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Mike Nichols: ‘Jewish Humor Is a Way of Surviving’

An excerpt from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish

Abigail Pogrebin
November 20, 2014
Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and Dorothy Loudon as panelists on the game show Laugh Line on April 3, 1959. (NBC Television)
Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and Dorothy Loudon as panelists on the game show Laugh Line on April 3, 1959. (NBC Television)

In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about Mike Nichols, the legendary theater and film director who died Wednesday at 83. Nichols, who had the distinct honor of receiving an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy throughout his career, directed films like The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Primary Colors.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN TOLD ME that when he auditioned for The Graduate (1967), the director, Mike Nichols, told him that the WASPy character of Benjamin Braddock was “Jewish inside.” When I ask Nichols what he might have meant by this, he says his answer can be found in a Thomas Mann story. “Did you ever read Tonio Kröger?” he asks me. (I didn’t.) “It took place in Germany one hundred years ago and it was about the blond, blue-eyed people and the dark people. The dark people were the artists and the outcasts. And the blond, blue-eyed people were at the heart of the group and were the desired objects.” I see where he’s going: Benjamin’s an outsider, so he’s metaphorically Jewish. “

There would have been two ways to cast and direct The Graduate,” Nichols continues. “One is to have Benjamin be a sort of a walking surf-board, which is the way the novel is written, roughly. And the other is to express his difference from his Californiate family and their friends. And only semiconsciously, I think, did I pick the latter. At the time, it was just that no actor—I saw hundreds, if not thousands—of young actors, and nobody was quite there, nobody was quite right, and it was getting desperate; not only had we seen every young actor, but we’d seen every young janitor by that point.

“I said, ‘There is a very talented young actor that I saw in an off-Broadway play in which he played a Russian transvestite’—I still remember him cutting up fish on a butcher block wearing a dress. And I said, ‘I’d like to see that guy; let’s see if we can get him to come out to L.A.’ ” Needless to say, Hoffman got the part. “Of course, when we saw the film it was clear that this was Benjamin, nose and all,” Nichols says with a smile. “And it’s not that the piece was transformed, it was that the piece was achieved, but in a way that we would never have guessed.” In other words, the un-Redford Jew clinched the disaffected WASP.

We’re sitting in the airy, book-lined living room Nichols shares with his wife, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, on Martha’s Vineyard. We’ve retired to this room with tall glasses of ice water after a generous four-course lunch that included taro tuna rolls, gazpacho, and strawberry lemonade. It’s August, and a gentle breeze glides in off the bay through open doors. Nichols is tan but not dressed for this season—he’s in long tan pants, long-sleeved black shirt, and loafers. It’s too facile to draw a metaphor from his attire, but I can’t help it: This comedic director is darkly dressed for a sunny summer day and it reflects something he’s alluded to often in old interviews, a sense of being a fish out of water, the way he described Benjamin Braddock. I ask whether he relates this outcast feeling to his Jewishness—to his childhood experience of escaping Nazi Berlin in 1939 as a seven-year-old (he traveled alone with his four-year-old brother, with a “stewardess” looking after them).

“This is tricky,” he begins, taking a sip of water, “because I think there are two different things: One is Jewishness and one is refugee-ness. The second one being something you might call the ‘Sebold Syndrome,’ if you read The Emigrants. Did you?” (No; I’m a shamed English major.) “You remember the theme—the Sebold experience: namely that your guilt about the Six Million finally comes and gets you . . . That was what that book was about. Everyone in it in a different way finally couldn’t bear having survived. And if you’re a refugee, and if things came that close, that’s something you push away and push away and push away until it comes and gets you. There’s just no question about it. And after that ton of bricks hits you, then you’ve got to do a lot of work, both inner and active, in the sense of doing something for other people, in order to go on. By definition, whether you are a refugee or not, you are a member of a group that has been hated by a large number of people through all history. It’s impossible not to be aware of that hatred. And puzzled by it and amazed by it and appalled by it, sometimes joining it—to your own horror—and jumping out again as fast as you can.”

He offers an example of when he momentarily “joined” the scorn for his own people: “I once said to Jerry Robbins [the director and choreographer of Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story], ‘I’m worried that all the great monsters of narcissism in show business are Jewish.’ And I named some names, which I won’t do now. And there was a long silence, and he said, ‘Yes, well: Mickey Rooney.’ ” Nichols laughs heartily. “I said, ‘Oh, thank you; thank you. That feels better.’ ”

Nichols laments the fact that Jews can’t give themselves a poke in the ribs every once in a while. “You know what the problem is, among many other things? Correctness. Correctness was such a blight on humor and the truth. One of the joys of The Producers was that every possible correct position was exploded, and you just sat there howling and grateful. It was the death of correctness in a way.”

