Mike Nichols was a stranger in a strange land when he and his family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and immigrated to New York. He was 7.
"When he came here, he only knew two lines of English: 'I don't speak English' and 'Please don't kiss me,'" said a good friend, producer Julian Schlossberg ("American Masters: Nichols & May: Take Two.")
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Less than 20 years later, Nichols and improv partner Elaine May were changing the face of American comedy with their sharp, brilliant banter. As a director, he won numerous Tony Awards, including for Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park," "The Odd Couple" and "Plaza Suite," and the 2012 revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."
He earned an Oscar nomination for his first feature, 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and won the Academy Award for 1967's "The Graduate," which made a star of Dustin Hoffman.
Along the way, he directed such films as 1970's "Catch-22," 1971's "Carnal Knowledge," 1983's "Silkwood" and 1988's "Working Girl," plus the Emmy Award-winning 2003 HBO miniseries "Angels in America."
And now, 14 months after his death at age 83, this Renaissance man is the subject of a new documentary, "Mike Nichols: American Masters," which premieres Jan. 29 on PBS.
Directed by May, the documentary features a fun, revealing interview with Nichols from last decade conducted by Schlossberg, interviews the producer did with Nichols' friends and colleagues, including Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Simon, Matthew Broderick and Hoffman, and clips from Nichols' film, theater and TV projects.
(A second Nichols documentary — "Becoming Mike Nichols" — premieres on HBO on Feb. 22.)
Both Schlossberg and Balaban, who made his Broadway debut in "Plaza Suite" and appeared in "Catch-22," believe Nichols was the most brilliant person they ever knew.
"He had the ability to really be able to talk with you and unwittingly ... you realized you were also being educated," said Schlossberg.
Nichols, noted Balaban, "was so erudite. He was rather a joyous and lovely person to be around."
But his intelligence could also be a bit intimidating.
"When we were on the set of 'Catch-22,' Mike, [screenwriter] Buck Henry and [star] Tony Perkins would play word games involving books and titles of things, most of which I had never heard of," said Balaban. "I inadvertently became part of the game, and I would show the lack of my depth of knowledge."
Nichols turned to directing after he and May went their separate ways in the early 1960s. In the documentary, Nichols talks about realizing how well suited he was for directing when he began rehearsals on his Broadway show "Barefoot in the Park," starring Robert Redford.
"He says in the show, 'I know what I am doing,'" said Schlossberg. "'This is what I am meant to do. I didn't know I was meant to do this."'
Nichols had an uncanny knack with actors. "Having studied with Lee Strasberg, he knew how to direct instinctively," said Schlossberg.
Nichols was signed to make his feature directorial debut with "The Graduate." But Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor wanted him for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" So Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner called "Graduate" executive producer Joseph E. Levine to see if he would allow Nichols to make "Woolf" first.
"I was friendly with Joe Levine," Schlossberg said. "I said, 'That was really kind of you,' and he said, 'Let him learn on Jack Warner's money.'"
Nichols had an impeccable eye for casting. "Right down to taking someone like Dustin Hoffman, who at the time was clearly not the image of a movie star," said Schlossberg. "I think he was often able to see in [actors] what people couldn't see, like with Cher in 'Silkwood' and Ann-Margret in 'Carnal Knowledge.' He was able to take people who had one image and would change it around."
For Balaban and his circle of friends, Nichols was "always a god and continues to be a god, though he's gone. I think some of his most visible work in the last 10 years [of his life] was onstage. And the things he did were wonderful, highly memorable and very highly regarded. His 'Death of a Salesman' was one the best productions I've ever seen. He was operating on all cylinders."
Mike Nichols: American Masters
9 p.m. Jan. 29 on KOCE