That when he arrived in this country at age seven, he only knew two English sentences: “I do not speak English” and “Please, do not kiss me.” I also learned that he lost his hair at age four from side effects of a Whooping Cough vaccine and consequently wore wigs until he died at age 83.
His first real success came when he founded the Compass Players and teamed up with Elaine May. The improv group, which included a group of young comedians including Shelley Berman, eventually morphed into The Second City, which basically staffed Saturday Night Live when Lorne Michaels started it in 1971. Our first contact with Nichols was the debut record he and May did and I still have the original vinyl. When I was searching for images for this Post I found that my record is available on Amazon for $60. I couldn’t sell it because The Dentist routine remains a favorite.
Although he won awards for film, TV, and a Grammy for records made with Elaine May, he greatest love and passion was for the theater. The first play he directed won him a Tony. It was Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. Coincidently that was the first play I was cast in as a principle, playing Victor Velasco, the rather strange neighbor. Of course my production was not on Broadway, but rather a group of local players who performed on a school stage.
The last play Nichols directed was last year, Betrayal, which opened to mixed reviews and quickly closed. The play before that though won another Tony. It was a brilliantly cast Death of a Salesman, which played a limited run because of cast project conflicts. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and two other actors were nominated for Tony Awards, as was the stage and lighting Director.
Although his most famous film was The Graduate the one he directed the year before got him that job. It was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? adapted from a play he was familiar with because he once was cast as the lead played in the film by Richard Burton. One can only imagine how Nichols directed Burton, particularly at that time in Burton's career. Nichol's Direction earned him an Oscar nomination, which would be repeated the next year.
He had a reputation as a strong, committed director. The story is told of his directing Walter Matthau in the The Odd Couple that eventually would play 964 performances on Broadway and spawn a television series, a movie and a revival in 1988 with two females as the couple. Presumably, Matthau at one point said, “You’re emasculating me. Give me back my balls!” To which Nichols replied, “Certainly. Props!” He won a directorial Tony for Spamalot, a production Mary and I saw when on our annual NYC visit for the Greater New York Dental Meeting.
Mary and I saw The Graduate and the music from the film is played regularly at dinner. Nichols is all over the film with choices of the music and the artists who penned the score, the cast, which catapulted a young Dustin Hoffman to stardom, to the cinematography, which remains unique in its composition. Hoffman remains in awe of Nichols for the opportunity to be in the film. Perhaps Nichols felt a kindred spirit, remembering his attempt to break into theater in New York at about the same age by studying Method Acting. In any event Nichols earned another Oscar.
About the only project we did not follow closely was the television Miniseries that won him one of his two Emmys: Angels in America. As Netflix is now allowing stream-watching, I may revisit the project.
It is not surprising that, being one of a few select persons who have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy, he would be honored for life achievement. Two of these that I recently watched in YouTube were the AFI Award, with a great tribute by Elaine May, and the KennedyCenter Award with about a 25-minute show featuring many of the actors and performers who felt his genius.
Genius may in fact be the operative word. He was, after all, a second cousin, on his mother’s side, some ways removed, to Albert Einstein.
In my next Post, I will share with you how I have joined the legions who have a handicap placard. You might find it interesting.