The career of Mike Nichols, the prolific stage and screen director who died Wednesday at 83, began at the University of Chicago. There, he teamed with other skilled improvisational actors in a theatrical company that later would evolve into the Second City.
He was part of the Compass Players, founded in 1955 by David Shepherd and Paul Sills in an attempt to bring theater to the working class. They were popular among in-the-know intelligentsia types and eventually migrated several miles northwest to the Argo Off-Beat Room on Broadway near Devon. With performers including Shelley Berman, Severn Darden and his future writing and performing partner Elaine May, Nichols also performed improvisational shows at the Dock on Lake Park Avenue in Hyde Park.
Despite the big crowds, financial issues did in Chicago’s Compass Players in 1957. Nichols would go on national fame performing satirical comedy with May, and Sills and partners Howard Alk and Bernard Sahlins turned their improvisational ideas into the Second City, which launched at a bohemian coffee shop in a converted Chinese laundry in 1959.
The germ of the idea formed years earlier among several young, creative minds at the University of Chicago. Nichols performed with Sills and future acting teacher Joyce Piven in a 1952 production of Cocteau’s “The Typewriter” staged by University Theatre, a drama society at the Hyde Park campus.
“We did a lot of improvising,” Piven said in “The Second City,” a history of the theater by its longtime director Sheldon Patinkin. “We did a lot of drinking beer and all that, but we were very, very serious. we felt we were evolving a new form.” The audience was seated on the stage among the actors, and the cast endeavored to break down barriers between viewer and actor, as the Second City does now.
With another campus group, called Tonight at 8:30, Nichols made his directorial debut. “I directed my roommate Ed Asner in Yeats’ ‘Purgatory,’ ” he recalled in “Something Wonderful Right Away,” by Jeffrey Sweet.
“He knew enough to let me have my own head,” Asner said Thursday of Nichols’ approach. “And that’s the best kind of director to be with — somebody who knows that the actor will take care of him if he lets the actor do it. I don’t recall his direction at the time, but he was judicious enough to steer us and guide us silently.”
The opposite of intense, Asner added, “Mike was a velvet glove person. He wasn’t going to beat you up if you didn’t do what he told you, but he would make you think you’d be an ass if you didn’t do it.”
At another Tonight at 8:30 production, Nichols told Sweet, he had his first encounter with May. He was acting in August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” — “a pathetic, awful production” — and saw “this evil, hostile girl in the front row staring at me through the performance, which was in the round. I was about four feet away from her, and she stared at me all through it, and I knew she knew it was s—, and there was no way I could let her know that I knew it also.”
When he spotted her later at the Illinois Central train station, he turned on a phony German accent and they commenced a conversation in character as foreign agents. A friendship was formed.
By the time the Compass Players were created by another U. of C. type, David Shepherd, Nichols had gone to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg. But he was lured back to Chicago to perform in its productions of politically conscious plays drawn from improvisational rehearsals. Among its fixtures was “The Living Newspaper,” re-enactments of events in the day’s papers.
“I was a disaster!” Nichols told Sweet. “For a month I cried in scenes because that’s what I thought I’d learned from Strasberg. That was my only contribution. I remember one night I was fooling around onstage with Elaine. We were doing a riding scene of two English people on a bridle path. Somebody went running into the bar for the guys who weren’t onstage, shouting, ‘Come quick! Mike has a character!’ And I guess my character was that I was English.”
Nichols’ Compass colleague Barbara Harris was stunned to tears by the news of his death. Only the night before, she said, she had purchased several horse books for Nichols that she planned to send as Christmas gifts. Nichols, whom she called “humble and so real,” bred Polish Arabian horses.
Harris contended that she and her former husband Sills passed through New York on their way to England early on and convinced Nichols, who was living in the city “above a cafe,” to give Chicago a try. Once he relocated, “his life was much happier.”
“If he got a laugh, he’d look at the audience,” she said with a chuckle of Nichols onstage. “You can’t do that. You have to bury yourself and put a fourth wall there and ignore anyone laughing. Unless the whole gang got a laugh [by working together], we didn’t consider it a laugh. Except for Mike.”
Nichols, she added, also would break up mid-performance.
“If I said something and Mike thought it was funny, he would just burst out laughing and talk about it for years afterwards.”
When Nichols and the other Compass Players moved to the Argo Off-Beat Room, Patinkin wrote, “the show had become more professional in look and feel and was mostly two-person ‘people’ scenes, occasional short scenarios and Shelley’s monologues.”
Nichols also appeared in plays produced by Sahlins at the Studebaker Theatre downtown. As Patinkin recalled, his roles included Lucky in the Chicago premiere of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (alongside future “Carol Burnett Show” funnyman Harvey Korman) and the leader of the men’s chorus in Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.”
After the demise of Chicago’s Compass Players, Nichols and May performed with a short-lived St. Louis incarnation and then went with the troupe to New York for a 1957 booking there that fell through. Making the best of it, he and May decided to stay put and nurture their nightclub act, Patinkin recalled.
Though never a Second City performer, Nichols was tapped as a consultant in the company’s formative years.
“[W]e started to do a show and were a bit uncertain as to what shape it should take,” Sahlins said in “The Second City Unscripted,” a 2009 oral history of the comedy theater by Mike Thomas. “We knew we wanted to do political sketch comedy, but whether it was to be disparate scenes or linked by theme or what, we weren’t sure. So we called Mike Nichols in before we opened, and he said, ‘No, leave it the way it is. One of the joys for the audience is in seeing an actor in so many different roles, exhibiting a diversity of talents.’
“We listened,” Sahlins added, “and he was right.”
Contributing: Mike Thomas