The death of entertainment icon Mike Nichols on Wednesday triggered heartfelt compliments from the stars of Hollywood and Broadway. Film director Steven Spielberg, for example, said that Nichols’ 1967 movie “The Graduate” was “life altering – both as an experience at the movies as well as a master class about how to stage a scene.”
Nichols enlightened, challenged and amused us. He was versatile, winning Tony Awards for comedies, the musical “Annie” and dramas. But perhaps the thing that we should remember most about the man born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin was his love of America and its opportunities.
Understand: Nichols, age 7 at the time, and his 3-year-old brother left Nazi Germany in 1939 for the United States, to where their father, a doctor, had already fled. His mother would join them about a year later.
Nichols recalled those times in a 1964 Life magazine interview, saying he knew just two English phrases when he arrived: “I do not speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”
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But the young Nichols faced many more challenges than his limited vocabulary. His father died of leukemia in 1942 and his mother was tyrannical. Three years before he left Germany, he had lost all his hair because of a reaction to a whooping cough inoculation.
The New York Times’ obituary on Nichols recalled him saying, “I never had a friend from the time I came to this country until I got to the University of Chicago. … I began to see there was a world I could fit in.”
Nichols would remake himself many times over his 83 years. Comedian, actor, director. We remember his great movies, but he had his share of strikeouts, too. One of those duds, “Regarding Henry” with Harrison Ford, is unwatchable. But Nichols continued to move forward, trying this and that, and stretching himself – and the actors he directed. His is a life story that might have been possible only in America, which provides the greatest opportunities and the greatest stages.
Sometimes, we forget what is possible here. Sometimes, the challenges appear too big to overcome. We get worn down and we come to fear change; forgetting that with change comes new opportunity.
America has never been about cementing the past. Our country was born with a vision of better days ahead and allowing people to make their mark based on talent and work. Upon Nichols’ death, Tom Hanks recalled one of Nichols’ sayings: “Forward. We must always move forward. Otherwise, what will become of us?”
We wish some of our political leaders would embrace Nichols’ words. Rather than wishing for the good ol’ days, they should look to what’s possible and contemplate how to best leverage our immense talents and spirit.
Think about it. A bald 7-year-old arrived on our shores at the outset of World War II. He spoke practically no English and would soon lose his father. Until entering college, he was a loner. And yet he would conquer Broadway and Hollywood and entertain millions for more than 50 years.