Becoming Mike NicholsImage: © Bob Willoughby /
Becoming Mike NicholsImage: © Bob Willoughby /

Becoming Mike Nichols

Just four months before he died, in a set of final, historic interviews, director Mike Nichols opened up to his close friend and colleague, theater director Jack O'Brien, about the storied beginnings of his career, including his comedy collaboration with Elaine May, his direction of two Neil Simon stage classics, and his acclaimed feature-film debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Graduate.

With disarming candor, wry wit and sharp self-deprecation, Nichols delivered a master class on his craft in what would be his last in-depth interviews, for Becoming Mike Nichols.

One of the great contemporary artists, Mike Nichols created a body of film work that received a total of 42 Academy Award nominations. Over his career, he won one Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys and a Grammy. Directed by Douglas McGrath (Oscar-nominated writer of Bullets over Broadway and writer-director of Emma and Infamous), Becoming Mike Nichols features an intimate, relaxed and candid exchange between O'Brien and Nichols, which took place over two days in the summer of 2014 at the Golden Theatre, where the groundbreaking An Evening with Nichols and May had its smash Broadway debut in 1960.

Nichols offers insights into his childhood as a 7-year-old immigrant to America (his family escaped Nazi Germany in 1939), as well as the genesis of his career as a performer at the University of Chicago. Despite suffering from stage fright, Nichols rose to stardom as half of the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and May, having met the comedian during his time with The Compass Players in the mid-1950s. They never rehearsed and Nichols' ability to let go and "revere the unconscious" became the catalyst that informed his later directorial style.

"Not naming something, not deciding what to do, being brave and going out empty is the only way," explains Nichols. "And it's both terrifying and thrilling. And what I didn't know is that it applies to directing, too."

His first foray into stage directing was Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park in 1964. With the participation of a young Robert Redford and advice from friend Lillian Hellman, the production won Nichols his first Tony Award. Directing Simon's The Odd Couple earned him a second Tony, and sparked in him the keen observation that "there are only three types of scenes: negotiations, seductions and fights.”

This would prove true on his debut film, 1967's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with its inimitable pairing of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Nichols admits that at the time, his knowledge of filmmaking was almost non-existent. With the help of his friend, actor Anthony Perkins, he spent a frantic three days learning about cameras and lenses. The film received 13 Oscar nominations and won five awards, most notably a Best Actress prize for Taylor.

Becoming Mike Nichols also delves into the making of The Graduate, Nichols' second film, which brought him an Academy Award for directing and was nominated for six other Oscars. Nichols' instincts drove him to cast an unknown young actor he recounts seeing as "a transvestite Russian fishwife in an off-Broadway play," and with that, Dustin Hoffman's career was launched. Discussing the iconic Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, Nichols reveals how the inventive montages came about and also touches on the legendary last shot, noting, "That ending was what taught me what movies really are."

Nichols went on to direct such classic films as Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood and Working Girl, and earned Emmys for his HBO productions of Wit and Angels in America. His other award-winning stage productions included The Real Thing, Monty Python's Spamalot and Death of a Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

With access to archival photographs and footage from Nichols' days as a performer and a theater director, and an illuminating use of movie clips from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, Becoming Mike Nichols goes inside the head and heart of this brilliant artist. He lays bare his creative process, his drive and his formidable sense of humor with touching behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

In addition to Bullets over Broadway and Emma, director Douglas McGrath's films include Nicholas Nickleby, Infamous and the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary His Way. He also wrote the Tony-nominated book for Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, currently running on Broadway.

Jack O'Brien has won three Tonys and five Drama Desk Awards for his work in the theater, where he directed such productions as Hairspray, Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia. He served as artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego from 1981 to 2007.

Executive producer Frank Rich spent more than three decades as a writer at the New York Times before joining New York magazine in 2011. He currently serves as an executive producer on Emmy-winning comedy series Veep and executive produced the Peabody Award-winning documentary Six by Sondheim.

Directed by Douglas McGrath; executive produced by Frank Rich, Jack O'Brien and Douglas McGrath; edited by Camilla Toniolo. For HBO: produced by Ellin Baumel; supervising producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.