Mike Nichols, a director whose acclaimed film work captured a jaded generation with both deft satire and surprising warmth, has died at the age of 83. The announcement was released through a note handed down from ABC News president James Goldston. (Nichols was married to former ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer for 26 years.) According to Goldston, Nichols “passed away suddenly in the evening.” No cause of death has yet been released.
A German immigrant born Michael Peschkowsky, Nichols’ family fled the Nazis when he was just 7, landing in New York. Nichols not only learned the language (he’d said he knew just two phrases: “I don’t know English” and “Please, don’t kiss me”), he soon became a master of all its capabilities for provocation and wit. At the University of Chicago, Nichols became captivated by the theater, abandoning the family practice by skipping out on his medicine studies to act in plays. Eventually, he left school to return to New York, where he worked with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Not long after that, Nichols was lured back to Chicago to join The Compass Players, a proto-Second City troupe that included members like Shelley Berman, Del Close, and, most importantly, Elaine May. As they honed their sparking interplay, Nichols And May became one of the most popular and enduring comedy duos of theirs or any era, performing successfully in nightclubs, on television, and on Broadway, and releasing several best-selling comedy albums—one of which won them a Grammy.
As a director, Nichols seamlessly transitioned from successful theatrical productions to films with 1966’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play that starred a shockingly unglamorous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Their fiery performances, and Nichols’ deft, tense handling of what is essentially a two-hour argument, captivated audiences and critics alike, and earned the film 13 Oscar nominations—including Best Director for Nichols, on his filmmaking debut. It was an auspicious start to a movie career that would span several decades, leading most immediately to that iconic portrait of aimless Baby Boomers coming of age, The Graduate (where this time he would win that Best Directing Oscar), and other dark comedies that would crystallize those themes of Vietnam-era disaffection, Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22.
Throughout his life, Nichols maintained an unbelievably steady career on stage and screen, and he continued to be one of the most vital directing voices well into the 21st century. His many film credits include such diverse and memorable works as The Day Of The Dolphin, The Fortune, Silkwood, Heartburn, Biloxi Blues, Working Girl, Postcards From The Edge, Regarding Henry, Wolf, Primary Colors, The Birdcage, Closer, and, his final movie, Charlie Wilson’s War. On television, he directed Wit and Angels In America, both of which netted him Emmys—and made him among the rarified few to have won the coveted “EGOT” of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
Most recently, he won his ninth Tony for directing the 2012 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, and he was working on an HBO biopic of opera singer Maria Callas that would star his frequent collaborator Meryl Streep. Nichols was an enormous talent, and one of the most versatile, authoritative, and consistent writers and directors to work in entertainment, in all its most sparkling and lively forms.
We’ll have a more in-depth look at his filmmaking career up later today.