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Elaine May was born Elaine Iva Berlin on April 21, 1932 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is known as one half of the comedy duo Nichols and May and has also established herself as a director, Golden Globe-nominated and Tony Award-winning actress, and two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
May was bitten by the acting bug early on in her childhood, performing in her father's traveling Yiddish theater company from age 3. After touring around the country and enrolling in over 50 different schools along the way, she moved to Los Angeles at the age of 11 and attended the Hollywood High School for a few years. She studied acting with former Moscow Art Theatre coach Maria Ouspenskaya and would eventually enroll at the University of Chicago in 1950, where she met fellow student Mike Nichols. In 1955, she joined a new off-campus improvisational theater group in Chicago by the name of The Compass Players, and Nichols later joined her. The pair began developing improvised comedy sketches together. After a couple of years in the troupe, the star duo left to form their own act under the name of Nichols and May, which swiftly became a hit on New York's comedy circuit.
May made her Broadway debut in An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which ran for over 300 performances at the Golden Theatre from October 1960 through to July 1961 and even won a Grammy Award. In 1961, at the height of their fame, the pair decided to go their separate ways. They reunited for a special benefit performance called Mike Nichols and Elaine May: Together Again on Broadway on May 4, 1992, and once more in 1996, when May wrote the screenplay and Nichols directed The Birdcage, starring Nathan Lane and the late Robin Williams.
May embarked on a career as a playwright and screenwriter, acting and directing on the side. Her first Off-Broadway credit as a playwright was 3 x 3 in 1962, but her arguably most successful play was her next Off-Broadway credit: the one-act Adaptation / Next, which she also directed. May earned a Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Director and Best New Playwright. Prior to this, she had returned to star in the Broadway premiere of The Office in April 1966, which had a short-lived run that only lasted for 10 performances and never officially opened.
During the 1970s, May established herself as a reputable film director with a string of hits, including A New Leaf (1971), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and Mikey and Nicky (1976). She also wrote and starred in A New Leaf, earning her first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical. She then wrote the screenplay for the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait and received her first Academy Award nomination in 1979.
During the 1990s, she wrote The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998), with the latter earning her a second Academy Award nomination as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999. Off Broadway, she wrote the plays Mr. Gogol and Mr. Preen, which was produced by Lincoln Center Theater in 1991, and Hotline, which ran from March 1995 to February 1996 as a part of the anthology play Death Defying Acts. She also wrote and starred in Power Plays for Manhattan Theatre Club in 1998.
In 2000, May starred in Woody Allen's film Small Time Crooks and made her Broadway debut as a playwright with Taller Than a Dwarf. Since then, she has provided the book and lyrics for the 2002 Off-Broadway musical Adult Entertainment and wrote two Broadway comedies: After the Night and the Music (in 2005) and George is Dead (a part of the anthology play Relatively Speaking in 2011). May later came out of retirement and starred as Kay Munsinger in Woody Allen's Crisis in Six Scenes TV series for Amazon in 2016.
May made her Broadway return to star as Gladys Green in the Broadway premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's 2001 Pulitzer Prize Finalist play The Waverly Gallery at the Golden Theatre (the historic home of An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May) from September 25, 2018 through January 27, 2019. For her performance, May won her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play at the 2019 ceremony.