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Nichols was raised in Oakland, California. He began his career in entertainment as a student at Oakland High School. Nicholes enlisted with the U.S. Army during World War II, performing with the Special Services to entertain U.S. troops during the war. He performed on domestic U.S. military bases and managed jazz band in Japan during the post-war period.
Nichols was awarded a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, a drama school in London, following World War II. He began performing on in theater while living in London. In 1949, Nichols made his film debut in I Was a Male War Bride, which was shot in West Germany. He was deported from the United Kingdom soon after because he did not have a British work permit.
In 1950, soon after his deportation, Nichols met his future wife, Jennifer, at her 19th birthday beach party near Malibu, California. They became engaged after two dates and were married just two months later. Jennifer Nichols later worked as a film wardrobe supervisor.
Nichols worked in American film and television throughout the 1950s. He returned to the United Kingdom around 1960, where he appeared in British and European film, television and theater productions. Nichols moved back to Los Angeles, California, in 1965. He soon relocated to New York City, where he enjoyed a steady career on and off Broadway, notably the Broadway productions of The Man Who Came to Dinner and Man and Superman.
Robert Nichols and his wife purchased property to build a home in Occidental, California, (Sonoma County) in 1991. He continued to act and perform until the early 2000s. His last theater role was in the musical Ragtime, appearing in Los Angeles, Chicago and Vancouver.
Nichols died from heart failure at his home in Occidental, California, on March 21, 2013, at the age of 88.