His surefootedness with comedy owes itself to his partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Nichols & May’s hilarious comic dialogues – viery often between a neglectful son and a disapproving mother – were immensely popular and they were key players in an Eisenhower-era group of highbrow, savagely witty comedians like Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Bob Newhart and Woody Allen. Like their peers, their routines work best on record – if you can get hold of Mike Nichols & Elaine May Examine Doctors, get hold of it.
Their sketches were mainly performed on Broadway and the stage was forever a comfort zone for Nichols. His directorial debut on the stage, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in The Park earned him a Tony in 1964. He would yo-yo between Broadway and Hollywood throughout his career – he won another Tony for directing Death of A Salesman in 2012.
That his movie career overshadowed his theatre work is down purely to the astonishingly high quality of his work. There was never a lull or a dip, and though he was predominantly a comic director, he was equally at home tackling meatier, dramatic themes – Silkwood, Day of The Dolphin or Catch-22, for example.
He remained admirably contemporary all the way through his career. Carnal Knowledge (1971) reflected and dealt with the increasing sexual frankness of the time. The seminal Working Girl in 1988 championed the emergence of women in the workplace. His TV epic Angels in America took the Aids crisis head-on and Charlie Wilson’s War concluded by foreshadowing the very immediate and tragic effects of America’s covert defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan.
Throughout all his work, a wry, witty, urbane, white-hot intelligent voice could be heard, quietly in the background. The same voice that made him one of the very few people to win an Oscar, and Emmmy a Grammy and a Tony, is now silenced. As Simon & Garfunkel might now sing, ‘Where have you gone Mike Nichols, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.’