Mike Nichols, X’53, director and improv comedy pioneer, 1931-2014

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Mike Nichols, X’53, a satirist whose caustic wit led him to Broadway and Hollywood success with films including The Graduate, died Nov. 19, according to news reports. He was 83.

Long before Nichols became one of the few people to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, and even before he joined the famed Compass Players, he was a 17-year-old pre-med student at the University of Chicago who fell in love with the intellectual and bohemian atmosphere of Hyde Park in the 1950s.

For the first time in his young life, Nichols felt at home. “Everything was wide open, everybody was strange at the University of Chicago! It was paradise,” he told the New York Times in 1984. “I began to see there was a world that I could fit in.”

He dropped out of school in the middle of his second year, and began to mingle with a ragtag group of theater artists including Shelley Berman, Severn Darden, X’50, Andrew Duncan, Barbara Harris, David Shepherd and Paul Sills, AB’51, who had begun to experiment with improvisation. In one early workshop, Nichols participated in an entirely improvised adaption of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain.

Among this group of eccentrics was Elaine May, who had hitchhiked across the country to study at the University of Chicago. She never bothered to formally enroll, but still managed to be a source of mischief in University classes—at one point, May sat in on a philosophy class and insisted that Socrates was drunk in Plato’s Symposium.

Sills introduced Nichols and May, telling May, “I want you to meet the only other person on the campus of the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you are.” The two shared a quick wit, dark sensibility and Jewish heritage that influenced much of their comedy. Their immediate creative spark grew into a decades-long friendship.

Nichols and May first collaborated as members of The Compass Players, the pioneering improvisation and sketch comedy group founded by Sills and Shepherd. The group, which later spawned Chicago’s Second City theater, performed at the Compass Tavern at 55th Street and University Avenue. The performers used an innovative hybrid of ad-libbed and scripted material, much of it focused on political and social issues of the day.

Through the Compass, Nichols and May improvised many of the scenes that would be included in their Broadway hit “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May.” The recording of that production earned Nichols a Grammy.

The duo specialized in comedy that highlighted human foibles and satirized contemporary culture. In one famous sketch, a mother berated her rocket scientist son for not calling more. In another, a grieving Nichols learned that a funeral home’s $65 special did not include any “extras.” “What kind of extras?” Nichols asked. “Well, how about a casket?” May responded.

“People always thought we were making fun of other people when we were in fact making fun of ourselves,” Nichols told the Associated Press in 1997.

Despite the enormous success of “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” the pair parted ways at the peak of their popularity. Nichols began directing in the 1960s with a production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, for which he won a Tony. He ventured into film with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Graduate. He later directed Heartburn, Primary Colors, and HBO’s landmark adaptation of Angels in America.

The range of subjects and tones Nichols tackled in his career never troubled him. “I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don't think they're very much different,” he wrote in the Hollywood Reporter. “They both have to be true, and there isn't a great play in the world that doesn't have funny parts to it—as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”