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‘Becoming Mike Nichols’ explains his road from improv to film immortality

A distraught young Mike Nichols is dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief and talking to a brisk and very efficient Elaine May. A few seconds into their improvised comedy chat, she announces: “I’m Miss Loomis. (Pause.) Your grief lady.”

The young man, between dabbings, explains that he’s there for the “$65 funeral” that he saw advertised. The all-business Miss Loomis then asks, “Is that for yourself?”

In “Becoming Mike Nichols” at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO, Mike Nichols explains how it happened that he and Elaine May became the funniest pair of improv comedians ever, back in the ’50s. It was at the University of Chicago where they first met. Nichols was in a theatrical adaptation of Nathanael West’s novel “Miss Lonelyhearts.” Nichols played Shrike, the SOB newspaper editor who rips the heart and soul out of the guy he has recruited to be the newspaper’s “Miss Lonelyhearts.’”

“I was very good at playing snotty … ” Nichols explains. May, nevertheless, watched his performance with skepticism at best and, along with it, some visible disdain – which Nichols mimes beautifully. She had come to that performance with the play’s director.

Not long after, they would be improvising together and Nichols would watch, in astonishment, as his partner, pretending to be an actress, would volunteer to sing for the benefit of others “the title from ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ ” Marveled Nichols years later in 2014, not long before his death: “This is a human female who could invent that song in 30 seconds.”

What you’re watching in “Becoming Mike Nichols” are a couple of onstage interviews Nichols did toward the end of his life with his friend, theater director Jack O’Brien (the man behind the theatrical adaptations of “The Full Monty” and “Hairspray”), at the Golden Theater, the same theater where Nichols and May conquered the world. They began as Mort Sahl’s opening act. Almost immediately, says Nichols, Carol Burnett became theirs.

If your interest in American show business is more than passing at all, you don’t want to miss this 70 minutes in one of its showings on HBO’s channels or on HBO online.

What you’ll be seeing will be limited in subject matter to Nichols’ earliest professional years. But then you have to realize that includes his partnership with May, his direction of Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in “Barefoot in the Park” on Broadway and his first films “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.”

Nichols was obviously in failing health when these interviews were done for an audience. And he was not temperamentally inclined to be a gabby, tell-all interview subject in any case. But, because O’Brien was a friend, he is having a fine old time telling us that, oh yeah, by the way, Richard Burton did drink a wee bit while they were shooting “Virginia Woolf.”

But then Douglas McGrath, the director of “Becoming Mike Nichols,” shows us a scene from “Woolf” that Nichols mentions as the one where his star had been drinking beforehand. It took a few tries to get the scene right. But what we see when Burton does is utterly remarkable.

Burton and Nichols obviously liked each other. In Burton’s diaries, he is constantly marveling at Nichols’ ability to “get the girls” including, at different points, Mia Farrow and Rosemary Forsyth, about whom Burton uncharitably observes “Mike likes dumb girls.”

Nichols wanted to be in the theater from the first time he saw, in his mid-teens, Marlon Brando on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” “It was like everything we were watching was written in fire.”

He confesses that it was film actor and friend Anthony Perkins who took three days to give Nichols a crash course in cinematography before he directed “Virginia Woolf.” He also says that the great Billy Wilder was “a great pal” while he was directing his first film.

As for “The Graduate,” Nichols liked Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” so much as “Graduate” soundtrack music that one day he sprung on Paul Simon a request to write a whole new song for Mrs. Robinson – played with cougar eroticism by Anne Bancroft.

Whereupon Simon went over to his pal Garfunkel to confer for a couple of minutes. They came back together and performed, almost immediately, the song we know as “Mrs. Robinson.”

Say what? How did THAT happen? Easy. They’d been working for a while on it, except that its words were “Here’s to You Mrs. Roosevelt. They just changed that one word – Roosevelt to Robinson – and the song was ready for Nichols’ film.

Earlier, Nichols explains to O’Brien that as far as he’s concerned there are only three kinds of scenes in film and theater: “Negotations, seductions and fights.”

“Becoming Mike Nichols” is a 70-minute audience seduction.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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