Nichols’s outsiderness was seeded when he was still Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, attending a segregated Jewish school; he doesn’t remember being given any explanation for it. “I’m pretty sure I was simply told that Jews were required to attend school separately from Aryans,” he says. As Berlin became more acutely inhospitable to Jews, his family knew they had an escape hatch. “The reason that we got out is that my father was Russian and we had Russian passports, and it was during the two-year Stalin-Hitler Pact. That’s what saved our lives.”

Still, getting the paperwork was arduous. “A long time was spent sitting in consulates hoping for a visa,” Nichols recalls. “Very few people seem to know this, but do you know what you needed financially to get into this country?” I shake my head. “Every individual had to have someone guarantee them financially for the rest of their lives. We were a family of four; each one of us had to have a specific financial guarantee for our lifetimes. And luckily—to put it mildly—my mother had a cousin with money, who was already in the United States. And he did it. But without that, you couldn’t get a visa. It’s not exactly ‘your huddled masses.’ But nobody knows this. Some people know about Roosevelt turning the St. Louis back. But very few people know this.”

He’s referring to the incident in May 1939 when the S.S. St. Louis, filled with 937 Jews fleeing Germany bound for Cuba, was not permitted to land on American shores. F.D.R.’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who was Jewish, argued to the president that the ship should be welcomed, but Roosevelt refused, and the St. Louis turned back to Europe with its passengers, many of whom went on to perish in the Holocaust. “I was talking to Spielberg about this,” Nichols continues (in fact, Spielberg had flown to the Vineyard for a visit just the day before), “and saying to him that people keep making not-very-good movies about the St. Louis, but that the real movie, it seemed to me, is about Morgenthau. The only Jew in Roosevelt’s administration who presumably started out saying, ‘Mr. President, you have a chance to do something wonderful; we have a chance to do something really important,’ must have gone close to insane at the end of the week when the St. Louis was sent back, realizing that Roosevelt didn’t care at all.”

Nichols remembers his own arrival at New York City’s shores, at the age of seven. “When we got off the boat in New York, there was a delicatessen right near the dock and it had a neon sign with some Hebrew letters in it, and I said, ‘Is that allowed?’ So at seven, I had some sense of what that would have meant back in Germany.” Despite his childhood English lessons, Nichols could barely communicate. “I only had two sentences: ‘I don’t speak English’ and ‘Please don’t kiss me.’ ”

Nichols’s father, a physician, had come to New York ahead of his family to take the American medical exams and start his practice. “My father changed our name the week he became a citizen. Because his name was Peschkowsky and he said that by the time he would spell his name, the patient was in the hospital,” Nichols smiles. “‘Nicholas’ was his patronymic [the name derived from one’s father, in this case, Nikolayevich Peschkowsky]. I’ve been accused often of changing my name, but I didn’t.” Only five years after Nichols arrived, his father succumbed to leukemia. His mother, who had stayed in Germany after they left because she was ill, joined her boys in America a few years before her husband died. “She, who had never had a job, learned English and supported my brother and me,” Nichols says.

All this time, they observed no Jewish rituals whatsoever. “No one in my family would have known how to have a Jewish holiday,” he says with a laugh. “Nobody in my family knew anything about it, and yet you could hardly say they weren’t Jewish.”

The only American anti-Semitism he recalls was when he went to the Cherry Lane boarding school in Connecticut. “What I remember was Mrs. MacDonald, the mother of one of my friends with whom I rode horses, saying, ‘Now, we’d love you at the hunt club—there would be nothing wrong with that—because you’re the right kind of Jew; it’s those others that we really don’t want.’ And that confused me enormously. Even without that, there was no way not to know what anti-Semitism was, because Darien, Connecticut—at that time anyway—was sort of based on anti-Semitism.”

He says his college friendships made him feel more Jewish. “Because we made immigrant jokes and because what interested the bunch of us was music, which leads you back to Germany, God knows. And through all of that was the sense that we were all Jewish and I guess, to put it briefly, lucky to be at the University of Chicago and alive.”

I wonder if Nichols thinks any generalization can be made about why so many comedians and comedy writers are Jewish. “Jewish introspection and Jewish humor is a way of surviving,” he says. “Not only as a group, but as individuals. If you’re not handsome and you’re not athletic and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny. Girls like funny guys.

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.

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