Mike Nichols is gone. Comedian, writer, actor, writer, playwright, director, and producer, he left an indelible mark on the American performing arts.
From his obituary in today’s New York Times:
Mike Nichols, one of America’s most celebrated directors, whose long, protean résumé of critic- and crowd-pleasing work earned him adulation both on Broadway and in Hollywood, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 83.
His death was announced by James Goldston, the president of ABC News. Mr. Nichols was married to the ABC broadcaster Diane Sawyer. A network spokeswoman said the cause was cardiac arrest, giving no other details.
Dryly urbane, Mr. Nichols had a gift for communicating with actors and a keen comic timing, which he honed early in his career as half of the popular sketch-comedy team Nichols and May. An immigrant whose work was marked by trenchant perceptions of American culture, he achieved — in films like “The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge” and in comedies and dramas on stage — what Orson Welles and Elia Kazan but few if any other directors have: popular and artistic success in both film and theater.
An almost ritual prize-winner, he was one of only a dozen or so people to have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy.
But it is for his earliest success as partner with Elaine May in one of America’s greatest ever comic duos that we will forever remember him fondly.
So with that, here’s a repost of an offering from 22 January 2013:
Mike Nichols & Elaine May: Comedy that stings
For a kid growing up in small town Kansas in the 1950s, television ushered in a new world, full of both terrors and delights.
As a member of the very first wave of what became the Baby Boom, we arrived before the boob tube’s presence became ubiquitous, and when Dad brought home a pair of boxes, one cubical and the other long and narrow, our world paradigm shifted dramatically.
The cube contained a black and white television set, and the oblong box an antenna kit.
Dad cobbled the antenna together inside attic of our two-story home, running the lead down through to wall to the living room two floors down.
Our neighbors, a reclusive elderly couple, had been forced to put up a tall steel tower reaching up about 50 feet before they could grab a decent signal, but somehow Dad’s inspiration worked, and we had television that night.
Our life was never the same.
The fears came through the endless news stories about nuclear bomb tests and the latest Cold-and-growing-hotter War confrontations.
The delights came in the form of brilliant and mostly Jewish comedians, offering a view of the world that zeroed in on the same insanely macabre contradictions we had just begun to discover at the ripe old age of six.
Sid Caesar and his troupe were the reigning stars [how could they not be, with a crew of writers that included the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Carl Reiner]. The show’s cast was legendary. And to top it all off, they did it every week live in prime time.
From Your Show of Shows, Caesar appears with Carl Reiner and Howard Morris [“Uncle Goopy”] in a parody of one of television’s earliest hits, This is Your Life, where an unsuspecting audience member was plucked from obscurity and bombarded with people from her past. In this parody, the show takes the unexpected turn every kid secretly hoped would happen.
“This is Your Story”:
While Caesar and his crew painted in a broad brush with roots in vaudeville and the Catskills, two other comics brought a rapier wit and an edgier, more cerebral nightclub tone. And their targets were typically institutions, and they targeted their most corrosive effects.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May were simply brilliant, both witty and masters of the secrets of timing. It’s not surprising both went on to direct. While Caesar brought the pure catharsis of the belly laugh, Nichols and May left you thinking after the laughter had subsided.
Here they tackle a subject brought to the national attention by East Bay writer Jessica Mitford in her searing 1963 expose of the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death. The venue is The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar.
“The $65 Funeral”:
And here’s a subject near and dear to our own heart of late.
“At the Hospital”:
Finally, Nichols and May bite the hands that feed them in this wonderful little sketch they presented at the 1959 Emmy awards: