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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

New Biography of Mike Nichols

Yes, the pandemic has slowed me down and film on video does usually not raise my pulse. During the prolonged isolation of the pandemic, many people are reading more -- me included. I was intrigued by Mark Harris' truly fabulous new biography of director Mike Nichols. Peter and I invited Harris to visit our weekly radio show, "Theater Talk," on WBFO. He was an engaging and fascinating guest. Find the interview here: HARRIS INTERVIEW

Nichols first created a sensation with Elaine May in the late 1950s as the improvisational comedy team, "Nichols and May," a partnership that produced three hit comedy albums, countless classic television commercials, constant television appearances, and a hugely successful Broadway run. The Nichols and May broke up once emotionally complex and insecure Nichols had simply offended May too deeply.

Nichols used his celebrity to surround himself with famous and influential friends. Connections led to opportunities.

Nichols embarked on a directing career, beginning with a string of hit comedies that included Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple." While these are often considered old-style Broadway comedies today, in their time they were revolutionary, as Nichols, a genius of comedy himself, steered actors toward the reality and humanity of characters in comic situations, and forbad them ever to play for a cheap laugh.

A film career would be next. Nichols' debut film was Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." He managed to evade studio censorship and even got the okay from the Catholic League of Decency by enlisting the help of his famous (and famously Roman Catholic) friend Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who attended the censor's screening, sat behind the chief adjudicator, and when the film was over, stood and declared that the film was beautiful and that "Jack would have loved it!"

Nichols' films include "The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge," "Catch-22" and "The Birdcage." On stage he did "Annie," "The Gin Game," "Billy Bishop Goes to War," and "Spamalot."

Harris, who is a successful journalist and cultural commentator, is married to playwright Tony Kushner and had access to an amazing roster of people as he compiled the book: Elaine May, Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Ashley and on and on and on.

For those interested is a remarkable period of theatrical and cinematic transition, this is an essential and highly pleasurable read.

Next on my list is Barry B. Witham's new book about playwright Manny Fried.

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