Mike Nichols: A Giant of the American Theater

Brigitte Lacombe
Mike Nichols

THR's lead theater critic looks back over the director's remarkable half-century career on the stage, and its frequent overlap with his screen work

When Mike Nichols won his seventh Tony Award for best direction in 2012 for Death of a Salesman, he acknowledged that it was not his first time on the stage of the Beacon Theatre, where Broadway’s annual honors ceremony was held that year. The previous time was in a pie-eating contest back when it was his local childhood movie theater on New York’s Upper West Side.

Despite a long and distinguished career in movies, Nichols in many essential ways remained a creature of the theater, and Broadway will mourn his loss on Friday evening, when marquee lights are dimmed in his memory. But Nichols’ connection to the stage was also evidenced often in his choice of screen projects.

His first film was the trenchant 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s seminal drama of marital warfare and festering regret, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, winning Oscars for Taylor and Dennis. At the time of his death he was working on an adaptation for HBO of Terrence McNally’s Maria Callas bio-drama, Master Class, which was to have starred Nichols’ frequent collaborator Meryl Streep.

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Those and other sources were inherently theatrical, yet Nichols showed uncommon skill at opening out stage material without betraying its origins. His 2001 HBO movie of Margaret Edson’s play Wit, which starred Emma Thompson as a brittle English professor with terminal ovarian cancer, was another example.

Perhaps the key intersection of film and theater in Nichols’ illustrious career, however, was his thrilling 2003 two-part film of Angels in America, again for HBO. Tony Kushner’s landmark opus about the tragic evolution of the AIDS epidemic during the Reagan era, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, on stage was a work of almost unparalleled thematic, poetic and emotional scope. All of that was captured rather than condensed by Nichols. It won eleven Emmy Awards, including trophies for Nichols’ direction, Kushner’s adaptation and for actors Al Pacino, Streep, Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker.

Nichols began his career onstage as an improvisational comedy writer-performer alongside his University of Chicago pal Elaine May. Their sketch-comedy revue, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, opened on Broadway in 1960, directed by Arthur Penn, and ran for more than 300 performances. But Nichols soon shifted his focus from performing to directing, gaining a peerless reputation over the decades for his probing work with actors, whether in comedy, drama or musicals.

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His first Broadway directing job was an auspicious start with Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, the 1963 comedy about New York newlyweds, which starred Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. The production ran for 1,530 performances, winning Nichols his first Tony and cementing a fruitful relationship with playwright Simon that was to continue on The Odd Couple, with Art Carney and Walter Matthau; Plaza Suite, with George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton; and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, with Peter Falk and Lee Grant, among other projects.

Nichols many notable Broadway credits include Murray Schisgal’s 1964 absurdist comedy Luv, which starred Alan Arkin and Eli Wallach; and the 1966 premiere of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s three-part musical The Apple Tree, with a lead performance by Barbara Harris that has acquired legendary status.

He directed Anne Bancroft in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes in 1967; his own adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 1973, with a cast that included Julie Christie, Scott, Nicol Williamson and Elizabeth Wilson; Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians, with Milo O’Shea, John Lithgow and Jonathan Pryce in 1976; and D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in 1977.

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Nichols was also active as a producer on Broadway, perhaps most notably with the 1977 musical Annie. The show was officially directed by lyricist Martin Charnin, but Broadway insiders have long inferred that Nichols’ hand in shaping the material and staging was instrumental in making it a smash hit that ran for almost six years.

He also shepherded Whoopi Goldberg’s breakout vehicle, a multi-character, self-titled solo comedy show that put her on the map before she gained wider recognition onscreen in The Color Purple.

Many original plays at least in part owe their acclaim to Nichols’ incisive direction, among them Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, which starred Glenn Close, Richard Dreyfuss and Gene Hackman; David Rabe’s Streamers and Hurlyburly, the latter with an all-star ensemble that included William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver and a 17-year-old Cynthia Nixon; and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which paired Close with Jeremy Irons.

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Nixon also appeared in that production, making history by running two blocks between theaters every night to perform simultaneously in Hurlyburly. “As an actor there was no greater joy, opportunity, or imprimatur than being hired by Mike Nichols. Except being hired by him again,” said Nixon, who is currently appearing in a Broadway revival of The Real Thing, playing the mother of her original character.

In 2001, Nichols lured Streep back to the New York stage after a 20-year absence in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. That production’s star wattage extended far beyond the headliner playing Arkadina, with a cast that included Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, John Goodman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Throughout his career, Nichols proved a magnet for top talent, and it’s difficult to imagine any other director who could have coaxed such a heavyweight ensemble to endure the humidity of Central Park in August, which resulted in audiences camping out overnight to score tickets. But the production proved sharply divisive, with many detecting a lack of harmony among the actors’ contrasting styles.

Nichols’ 1988 off-Broadway staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, was another production in which star power was widely judged to have overwhelmed the elemental simplicity of the play. But while Nichols’ stage work was on occasion stronger on performance than text, few directors can match his consistency over a 50-year career.

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After a long break from directing musicals, he returned in 2005 with Monty Python’s Spamalot, an insta-smash that brought out frat boys and British comedy geeks who were not generally among the prime Broadway demographic. A best musical Tony winner, that production starred Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria and Sara Ramirez, who grabbed herself a Tony before slipping away to do Grey’s Anatomy.

Part of what made Spamalot so memorable was that its classic Python vignettes allowed Nichols to revisit his sketch-comedy roots, and his actors created their own characters rather than attempting to channel Python alumni.

Nichols followed with a 2008 revival of Clifford OdetsThe Country Girl, which starred Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand and Peter Gallagher. But that production drew mixed reviews, perhaps in part because the 1950 backstage melodrama had aged poorly compared to Odets’ Awake and Sing!, which had been given an illuminating Broadway revival two seasons earlier, and had remained far more socially relevant.

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Many critics were also lukewarm on Nichols’ final Broadway production, the 2013 revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall. However, for this reviewer, that staging captured not only the chilly moral ambiguity that is quintessential Pinter, it also heightened the erotic charge and the intellectual one-upmanship of the drama’s adulterous romantic triangle.

But for regular New York theatergoers of the past decade, Nichols’ major legacy will be his shattering 2012 revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which starred Hoffman in his final Broadway role, alongside Andrew Garfield and Linda Emond.

Countless theater productions have struggled to reshape plays from the classic American canon to fit contemporary themes. But Nichols tapped into the lingering malaise of the economic recession with biting poignancy — and without any need for modern signifiers. In fact, his staging owed more to his idol Elia Kazan’s original 1949 presentation than to any radical rethink, borrowing Jo Mielziner’s stylized set designs and composer Alex North’s melancholy underscoring.

The haunting image of Hoffman’s Willy Loman — holding his hat and his briefcase as his obstinate belief in the American Dream crumbled — embodied a collective loss not unlike the sorrow that theater lovers are feeling at Nichols’ passing. He was one of the greats.