Mike Nichols, who fled Nazi Germany as a child and became one of the most celebrated directors of film, stage and television, passed away last night at age 83.
James Goldstein, president of ABC News, announced his death, noting his "triumphant career that spanned over six decades," calling him a "true visionary, winning the highest honors in the arts for his work as a director, writer, producer and comic and was one of a tiny few to win the EGOT—an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony." (Nichols's wife, Diane Sawyer, is the anchor of ABC News.)
Dryly urbane, Mr. Nichols had a gift for communicating with actors and a keen comic timing, which he honed early in his career as half of the popular sketch-comedy team Nichols and May. He accomplished what Orson Welles and Elia Kazan, but few if any other directors have: He achieved popular and artistic success in both theater and film. He was among the most decorated people in the history of show business, one of only a handful to have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy.
His career encompassed an entire era of screen and stage entertainment. On Broadway, where he won an astonishing nine Tonys (including two as a producer), he once had four shows running simultaneously. He directed Neil Simon’s early comedies “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s, the zany Monty Python musical, “Spamalot," four decades later, and nearly another decade after that, an acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s bruising masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman.”
...The first time Mr. Nichols stepped behind the camera, in 1966, it was to direct Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in an adaptation of Edward Albee’s scabrous stage portrayal of a marriage, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including one for best director. Though he didn’t win then, the film won five.
Mr. Nichols did win an Oscar for his second film, “The Graduate” (1967), a shrewd social comedy that defined the uncertainty of adulthood for the generation that came of age in the 1960s and made a star of an unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, who was nearly 30 when he played Benjamin Braddock, the 21-year-old protagonist of the film, a Southern Californian and a track star who sleeps with the wife of his father’s best friend and then falls in love with her daughter. A small, dark, Jewish New Yorker, he was an odd choice for the all-American suburban boy whose seemingly prescribed life path has gone awry.
“There is no piece of casting in the 20th century that I know of that is more courageous than putting me in that part,” Mr. Hoffman said in an interview in The New Yorker in 2000.
Nichols produced Whoopi Goldberg's Broadway monologue in 1984; directed one of the best New York City movies ever, Working Girl; directed a searing TV adaptation of Angels in America for HBO; cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in the recent revival of Death Of A Salesman ; and countless others.
Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931. As Nazis began arresting Jews, his family fled to the United States; Nichols was seven when he and his brother met up with their father in New York City; he grew up on the Upper West Side. In a 2000 profile for The New Yorker (PDF), John Lahr wrote:
When he arrived from Berlin, at the age of seven, he was totally bald; he’d been permanently denuded of all body hair at the age of four, a reaction to a defective whooping-cough vaccine. He knew just two English sentences. “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.” He’d lost his homeland, his language, his class pedigree, and, by the age of twelve, he was would also lose his father. “I was a zero,” Nicholas says now. He adds, “In every way that mattered, I was powerless.” Nichols sought something to counteract his paralyzing sense of inadequacy and to disarm a world that he saw, and still sees, as predatory and cruel. “The most useful thing is if your enemy doesn’t know he’s you enemy,” Nicholas told me, setting out the rule of dissimulation by which, over the years, he has kept the world in his thrall. “Never let people see what you want, because they will not let you have it. Never let anybody see what you feel, because it gives them too much power. You’re probably better off not showing weakness when you can avoid it, because they’ll go for you.” With its aspects of detachment, generosity, and control, the imperial posture has served him well.
Nichols is survived by Sawyer, his wife of 26 years; three children; and four grandchildren. He had most recently been working on an adaptation of Terrence McNally's Master Class with frequent collaborator Meryl Streep as Maria Callas for HBO.
A clip from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
The pool scene from The Graduate, with Simon & Garfunkel as the soundtrack:
A scene from Heartburn, based on Nora Ephron's memoir:
The trailer for Working Girl, a frothy romantic comedy about a Staten Island girl making good in Manhattan:
The closing scene of Angels in America:
Collaborator Elaine May pays tribute to him during his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony:
Nichols accepting the Tony for Best Director of a Play in 2012 for Death of a Salesman—it wasn't his first time on the stage of the Beacon Theater: