From Refugee to EGOT: Mike Nichols, 1931-2014
The two little boys were sent alone on an ocean liner. One seven, the other three, their only hope of survival lay in reaching their father in the United States. You see, it was 1939; the Peschkowsky boys were descended from Russian and German Jews, a bad combination in Nazi Germany. Their father had already escaped; their mother would cross over from Italy soon thereafter, reuniting the family. The irony was that if the boys had been put on the next liner to America that sailed two weeks later, they would have been denied entry into the United States. The older boy, Mikhail, reflected on that fact decades later. Known for most of his life as Mike Nichols, he said that every day felt like borrowed time to him.
If that was the case, he certainly made the most of his uncertain entry into the U.S. When Nichols died on November 19, two weeks after his 83rd birthday, he was one of the most honored of American entertainment talents. He achieved a rare lifetime achievement, one that he accomplished relatively early in life. He was an EGOT, an acronym that means he won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. It’s impossible to say in which art he had the greatest influence. Winning his first fame for comedy performances and albums with Elaine May (the “G” in EGOT) brought him to directing on the Broadway stage, where he ultimately won eight Tonys, the last only two years ago.
When still young, he answered Hollywood’s call. The first movie he directed was the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not only was the movie a box-office and critical success; he also worked well with its demanding and talented stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who later claimed Nichols taught him more about acting funny than playing Shakespeare’s comedies had done. His second movie was not too shabby either. The Graduate won him the Best Director Oscar and cemented his status as an amazing talent.
Over the years Nichols shifted from stage to screen to television with no loss of either his storytelling skills or his enthusiasm for his work. In fact, he was preparing to direct Meryl Streep in an adaptation of a play for HBO when cardiac arrest finally ended his career. As he recalled of his first effort as a director (the play Barefoot in the Park in 1963), “On the first day of rehearsal, I thought, ‘Well, look at this. Here is what I was meant to do.’ I knew instantly that I was home.”
Mike Nichols built a long-lasting career that left no doubt of the breadth of his talent. He did not have to wait to grow old before he won honors of every kind for his work. He leaves behind a world of creativity and achievements that the little boy fleeing Antisemitism in 1939 could scarcely have imagined.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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