February 15, 2019

Mike Nichols: From marked man to American icon

The title of his Hollywood biopic should be “The Man Who Almost Wasn't.”

Because Mike Nichols, the celebrated director of stage and screen, was almost claimed by history. 

Steven Spielberg was one of the first Hollywood luminaries to issue a statement about his death last week, after Nichols succumbed unexpectedly to cardiac arrest at the age of 83.

“This is a seismic loss,” Spielberg said.

As many noted, Nichols was one of only about a dozen people in the history of show business to have won an Emmy, an Oscar, a Tony and a Grammy. In America, he was a cultural giant, one of those people for whom the overused descriptions “legend” and “icon” actually seem to fit. Spielberg was one of many millions taken with Nichols’s work, describing Nichols’s second film, “The Graduate,” as “life altering.”

“Mike had a brilliant cinematic eye and uncanny hearing for keeping scenes ironic and real,” Spielberg said.

The word that stuck hard was “ironic.” Of all the lavish and lush words in the English language, why did Spielberg choose to note that Nichols was good at irony? Because the concept is quite symbolic for Nichols’s life in general, given the ill-fated circumstances of his birth.

By the time Nichols ascended the Broadway stage in 2012 to accept his ninth Tony — at the age of 80 — his provenance had almost entirely faded from view. “You see before you a happy man,” Nichols said, accepting the directing award for a revival staging of “Death of A Salesman” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was utterly lost to viewers how far Nichols had come from being born a Jew, in 1931, in Berlin.

His name then was Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, indicative of his father’s Russian roots, though his mother’s family had long been thoroughly German – and thoroughly endangered. How easily Nichols might have shared the same fate as his grandfather, the German-Jewish anarchist and intellectual Gustav Landauer, who in 1919, was murdered by German counter-revolutionaries for his revolutionary ideas (one of which was translating Shakespeare into German). It was Nichols’s father’s Russianness that spared the family from total annihilation by the Germans: “The reason that we got out is that my father was Russian, and we had Russian passports,” Nichols told Abigail Pogrebin in her 2005 book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” “And it was during the two-year Stalin-Hitler Pact. That’s what saved our lives.”

The year was 1939. Nichols was only seven when he and his brother were shipped out of Berlin to catch up with their father, who had already started working as a physician in the United States. Nichols told Pogrebin that an airline stewardess looked after them; their mother was ill at the time and couldn’t travel until much later, eventually making her escape through Italy. How easily the circumstances could have been different; how easily Peschkowsky might never have become Nichols, and the world could have been bereft of the magical touch that made so much art — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “The Graduate,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Angels in America” — out of menace.

“All the world is a narrow bridge,” the 18th century Chasidic Rav Nachman of Bratslav famously taught. “The important thing is not to fear.”

That Nichols was spared the horrors of the gas chambers by an accident of luck was not lost on him. “[Y]our guilt about the Six Million finally comes and gets you,” he told Pogrebin, referring to the book “The Emigrants” by German writer W.G. Sebald. “That was what that book was about. Everyone in it in a different way finally couldn’t bear having survived.

“And if you’re a refugee, and if things came that close, that’s something you push away and push away and push away until it comes and gets you. There’s just no question about it. And after that ton of bricks hits you, then you’ve got to do a lot of work, both inner and active, in the sense of doing something for other people, in order to go on.”

“Silkwood” … “Heartburn” … “Postcards from the Edge” … “Primary Colors”… “Closer”… “Charlie Wilson’s War”… “Spamalot” … “The Real Thing” …

Nichols’s protean oeuvre is a testament to his identity as a Jew. He never forgot the tragedy of history that nearly claimed him, and he worked hard to make himself worthy of having being redeemed.

For God’s sake, who wins a Tony Award at 80?

When you have to count for the 6 million souls who never saw Broadway, you cannot retire. And Nichols gracefully evolved from the light comedy of “Nichols and May” into serious cinematic observations about the human condition.

And he never lost his primal sense of irony: It’s why he chose to cast Dustin Hoffman – a Jew — in the role of the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Aryan-looking WASP Benjamin Braddock in the novel-cum-movie “The Graduate.”

“There is no piece of casting in the 20th century that I know of that is more courageous than putting me in that part,” Hoffman told The New Yorker in 2000.

Nichols told Pogrebin he felt it was important “to express [the character’s] difference from his Californiate family and their friends.” Benjamin Braddock was “Jewish inside,” Nichols said, because he was an outcast on the outside.

Isn’t it ironic? Hollywood was supposed to be the place to go in order to escape the past; where one could shed every shred of Jewish identity. But for Mike Nichols, Hollywood became a place that helped redeem Jewish destiny.