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.”
Mr. 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, Germany, was his love of America and its opportunities.
Understand: Mr. 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.
Mr. Nichols recalled those times in a 1964 Life magazine interview, saying that he knew just two English phrases when he arrived: “I do not speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”
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 of his hair because of a reaction to a whooping cough inoculation.
Mr. Nichols’ New York Times obituary 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.”
Mr. 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.
Sometimes, we forget what is possible. Sometimes, challenges appear too big to overcome. We get worn down and fear change; forgetting that with change comes opportunity.
Actor Tom Hanks recalled one of Mr. Nichols’ sayings: “Forward. We must always move forward. Otherwise, what will become of us?”
We wish that our political leaders would embrace Mr. 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.
Always forward, indeed.