SAM WASSON (writer): Mike [Nichols] was playing Jean the valet in a production of Miss Julie, and Mike was declaiming at the foot of the stage, overacting, and there in the third row was this beautiful girl staring at him with contempt. He immediately respected her for hating him. A day later he picked up the review in the newspaper, and to his incredible shock, he got a rave. [Paul] Sills, who directed the show, came up to him, and said, “Mike, I want you to meet the only other person on campus who’s as hostile as you are: Elaine May.” She looked over Mike’s shoulder at the rave and went, “Ha!” and walked off. It’s the beginning of a romantic comedy.
Then, of course, Mike was coming back from the radio station one day, and he sees Elaine on a bench in a train station reading a magazine. He goes up to her and says, “May I seet down?” He starts improvising as a spy, and she’s immediately there with him, and starts improvising back: “If you veesh.” They improvised all the way back to Elaine’s apartment.
JANET COLEMAN (writer): She served him a cream-cheese-and-olive sandwich—you can imagine what kind of cook she must have been. I heard they did sleep together. They did it one time, and that was it. But he might have been madly in love with her. Everyone was.
ANDREW DUNCAN (actor): I think it was Eugene Troobnick who said to me, “Don’t fall for her. Don’t ask her out and try to go to bed with her, because she’s a killer. She’s a ball-cutter, a castrater.” I figured from the way he talked she had done some damage to him.
ALLAUDIN MATHIEU (composer): I was both sexually attracted to Elaine and afraid of her. She was over the top, but with great conviction. The only thing to say about everything she did was, That’s Elaine. I knew her when she was young and there was no stopping her. Turns out there was.
HEYWARD ERLICH (actor): The [Compass] theater was on the second floor of a former Chinese restaurant. It was a six- or seven-night-a-week show, unlike community theater now, which is Thursday, Friday, Saturday afternoon—there’s nobody there on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.
ANDREW DUNCAN: Everybody pantomimed, which is unusual at first, but you get used to it. The word was “accept”: accept what was said, accept what was done. We didn’t wear makeup. We didn’t wear costumes. You wore shorts if it was hot. You had sneakers on, and you took your shirt off onstage. Mike never did that. He was always more aware of costume. Elaine was raw and raunchy. I never saw it, but I heard that she used to go onstage without underwear—she would literally flash the audience. You could hear gasps every once in a while.
ALLAUDIN MATHIEU: I was the intermission pianist. Sometimes the crowds were pretty thin. But on the weekends, there were times when the joint was jumping. The intelligentsia of the University of Chicago came, including my professors. It was an underground hit. The bar was just a bar for working-class people, so you’ve also got people wandering in, wondering what the heck this was.
JANET COLEMAN: Mike came in the sort of second wave of the Compass Theatre. They were beginning to professionalize a little bit. They were importing actors from New York. I don’t think all of them had that sophistication that he had. If you were from Chicago, you hadn’t seen A Streetcar Named Desire.
JEFFREY SWEET (writer): When Shelley Berman joined the Compass, he discovered that these people actually had read all these Great Books, and was permanently mortified. Shelley did not get along terribly well with the others. They recognized that he had talent, but his ambition was too naked and his desperation was too naked. And he was also a little bit older than the others. He felt, Here I am at this age, and I failed. But he knew there was an opportunity here.
SAM WASSON: Shelley would always negate onstage to get a laugh. Someone would say, “Do you want to pet the bunny?” and Shelley would say, “That’s not a bunny.” He was the unintentional instigator of “Yes, and.”
ANDREW DUNCAN: Mike hated working with him. They, of course, were fighting over Elaine. Shelley did funny stuff, but I didn’t like working with him either, because every scene I ever did with him—we’d improvise one night, and the next night when we tried to repeat it, he would steal lines that I had come up with.
JOYCE PIVEN (actress): Mike was good, though he didn’t excel as an actor. But he was a comic genius.
HEYWARD ERLICH: He was much more interesting in person than he was on the stage. I think his big discovery was that his genius was not in being a serious actor but in doing a form of comedy that was revolutionary at the time. It was breakthrough stuff.
JANET COLEMAN: Mike said himself, “Elaine could improvise with anybody. I could only improvise with Elaine.”
LAURA PIERCE (actress): Mike said, “That was the secret of Elaine and me, that we knew all about each other—all about each other. We had an absolutely mutual frame of reference. Even if you’re not that good in the beginning—and I wasn’t very good in the beginning— once you have someone who knows you that completely, you can do some very nice things onstage.” Finding your people—people you’re drawn to, that you want to work with, that you connect with on some level—that was very important to him.
SAM WASSON: Their first great comedy sketch was “Teenagers.” These are two teenagers nervous about making out. You don’t see a lot of comedy around young people’s sexuality in 1955. Even grown-ups aren’t making out. Sex is something that married people do, and they do it somehow in separate beds. No one knows what to do with sex, and here Mike and Elaine are doing it as teenagers, and they’re doing it with anxiety, which means they’re doing it with a degree of psychological reality that had never been seen before. It’s a breakthrough in sexuality. It’s a breakthrough in psychological naturalism. And it’s a breakthrough in form.
