As I read about the death of writer and director Mike Nichols this past week, I was reminded of the broad pedigree of his work: films including “The Graduate,” “Catch-22” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”; theater productions including “Uncle Vanya,” “HurlyBurly” and “Spamalot”; and television works such as “Wit” and “Angels in America.”
Not long ago, I came across some of his comic routines with Elaine May. It’s been said there were no comedians like them, and watching their “Mother and Son Skit” decades after it was performed is as funny now as anything on TV today. Just as appealing are the generosity of spirit and the sense of teamwork that May and Nichols exuded when working together.
I put in a call about Nichols to actor Brian Avery ’63 because I remembered his telling me that he worked with the famous director. Avery had come to campus this past spring to help LMU Magazine produce a video of recitations of Chaucer’s Prologue. Reciting the passage has been a rite of passage for LMU English majors for longer than most of us have been alive. He said then that he was cast in a crucial role as Katherine Ross’ groom in the now-classic Mike Nichols’ film “The Graduate.” Yes, it’s Avery who is left at the altar at the film’s famous conclusion. It’s hard to forget the scene, and just as hard to forget when someone tells you he’s the guy who gets jilted.
Avery remembers first encounter as a young actor with Nichols. Under contract to Universal, he was instructed to meet Nichols at the Paramount studios about a role in a film. He walked into a room with director Nichols, screenplay writer Buck Henry, casting director Lynn Stalmaster, and producer Lawrence Turman. “Mike and I just started talking, and we got on,” Avery recalls. “After a while, Nichols turns to Buck Henry and says, ‘Wouldn’t he be great opposite Dustin?’ It was the first time I’d heard the word Dustin — he was unknown then.”
Turns out that Avery concurs with most everything that’s been written about Nichols since his death on Nov. 19. “I never saw him get angry. I never saw him be unkind to anybody. He was a joy to be around.”
I asked Avery how he felt when he landed an early-career role with Nichols as director. Ninety percent of the business is luck, he replied, some of it bad. Avery once passed up a role in “Auntie Mame” with Angela Lansbury, he recalled, to do a TV pilot with Filmways, which had a string of successes: “Mister Ed,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres” and “The Addams Family.” “Auntie Mame” ran for five years; his pilot, which looked a sure thing, wasn’t picked up. So Avery has always felt lucky to appear in “The Graduate,” and later in Nichols’ “The Fortune.”
“Mike Nichols was bright, joyous and fun,” Avery says. “He stimulated you. When you were on the set you knew you had his support. He was just waiting for you to show him what you could do. I did the best work of my life with Mike.”
In the photo above, Brian Avery appears in his role as Carl Smith and Katherine Ross as Elaine Robinson in “The Graduate.”