mike nichols' childhood -- 1/27/15

Today's selection -- from Seriously Funny by Gerald Nachman. Like more than a few famous comedians, Mike Nichol had a childhood filled with trauma and deprivation. Nichols overcame this to gain early fame as part of the comedy team of Nichols and May, and then went on to be an Academy Award-winning director, known for such films as The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, and The Birdcage. On Broadway, he directed such plays as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Spamalot. He was one of a very small group of people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award:

"Mike Nichols was born in 1931 into a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin, where his father, Paul Peschkowsky, was a prominent Russian born doctor. His mother's family were intellectuals active in Germany's Social Democratic Party, headed by his grandfather, Gustav Landauer (one of the first Jews killed by the Nazis); Landauer's wife had written the libretto to Richard Strauss's opera Salome, and the philosopher Martin Buber was a family friend. As a boy in Nazi-era Berlin, the young Michael Igor Peschkowsky went to religiously segregated schools, until the family emigrated in 1938. The family sailed to America, on the Bremen, when Mike was seven, he knowing only two English phrases -- 'I do not speak English' and 'Do not kiss me' (the latter to keep him away from other, presumably diseased, immigrants). When he got off the Bremen, he saw a delicatessen with a sign in Hebrew and asked his father, 'Is that allowed here?'

"In the United States, the family adopted the name Nichols, from his father's Russian patronymic, Nicholaiyevitch. Until his father got established, they were 'very poor,'says Nichols. He and his younger brother, Robert (later a physician), stayed with an English family in America who bid the boys good night by shaking hands. Once reunited with his parents, who had what would now be called an 'open relationship,' the family fought a lot. His mother was ill and his father, he told The New Yorker's John Lahr, 'wasn't too crazy about me. I had a mouth. I loved him anyway. What I loved him for was that he had great vitality and joy of life. I feel linked to him in many ways.'

"His Sickly mother, Brigitte, wallowed in martyrdom. 'Everything wounded her to the quick,' Nichols recalled. '"I raised you so you could say that to me? Thank you very much. I deserve that." It went on for days.' Elaine May, he discovered, 'had the same mother,' out of which grew their classic sketch about the guilt-ridden rocket scientist who neglects to phone his martyred mother, who says she hasn't eaten in days for fear of having her mouth full should he call ('Someday you'll have children of your own. And, honey, when you do, I only pray that they make you suffer the way you're making me. That's a mother's prayer').

"After his father died, his mother worked at odd jobs to keep the family afloat, but their rooms were bug-infested. Nichols, who grew up in Manhattan's West Seventies (in 'one of those tiny apartment houses with a podiatrist on the first floor'), attended progressive private schools (Walden, Dalton) on scholarships (he reportedly had an IQ of 180) and squeaked through. 'I was quietly unhappy,' he once said. 'I felt strange and solitary. I didn't fit' -- largely because he had lost all his hair at four due to a reaction to a whooping-cough injection and had to withstand the gibes of classmates, who called him 'poor boy.' It didn't help that he had a German accent and wore a cap indoors. 'I was that little bald kid, the most popular of the unpopular kids.'

"He shook off most of his childhood traumas in college. 'I began to think, "Yes, I had a tough childhood. I had all those problems -- but enough already! Let's get on with my life. Let's start now." ' As he told Lahr 'All the shit was in the beginning.' Heyward Ehrlich, who knew Nichols at college, told Janet Coleman that Nichols 'really thought the world had f**ked him over. His family had made money, lost money. He had been through several identities. He had lost his hair. He was bleeding on the inside and trying not to show it.' Nichols loves to tell about the guy who had bullied him in school came backstage to see him. Nichols asked what he was doing, and when told he was selling cars, flashing his lethal grin, said, 'Oh, I am so glad.' "


Gerald Nachman


Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s


Back Stage Books


Copyright 2014 by Gerald Nachman


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