JANET COLEMAN: The other actors would run back from wherever they were smoking to see Nichols and May when they took the stage. They wanted to see what they would do next.
ALLAUDIN MATHIEU: I got to sit there and watch Elaine and Mike go through their early stuff, and it was amazing, absolutely amazing. Subsequently, through Second City, I met a lot of bright people, but I never, never saw improvisation so crisp, so sparkling, and so important. It was as though I was seeing something that had never been created before created in front of my eyes, and, indeed, that’s what was happening. Mike and Elaine had such extraordinary insight into and investment in each other’s psyche. When they did scenes together, it was like you never saw people so naked in your life.
Incidentally, they fucked up a lot. We forget that when you’re around a new sensibility or new art form being built—you forget about all the failures. However, there were some scenes that just happened. The “Teenagers” scene was one of them.
JEFFREY SWEET: A turning point happened when somebody before a show said to Mike, “Hey, I hear you guys did this great scene about two teenagers in a car last week. Are you going to do it this week?” And Elaine said, “We don’t repeat scenes.” And Mike said, “Why not? Why don’t we repeat them? Why don’t we polish them, and make them really good?”
ANDREW DUNCAN: He was always directing the scene while he was doing it. Elaine would never do that. Her bursts were spontaneous. I always felt that in their act, she was really the driving force.
SAM WASSON: No one intended this theater to be funny. But when Mike and Elaine took off, there was nothing you could do. Sills’s dream of a community theater and [David] Shepherd’s dream of a political theater were now compromised by these highly verbal, highly analytical Jews who became the stars.
One day, Mike’s mother called him and said, “Mike, it’s your mother. Do you remember me?” and Mike was like, Thank you, Mom, for that little Jewish nightmare, and calls Elaine immediately to say, “Let’s do this tonight.”
We look at it as a cliché now, but a mother in the 1950s was God on Earth; so was a father, by the way. The family unit was as unassailable as America. Bob Hope could always make a mother-in-law joke, that was safe, but to criticize the woman who gave you life? And the way they did it was merciless. By the end of the piece, you see that the son, far from being the victim, is actually colluding in his own infantilization. It’s devastating.
ANDREW DUNCAN: Mike had a wonderful satirical tone, and he did accents—he was probably the most versatile in that department. But I always got the feeling he really wanted to be a director. I always felt that. When they left the Compass, I was amazed to find out that he and Elaine were going to do an act.
JANET COLEMAN: Unbeknown to any of their fellow players, Mike, Elaine, Del Close, and Nancy Ponder had talked about forming an improv group and going to New York. And according to Del and Nancy, they took actors’ photos on a flatbed truck. They were all set to leave St. Louis and form their own company. Mike and Elaine said, “Pool your money and send us to New York. We have an appointment with this manager, Jack Rollins.” They audition for Rollins, and lo and behold, they get the job. And that was the last Del and Nancy ever heard from them.
There was a book written about Del Close, and Mike told the author that the story wasn’t true, Del was a chronic liar, and he made this up. Except I had it corroborated by a number of people who were there—Nancy Ponder, Del Close, Severn Darden, Ted Flicker, David Shepherd. Nancy Ponder showed me the pictures they had taken as a foursome on the flatbed truck. I think Mike didn’t want to be known as treacherous. They left all these people behind, and those people began to struggle. The Compass was failing.
ANDREW DUNCAN: There was a kind of reluctance to be part of a group with Mike. It’s just something I sensed. I don’t think he ever felt at home in Compass. I hope it wasn’t us, because everybody opened up to him.
ALLAUDIN MATHIEU: When Mike came here, he wasn’t anybody. He was literally an alien, and he had to construct a self. He had to construct a way to be in the world, and I think he tried everything out through improvisation. He was the lost kid. He was the sexual supplicant. He was the snob. He was the know-it-all. He knew exactly who each guy was, and that’s why it was funny. He was really searching, and he found aspects of himself.
SAM WASSON: Elaine liberated Mike’s unconscious. Those improvisations could not have happened without Elaine, just like a patient-therapist, and this analogy was not lost on them, by the way. Look at how many patient-therapists they played. She was Dr. May for Mike, and a lot of the time you will see in these pieces Mike being not the person in power, but the scared, nervous one, and that was not Mike’s outward persona. He came to grips with that shadow side of himself.
PETER GALLAGHER (actor): I once asked Mike, “What do you think is important about raising kids?” He said, “Well, just as long as they know that things that start out poorly don’t always end poorly, and things that start out well don’t always end well. That, and study improv.” He felt sure that it was his experience with Elaine, and his background in improv, which gave him the facility and the confidence and the words to deal with the studios. It allowed him to think on his feet and not crumble in the face of opposition. Both my kids have now studied improv.
Excerpted from Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner. Published by Henry Holt and Company November 12, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Ash Carter and Sam Kashner. All rights reserved.