Childhood & Early Life
He was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky on November 6, 1931, in Berlin, Germany, to Pavel Peschkowsky and Brigitte (née Landauer). His father, a physician, originally hailed from Siberia and his mother was a German. He was distantly related to scientist Albert Einstein from his mother’s side.
When he was four years old he had variolation for cough, following which he lost his hair and had to wear wigs throughout his life.
As atrocities of Nazis increased in Berlin, in April 1939 when he was only seven years old his mother sent him and his three year old brother Robert to the US where his father already fled sometime back. His mother got reunited with the family later in 1940.
On April 28, 1939, his family relocated to New York City where his father set up medical practice and soon became a successful medical practitioner in Manhattan. There his father adopted the name Paul Nichols.
In 1944 he became a naturalized citizen of the US.
He studied in a public elementary school in Manhattan and thereafter at the ‘Walden School’ from where he completed his graduation.
After attending ‘New York University’ for a short while he dropped out and worked for a year.
In 1950 he enrolled at the ‘University of Chicago’ for a pre-medicine program and simultaneously did several odd jobs including working as truck driver, hotel desk clerk, busboy and janitor to support himself. He attended the university till 1953.
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In 1953 he started working as an announcer with classical music station WFMT, 98.7 FM. As per instructions of Rita Jacobs, co-owner of the music station, Nichols set up a folk music program for Saturday nights and named it ‘The Midnight Special’. The program that he hosted for two years maintains same time slot till present.
His interest in theatres led him to return to New York City where he studied method acting under Lee Strasberg for a couple of years.
Having difficulty in finding stage work in New York City, he returned to Chicago and accepted an invitation to join ‘Compass Players’ in 1955, members of which included Paul Sills, Del Close, Shelley Berman, Elaine May and Barbara Harris. There he began to do improvisational routines with May.
In 1958 he and May set up their own comedy duo naming it ‘Nichols and May’ and beginning with New York City the duo gave live satirical comedy act performances that soon gained popularity. The duo performed in TV, radio and nightclubs as well and released 3 records of their routines that emerged as best-sellers.
‘An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May’, a Broadway show directed by Arthur Penn was premiered in 1960, the LP album of which earned ‘Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album’ in 1962. This successful comedy duo split-up in 1961, however reconciled later that saw them working together on many occasions including May scripting for a couple of films of Nichols that included ‘The Birdcage’ (1996) and ‘Primary Colors’ (1998).
Following disbandment of ‘Nichols and May’, he focussed on theatres and directed Oscar Wilde's ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and performed in George Bernard Shaw's ‘St. Joan’ in Vancouver, B.C. before directing Neil Simon's romantic comedy play ‘Barefoot In The Park’. This ‘Broadway’ play that premiered at ‘Biltmore Theatre’ on October 23, 1963, and ran for 1,530 performances before closing on June 25, 1967 marked the longest-running hit play of Simon as also remained the 10th longest running non-musical play in the history of ‘Broadway’.
Over the next almost five decades a series of outstanding and successful plays were directed by him including ‘Luv’ (1964), ‘The Odd Couple’ (1965), ‘Plaza Suite’ (1968), ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ (1971), ‘Annie’ (1977), ‘The Real Thing’ (1984) and ‘Spamalot’ (2005) among many others. Some of these were also produced by him.
He made his debut as film director with Warner Bros. black comedy-drama ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ that released on June 21, 1966. An adaptation of a play by Edward Albee bearing same title and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, this groundbreaking film became a smashing hit garnering huge commercial success and critical acclaim thus emerging the numero uno film of 1966. It earned 13 ‘Academy Awards’ nominations including Best Director nomination for Nichols and won five of them.
His next project, comedy-drama film ‘The Graduate’ released on December 21, 1967, based on the 1963 novel of same title by Charles Webb, and starring Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross was an even bigger blockbuster hit. It became the highest grosser of 1967 and at present charts at number 22 on the all-time list of highest-grossing films in the US and Canada. This critically acclaimed film won several prestigious awards including Nichols’ sole ‘Oscar’ as Best Director.
Following the immense success of both these films there was no looking back for Nichols who went on to direct notable films one after another, thus cementing his position as one of the leading directors of American film industry. His other remarkable big-screen spectacles included ‘Catch-22’ (1970), ‘The Day of the Dolphin’ (1973), ‘Silkwood’ (1983), ‘Working Girl’ (1988), ‘Primary Colors’ (1998) and ‘Closer’ (2004).
Personal Life & Legacy
He first got married to Patricia Scott (1957- 1960) with whom he had a daughter Daisy (born in 1964).
Thereafter he married Margo Callas (1963- 1974).
His third marriage was with Annabel Davis-Goff (1975-1986) with whom he had two children, Max (born in 1974) and Jenny (born in 1977).
He finally married Diane Sawyer on April 29, 1988, and the two remain married till his death.
He was a well-known horse breeder who had a lasting interest in Arabian horses and owned a farm in Connecticut from 1968 to 2004.
On November 19, 2014, he succumbed to heart attack in his home in Manhattan.