This Day in Jewish History

1931: A Neurotic Director Whose Talent Didn't Get in His Way Is Born

Mike Nichols, born Mikhail Igor, started from anarchic roots and lost his hair at age 4: The suffering he knew probably enriched his products.

Elaine May (left) and Mike Nichols: publicity for a television special The Fabulous Fifties.
Wikimedia Commons

November 6, 1931, is the birthdate of Mike Nichols, who began his theater and film career as partner with Elaine May in a comic-improvisational duo that is still remembered, nearly 60 years later, for its innovative work.

Nichols’ screen work included directing such classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate,” the film that kick-started the career of an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman.

Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky. The family of his father, Pavel Nikolayevich Peschkowsky, left Russia for Berlin shortly after the Bolsheviks came to power. One side of the family owned a gold mine; the other grandfather was a physician, as was Pavel. Nichols’ mother, the former Brigitte Landauer, was the daughter of a leading anarchist activist (her father) and a poet and librettist (her mother).

The family remained in Berlin until 1938, when Pavel left for New York and changedhis name to Paul Nichols. Brigitte sent her two sons to join him in April 1939, and followed the next year.

On the voyage across the Atlantic, the seven-year-old Mikhail wore two tags, one saying “I don’t know English,” the other reading, “Please don’t kiss me.” He later recalled that one of his first memories after alighting in New York was the sight of a kosher delicatessen bearing a sign with Hebrew lettering, which led him to ask his father, “Is that allowed?”

Hate at first sight

Pavel died of leukemia in 1941, forcing Brigitte to take on multiple jobs, but Mike was only able to graduate in 1948 from the Walden School, a progressive private school, with help of a scholarship.

His sense of isolation was probably not helped by the fact that at age 4 he permanently lost all his hair after a bad reaction to a whooping cough inoculation. (For much of his life he wore a hairpiece.) The insecurity and anger he experienced in childhood and youth likely were key to the sharpness that characterized his dramatic work.

In 1950, Nichols enrolled as a premed student at the University of Chicago, where he later claimed he made his first friends. “I began to see there was a world I could fit in,” he told The New York Times years later. “I was happy and neurotic.”

There too Nichols met Elaine May, a sometime student at the university. His accounts suggest that it was hate at first sight, especially after she saw him perform in a production of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” and let him know that she thought he was awful. (He agreed.)

Later, however, when they encountered one another in a train station, he asked if he could join her, and she responded with an Eastern European accent, “If you vish.” Without skipping a beat, they began improvising a conversation between two Cold War spies. Thus began a relationship (which apparently had a brief romantic chapter) that eventually led to their performing together as a comedy duo.

The two were among the founding members of the Second City comedy company, and began a nightclub act in 1957, performing in New York and the following year, on national TV. Three best-selling comedy recordings followed, and finally, in October 1960, the premiere of the show “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May” on Broadway. It ran for nine months, and when it ended, so did both their act and their relationship. (Years later, the pair reconciled.)

Nichols began his directing career when he was asked to lead a production of a new Neil Simon play, “Barefoot in the Park,” on Broadway in 1963. He later said that from the first moment, he realized that he had been born to direct. The play ran for 1,530 performances and won him a directing Tony.

Over the next four decades, Nichols rotated between stage and screen, and in the process became legendary for his taste and sophistication, neither of which prevented his work – films like "Carnal Knowledge," "Silkwood" and "Working Girl" and plays like "the Odd Couple" and a revival of "Betrayal" with Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig -- from achieving great commercial success. Even his flops were interesting.

Nichols was married four times, his fourth wife being the ABC News broadcaster Diane Sawyer. He died in November 2014 from a heart attack.