Review: 'Life Isn't Everything' toasts director Mike Nichols

"Life isn't everything: Mike Nichols, as remembered by 103 of his closest friends," Henry Holt and Co., by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner

The subtitle of "Life isn't everything," a captivating oral history of the late director Mike Nichols, is no joke. But just how did the man behind popular movies like "The Graduate," ''Working Girl" and "The Birdcage" plus Broadway hits like "The Odd Couple" and "Monty Python's Spamalot" find time for so many people?

"He had that incredible capacity for friendship that makes you think you're absolutely unique, that nobody matters to him in the same way that you do," actress Anjelica Huston recalls.

An Oscar and eight Tony Awards tell only a small part of the tale behind Nichols' achievements in the performing arts. Add four Emmys and a Grammy plus numerous lifetime achievement honors. The fortune he amassed allowed him to enjoy the good life with perks like a jet and Arabian horses.

But Nichols never forgot how it might have turned out. Born Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky in 1931, he was 7 when he and his younger brother left their native Berlin, by themselves, just a few months ahead of World War II. They joined their father, a Russian Jewish physician, in New York to await their mother's passage. Years later Nichols — the new surname came from his father's middle name, Nikolaevich — was attending the University of Chicago when he began a move toward theater, improv and comedy.

The decade of the 1960s brought Nichols almost nothing but success. He and partner Elaine May released bestselling comedy albums and starred in a Broadway show. Each of his initial plays as a director — "Barefoot in the Park," ''Luv" and "The Odd Couple" — brought him a Tony Award, and more hit plays followed. Likewise, his first two movies, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Graduate," were popular with audiences and critics.

As the 1970s dawned, even Nichols knew he couldn't keep flying so high. "He kept saying, 'I've got to just get this failure out of the way,'" recalls a friend. The disappointments came in a barrage — "Catch-22," ''Carnal Knowledge," ''The Day of the Dolphin" and "The Fortune" — and Nichols went back to focusing on the theater. He didn't make a movie for eight years until 1983's "Silkwood," which put him back on track.

Professionally, what stands out in the memories of Nichols' many colleagues is his ability to guide actors to discovering their characters and developing their performances. He also could discern what works and doesn't work in a story. In the musical "Spamalot," a cow delivered a torch song under a street lamp, a number that brought down the house. Nichols cut it because doing so streamlined the show.

And the show always came first. That's why he fired Gene Hackman from "The Graduate," replaced Mandy Patinkin with Jack Nicholson in "Heartburn" and abandoned the Neil Simon-scripted "Bogart Slept Here" with Robert De Niro after a $3 million investment when it just wasn't working. (Rewritten and recast, the project eventually became "The Goodbye Girl.")

Friends remember Nichols as a pal, a confidant, just the best company. They and others were drawn to him because he was smart, cultured, thoughtful and caring. Being wildly successful didn't hurt. Neither did the fact that he could be quite mean — at times sarcastic and humiliating.

"He always knew when he misbehaved," says actress Candice Bergen, "and he regretted it." Adds another friend and admirer, actress Emma Thompson: "We're not talking about some sort of saint here. We're talking about a person who was very, very aware of his own foibles and failings."

The occasional criticism of Nichols helps make believable the unbelievably high praise that permeates "Life Isn't Everything." While oral history doesn't offer the breadth and depth of biography, as writers Ash Carter and Sam Kashner acknowledge, they have assembled a collection of voices that explain why Mike Nichols soared as an artist and as a friend.

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Anne Bancroft: A Life" (University Press of Kentucky) and other books.