In 1939, a 7-year-old Jewish boy named Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky left Nazi Germany and, accompanied only by his 4-year-old brother, arrived in New York with an English vocabulary consisting of two phrases: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”
By the early 1960s, the refugee boy, renamed Mike Nichols, had taken Broadway by storm with his improvisational comedy skits with Elaine May, and he went on to become an iconic American theater and film director.
When Nichols died in 2014 at 83, Variety headlined the obituary, “Mike Nichols: Émigré to Eminence.”
Despite the urging of friends, Nichols never wrote an autobiography. However, two months before his death, he sat down with his old friend and colleague, theater producer/director Jack O’Brien, for two extended interviews, one before a live audience and the other private.
The result is a 75-minute film, “Becoming Mike Nichols,” which HBO will premiere on Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.
The film’s opening hits a high and nostalgic note with some Nichols and May skits, which were akin to unrehearsed high-wire acts, in which neither partner knew what the other was going to say.
One classic example has May as the ultra-Jewish mother phoning her son, the rocket scientist, to ask why he never calls.
In another, Nichols suddenly asks about the title song for “The Brothers Karamazov” (Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great philosophical and spiritual novel) and, without missing a beat, May comes up with both melody and lyrics.
The Nichols-May act broke up in the early 1960s because of what Nichols described as his “very controlling” attitude.
Soon after, Nichols took in a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and was overwhelmed. He decided that the theater was for him -— not as an actor, but as a director.
After Broadway successes with Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” it was time for him to switch genres again, becoming a movie director. Without any experience in the medium and only an informal three-day crash course as preparation, Nichols, as usual, started at the top.
His first two films became instant classics: The first, directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), followed by “The Graduate” (1967).
In the HBO film, Nichols recalls his second movie by adding a few nuggets of information to the already much-studied masterwork. After interviewing hundreds of young actors without finding the right one for the title role, he says, he came across a young actor he had seen in an off-Broadway production playing a transvestite Russian fishwife. The actor’s name was Dustin Hoffman, and the rest is history.
“The Graduate” benefited immensely from its musical score by the folk-rock duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, but Nichols pressed them for one more song. At first stuck, the duo remembered one of their uncompleted songs, titled “And Here’s to You, Mrs. Roosevelt.” They switched the name to “Mrs. Robinson” and a hit was born.
By the end of his life, Nichols had received one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Grammy.
In an interview with the Journal, O’Brien described Nichols as not only an immensely talented artist, but also a real mensch.
“Mike had the fuse of life burning within him,” O’Brien said, “but he was also a phenomenal friend. He had a genuine love of people, and in company somehow made you feel that you were the smartest person in the room … perhaps his greatest gift, as an artist and a person, was that he made you better by seeking out the best in you.”
“Becoming Mike Nichols” has been praised as “a master class” in the craft of the theater, but Nichols speaks more in terms of emotions and attitudes than how-to bits of advice.
On directing: “One minute, you don’t know, then suddenly, you get it. That’s the thrill, that’s why you are here.”
On plot lines: “There are three types of scenes … negotiations, seductions and fights.”
On making successful movies: “You get lucky in many strange ways.”
Aside from a few sentences about Nichols’ departure from Nazi Germany, there is no mention of his Jewishness.
“The topic never really came up,” O’Brien said. “Our discussions focused almost entirely on the theater and Nichols’ career.”
Except for an occasional dinner, in which Nichols’ wife, former TV news anchor and reporter Diane Sawyer, joined in, O’Brien said he knew little of his friend’s private life.
In any case, “Mike treated me as [if] I were Jewish, or simply thought of me as an Irish Jew,” O’Brien said.
For readers eager to learn more about the Jewish aspect of Nichols’ life, a good source is a chapter on him in Abigail Pogrebin’s book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” which was excerpted in the Nov. 20, 2014 issue of Tablet’s online magazine.
Asked in the excerpt whether his Jewishness related to his sense of being an outsider, Nichols replied, “This is tricky, because I think there are two different things: One is Jewishness and one is refugee-ness.
“The second one being what you might call the ‘Sebold Syndrome’ … namely that your guilt about the Six Million finally comes up and gets you. … By definition, whether you are a refugee or not, you are a member of a group that has been hated by a large number of people through all history. It’s impossible not to be aware of that hatred.”
When O’Brien asks why so many comedians and comedy writers have been Jewish, Nichols responds, “Jewish introspection and Jewish humor are ways of surviving. Not only as a group, but as individuals. If you’re not handsome, and you’re not athletic, and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny. Girls like funny guys.”