauss. Maternal grandfather Gustav Landauer was the commissioner of enlightenment and public instruction in the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Albert Einstein was a distant cousin.

As a Jew, little Michael’s outsider status was assured. When, at the age of four, he was permanently stripped of all body hair, an apparent reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine, that sense of otherness was underscored. (As soon as he could afford them, wigs and fake eyebrows, progressively more well crafted, were part of the Nichols toilette.)

In 1939, he and his younger brother, Robert, were put on a ship out of Nazi Germany. Pavel, who had gone ahead of the family to New York and met the boys at the dock, was now the assimilated Paul Nichols. The new surname was a nod to his own father, Nikolai). “Mick-eye-el” became Mike Nichols.

An unhappy adolescence followed hard on an unhappy childhood. His father died suddenly, when Nichols was 12, leaving the family all but destitute. What Ruth Gordon described as “the dark brown taste of being poor” seems to have stayed with Nichols forever, no matter the large sums he earned. Thirty million in the bank was the absolute minimum for true security, he once told a friend.

Nichols (fourth from left) with Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, Sandy Dennis, Richard Burton, and writer-producer Ernest Lehman on the set of Nichols’s first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Nichols found some measure of acceptance at the University of Chicago, where he became involved with the local theater scene and met Elaine May. Their subsequent collaboration, based on improvisation, turned contemporary comedy on its ear. They took aim at familiar shibboleths (overbearing mothers, funeral directors, the phone company), but did it with a modern twist, appealing both to mob and snob.

What Ruth Gordon described as “the dark brown taste of being poor” seems to have stayed with Nichols forever, no matter the large sums he earned.

When his partnership with May broke up, Nichols discovered—shades of the old joke—that what he really wanted was to direct. On his first day working with the cast of a partially written play that would become the Broadway hit comedy Barefoot in the Park, “he was struck by two revelations,” Harris writes. Directing, not acting, “‘was the job I had been preparing for without knowing it … ’ The second discovery was more personal. ‘If you’re missing your father as I had all during my adolescence, there’s something about playing the role of a father that is very reassuring.… I had found a process that … allowed me to be my father and the group’s father.’”

Success came in a rush. He amassed impressive real estate, cars, and friends, among them Richard Avedon (Harris debunks rumors that the two were lovers), Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Candice Bergen. Nichols bred Arabian horses and collected art, gorgeous wives (the fourth, Diane Sawyer, was the charm), and awards. The haul, given out at events that Nichols termed “ratfucks,” included nine Tonys, an Oscar, a Grammy, and four Emmys.

Candice Bergen and Nichols on the set of Catch-22 in Guaymas, Mexico, 1969.

Harris writes with great compassion about his subject’s struggles with depression and the survivor’s guilt that came with getting out of Germany just in the nick of time. He is also admirably clear-eyed and canny about Nichols’s foibles and directorial missteps (Day of the Dolphin, anyone? The Fortune? Regarding Henry?), sometimes a result of thinking with his bank account. The mercurial Nichols was a charmer to those he deemed worthy of the honor, warm and generous, Harris notes, “with money, with recommendations, with help.” Except when he was grandiose—shooting on a party scene in Regarding Henry was delayed for hours because a bowl of caviar didn’t look beluga enough for Nichols—entitled, and nasty.

Nichols bred Arabian horses and collected art, gorgeous wives (the fourth, Diane Sawyer, was the charm), and awards.

He established a “no assholes” policy in his directing career, a rule he broke with some frequency. His treatment of Dustin Hoffman during The Graduate and, more particularly, of Garry Shandling during the great misfire What Planet Are You From? bordered on the sadistic. “Everybody has to do it their own way,” Jack Nicholson told Nichols, during the Carnal Knowledge shoot. “For you, it works being a little mean.”

Unfortunately, there’s no particular through line, and Harris’s methodical storytelling—the book unfolds chronologically rather than thematically—tends to flatten the narrative. It becomes a fusillade of anecdotes (he interviewed 250 people for the book, including the elusive Ms. May), Arabian-horse auctions, analysis (granted, always sharp), and awards ceremonies.

At the end, Nichols remains something of an enigma to the reader. Then again, Nichols was a mystery to himself as well. “More than once, he’d struggle to make sense of his own behavior,” Harris writes. “At one point, he would go to an analyst seeking counsel and end up diagnosing himself. All the time, the effort, the sheer exhausting work of self-creation was costing him too much. ‘I’ve gotta tell you,’ he said, ‘I really am tired of being Mike Nichols. Get me out.’”

Joanne Kaufman is a New York–based journalist and critic