When film director and former comedy star Mike Nichols died in late November, media tributes poured forth. Lots of them mentioned his local roots: as a student at the University of Chicago; as a member of the Playwrights Theatre Company on the city’s Near North Side; as an announcer at classical radio station WFMT-FM (where he created its long-running program “The Midnight Special”), and as a founding member of the pioneering improv group the Compass Players, which began performing in the back room of a Hyde Park bar, migrated several miles northwest to the Argo Off-Beat Room on Broadway near Devon and eventually spawned the Second City.
The Compass affiliation, arguably the most artistically formative of the German-born Nichols’ Chicago stint, is examined as part of a documentary about the influential group by Chicago filmmaker Mark Siska. On Jan. 9 and again on Jan. 14, his film “Compass Cabaret 55” has its Midwest premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Siska is scheduled to lead audience discussions at both screenings.
COMPASS CABARET 55 When: 8 p.m. Jan. 9 and 14 Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State Tickets : $11 for general public, $7 for kids and students, $6 for members
“I was very familiar with his work going in,” Siska says of Nichols, who even early on had “the ability to really take on a master leader role and take this content, which at the time was very avant-garde [and] just jump right in and understand the material and be able to improvise in such a quick, fast [way].”
One of his strengths, Siska notes, was a recurring sketch called “The Living News” that allowed Nichols to riff on current events in a way that was organically funny. It helped that Nichols’ reference level — his knowledge of people, places, things and cultural/political happenings — was very high. Then again, his intellectually endowed cast mates and audiences (initially populated primarily by U. of C. students and faculty members) would have abided no less.
“He was so mature and so sure of himself and [knew] a lot of material,” Siska says. “But he somehow knew how to interact and take that [somewhere]. Because a lot of people with a lot of intellect may be introverted and they can’t get up onstage and bring that across.”
In the doc, Compass cast member and director Larry Arrick (who took over day-to-day operations after the group moved north) recalls that Nichols “knew the name of everything. If it was something that was played on a musical instrument, he knew the composer. If it was something that was painted on a canvas, he knew the painter. If it was something written down in a book, he knew the author’s name. And he read a good deal of the stuff.”
Another Compass-era pal, Playwrights and Compass attorney Richard Orlikoff, takes credit for helping Nichols get a much-needed job at WFMT and feels “an affinity” for him in large part because of that.
“When he was working at Playwrights and Compass, he was in dire need of additional funds,” Orlikoff remembers. “And I suggested to him that perhaps he might be able to get a job in broadcasting. And he said he would like that very much. At that time I had a relationship with the operator of WFMT, the classical music station in Chicago. So I gave him a reference and a recommendation and he got an audition there and became a fairly successful announcer.”
Then there’s Chicago-born stand-up comic Shelley Berman, who joined the Compass and then worked briefly with Nichols and Elaine May as a kind of comedic third wheel. When the relationship fell apart, Berman took it poorly and personally. Interviewed years before Nichols’ death, he laments that unfortunate episode and the role he played in it.
“Mike, whom I adore to this day and I think he’s the greatest thing that ever happened — after a while he couldn’t bear me,” Berman laments. “He could not bear me. I think to this day he hates my guts. I’m sorry, ’cause it’s very hard to keep worshipping somebody in the way you worship somebody . . . because his mind was just staggering. His brilliance — staggering.”
Of all the things Nichols learned while working with Compass, Siska says, perhaps the most important to his later career in film was the ability to “tell stories simply and very efficiently at a time when Hollywood was going through kind of a rebuilding, a reconfiguration of who they were. They weren’t making epic pictures anymore. They were going into smaller, personal stories.”
Siska points to Nichols’ big-screen debut, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and its follow-up, “The Graduate,” as prime examples.
“Everything became more intimate and personal stories were more relevant, and I think that’s the biggest thing he probably got off of that stage.”
Related: Mike Nichols’ career began in theater at the University of Chicago
Related: Late director Mike Nichols launched ‘The Midnight Special’ on Chicago’s WFMT