One of the most respected directors of the last 50 years, Mike Nichols, has died. He was 83. A spokeswoman for ABC (where Diane Sawyer, his wife of 26 years, is a correspondent) has revealed the cause of death to be cardiac arrest on Wednesday evening.
Few directors had the breadth of experience and diversity as Mike Nichols. A true renaissance man, Nichols earned the highest honors in film, television, theater and music by winning an Oscar, 4 Emmys, 9 Tonys and a Grammy. That puts him in elite territory of ‘EGOT’ winners that number just 13 in history. He most recently won the Tony for Best Direction of a play, at 80, for the revival of Death of a Salesman in 2012.
Nichols was born in Germany in 1931 to parents who were Russian and German Jews. With his brothers Robert in tow, a seven-year old Nichols fled to the United States to escape the Nazis and eventually met up with his mother and father. The family moved to New York City in 1939 where Nichols’ father Pavel (now Paul) set up a successful medical practice in Manhattan. This allowed Nichols to attend a private school and then NYU, which he promptly dropped out of. Moving to Chicago and enrolling in pre-med at the University of Chicago. That didn’t last long though, as interest in the theater began to absorb his time. It is here that he met Elaine May, who would become an early collaborator. They recorded three comedy albums together and starred on Broadway in An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. The record of that show earned him his first award, a Grammy for Best Comedy Album in 1962.
After splitting off from May, Nichols moved to Vancouver, B.C. where he began his theater directing career with a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. He was beckoned back to Broadway to direct Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, which earned him his first of many Tony wins for Best Direction in 1964. This was followed up by another Broadway smash, The Odd Couple, which earned Nichols another Tony for his direction. Not long after that Hollywood called and wanted him to helm the controversial and racy adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film earned a whopping 13 Oscar nominations, including one for Nichols’ direction. But it was 1967’s The Graduate, only his second film, that brought him film’s highest honor. It was the highest grossing film of the year, was nominated for seven Oscars and won Nichols the third in his EGOT, the Oscar for Best Director. He was also responsible for Dustin Hoffman’s career, whom he cast as Benjamin Braddock, the lead of The Graduate, who was an unconventional choice and an unknown at the time.
Throughout the 70s and 80s Nichols went back and forth from theater to film, earning accolades along the way. After the critical and box office success of Working Girl in 1988, the 90s saw him dig deep into film with Postcards from the Edge (1990) with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine; Regarding Henry (1991) with Harrison Ford; Wolf (1994) with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer; The Birdcage (1996) with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane and Primary Colors (1998) with John Travolta and Emma Thompson. The last two were co-written by his former comedy partner Elaine May.
The 2000s led him to television for the first time and, not surprisingly, with great success again. He won Emmys for his direction of the television movie Wit, with Emma Thompson and the miniseries Angels in America, with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino. Both also earned him Emmys for their production.
Mike Nichols was a force; such diversity, such longevity. He will be sorely missed but his impact will be forever.