'Becoming Mike Nichols': The making of a legend

Story highlights

  • Mike Nichols remembers his formative years in the documentary "Becoming Mike Nichols"
  • The legendary director is one of the few members of the EGOT club

(CNN)Before there was Mike Nichols, award-winning director, there was Mike Nichols, terrified improviser.

The terror, remembered from his days with Chicago's Compass Players and with comedic partner Elaine May, came in handy. It helped make him the director he became.
"He was very well-liked by actors ... and having been through it, he knew what it was like to be directed by someone else," said Douglas McGrath, the director of a new documentary, "Becoming Mike Nichols." "He knew what it was like to have someone say something helpful to you and to have someone say something not helpful to you. Because he was an acutely observant person, I think he probably learned from those things pretty quickly."
    "Becoming Mike Nichols" features Nichols, who died in 2014, talking about his formative years with a friend, director Jack O'Brien, both with and without an audience. The film airs Monday on HBO. (Like CNN, HBO is a unit of Time Warner.)
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    There's also more Nichols to follow: 1967's "The Graduate," which Nichols believed was his best film, is being released in a newly restored 4K Blu-ray edition Tuesday.
    Throughout his life, Nichols was known for his incredible intelligence, his quicksilver wit and his empathy with actors. It made him one of the leading talents in entertainment, a famed director both on Broadway and in Hollywood, known for his work on Neil Simon plays and such films as 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "The Graduate" and the 2003 miniseries "Angels in America."
    He is one of 12 people who have claimed the "EGOT": winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
    But Nichols, who came to the United States as a child just prior to World War II, started as a comic actor in Chicago. He co-founded the Compass Players, the predecessor of the famed Second City troupe. It was also in Chicago he met Elaine May, who would become his performing partner for several years.
    In the film, Nichols is generous with praise and honest with criticism. He's obviously still impressed by May's talent after more than 60 years. He also still seems annoyed by Walter Matthau, who co-starred with Art Carney in the Broadway "Odd Couple" in 1965.
    Most of all, he has a sense of wonderment at "happy accidents" -- again, a residue of improvisation.
    Mike Nichols, George Segal,  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
    But, points out McGrath, Nichols was shrewd enough to create an atmosphere allowing happy accidents to happen.
    "For them to really work, you had to have done all the prep," he said.
    The Nichols-O'Brien dialogue captured in "Becoming Mike Nichols" was shot over three days. It originally chronicled Nichols' entire life, including the down period in the 1970s when he did the flops "The Day of the Dolphin" and "The Fortune," and the triumphant later years of translating such plays as "Angels" and "Wit" to the screen.
    He was very open about all of it, says McGrath. But he had a sparkle when talking about the years up to "The Graduate."
    "I think Mike felt that the best work he did was in his early career," he said. "(It wasn't that) he felt the work he did after that wasn't good, but he was most excited to talk about the early work."
    What emerges, McGrath adds, is a "master class" for anyone involved in acting or directing.
    "He's very frank," he said. "He really tries to analyze why the things that happened, happened."