If this season’s revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery is the first performance by Elaine May you’ve witnessed, you might believe the 87-year-old actor made a career of dramatic roles.
But May, whose performance delicately painted a picture of a woman struggling with dementia, forged her path as one of America’s greatest comedians and an award-winning multi-hyphenate across stage and screen. One half of the esteemed “Nichols and May,” The Waverly Gallery marked the first time May appeared on the Broadway stage without her comedy partner (the short-lived The Office, which closed in previews in 1966, notwithstanding). Her naturalistic portrayal of a woman grasping for her own memory and clinging to the comfort of her Greenwich Village art gallery defined sensitivity and fragility, earning her a 2019 Tony Award. And yet May has been anything but fragile in her real life. A force in the arts, here are nine things you should know about the Tony Award-nominated actor:
1. She was born into a theatrical family.
Before she was “May” she was Elaine Berlin, the daughter of theatre director and actor Jack Berlin and actor Ida Berlin. Jack performed with a traveling Yiddish theatre company, and May often performed with her dad starting at the age of three. Her father passed away when she was 11, prompting May and her mother to move to Los Angeles.
2. She was the founding member of an improv troupe.
The actor wanted to enroll in college, but she didn’t have a high school diploma. She found at that the University of Chicago accepted students without diplomas, so she hitchhiked her way there. This is where she met Mike Nichols, after a university production of Miss Julie in which Nichols starred. In 1955 she joined the Compass Players as a charter member; Nichols joined the group later, reconnecting with May. The two of them quit to pursue their own stage duo in 1957 and became the famed “Nichols and May.” May became the example for what women in comedy could be, but also in re-defining comedy. Lily Tomlin and Steven Martin are among the comedians who name May as an inspiration.
3. She is an award-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
May made her Broadway debut in 1960 with An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which she co-wrote and co-starred in. The show featured an evening of comedy from the improv duo.
In 1969; she wrote Adaptation of Adaptation/Next and directed the full work Off-Broadway. The play earned her the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Director, and a Special OCC Award. She is also the scribe behind Power Plays, The Way of All Fish, and Adult Entertainment. Nichols and May returned to Broadway for one night in 1992 with Mike Nichols and Elaine May: Together Again on Broadway. In 2000, she brought her play Taller Than a Dwarf to the Main Stem, following that with 2005's After the Night and the Music, which played 38 regular performances. Her play George Is Dead premiered in 2011 as part of the anthology Relatively Speaking, which also included plays by Woody Allen and Joel Coen.
On the film side, May earned Academy Award nominations for her 1978 screenplay Heaven Can Wait (shared with Warren Beatty) and 1998's Primary Colors. She also wrote the screenplay for The Birdcage.
4. She is also a director.
The comedian and writer made her directorial debut with the film A New Leaf in 1971; she starred opposite Walter Matthau. May directed the 1972 movie The Heartbreak Kid, which starred Cybill Shepherd and Charles Grodin. She also directed (and wrote) the 1976 flick Mikey and Nicky, starring Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, and Ned Beatty. Ten years later, Warren Beatty offered her Ishtar. Following Ishtar, May did not direct another film for 29 years until the documentary Mike Nichols: American Masters, in 2016.
5. She is a Golden Globe-nominated actor.
A New Leaf proved to be fruitful for May as an actor, as well. She earned a 1972 Golden Globe nomination for her performance.
6. She was in The Graduate.
In the same year Enter Laughing hit movie theatres, May appeared as the uncredited “Girl with Note for Benjamin” in the Dustin Hoffman-Anne Bancroft starrer.
7. She is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.
In 2013, President Barack Obama presented May with the honor for her lifetime contributions to the arts.