Updated: Mike Nichols, Visionary Director of Stage and Screen, Dead at 83

Obituaries   Updated: Mike Nichols, Visionary Director of Stage and Screen, Dead at 83 Mike Nichols, who first as a performer, and then as a successful director of stage and film, cast a long shadow over Broadway and Hollywood for more than 50 years, died Nov. 19. The cause was cardiac arrest. He was 83.
Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Mr. Nichols, whose long career experienced a few dips but no serious lulls, was working right up until the end. He directed hit revivals of Death of a Salesman and Betrayal in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He won a Tony Award for his direction of the former—his eighth Tony for directing. (He won two additional Tonys for producing.) His more recent film was "Charlie Wilson's War" in 2007.

Though his track record with theatre critics and audiences over the past couple decades was checkered (a 2008 revival of The Country Girl flopped), he retained a teflon image as a potential hitmaker of omniscient showbiz savvy and peerless skill—a persona he forged in the 1960s when everything he touched, from Neil Simon plays to the Simon & Garfunkel-soundtracked "The Graduate," seemed to turn into box-office gold.

At one point in early 1967, Mr. Nichols had four hit productions running on Broadway—Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, Murray Schisgal's Luv and the musical The Apple Tree. He had won directing Tonys for all but the last.

During the same time, he had ventured into film, directing the 1966 screen adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in that couple's most famous film pairing. The film was largely well received (though not by the playwright), and was nominated for several Oscars. But Mr. Nichols truly came into his own as a filmmaker with his next project.

"The Graduate," adapted by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry from a novel by Charles Webb, starred an unknown Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a disaffected college graduate who, lacking direction and alienated from the consumer culture of his elders, falls into an affair with an older, predatory woman, Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. By turns moody and absurdly funny, and smartly scored with the self-reflective songs of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, the film struck a chord with young audiences and launched the careers of nearly everyone involved. In the years that followed, Mike Nichols gained a reputation as an adept, intelligent director who could tackle counter-culture themes in a polished style. His next project was an ambitious adaptation of Joseph Heller's anti-war novel "Catch-22," which was shot in Mexico and featured a massive cast. That was followed by "Carnal Knowledge," a study of the sexual attitudes and relationships of two men through the decades that had a European art-film air to it.

Mike Nichols, born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, on Nov. 6, 1931, to parents who escaped Nazi Germany, began his show-business career as a performer. Along with his future stage partner Elaine May, Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris, he became part of the Chicago-based improvisational troupe The Compass Player, which eventually fed members into what became Second City.

By 1957, he and May had teamed up and began touring the nation with an act of partly improvised, satiric sketches that had them inhabiting many characters. May, the braver performer of the two, largely came up with the skit ideas, and Nichols, the budding director, shaped the pieces. They reached Broadway in 1960 with An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

"We were winging it, making it up as we went along," Nichols recalled later. "It never ever crossed our minds that it had any value beyond the moment. It was great to study and learn and work there. We were stunned when we got to New York… Never for a moment did we consider that we would do this for a living. It was just a handy way to make some money until we grew up."

The show was a hit and turned both performers into critical darlings. Critics regarded the act as a watershed moment in American comedy. "Mr. Nichols is slim, blond and unconcerned, possessed of a freezing, fading smile; Miss May is hopeful and vulnerable, the eager epitome of virginal insecurity," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan. "Together, they work like cat and mouse." The show ran nearly a year, and would influence future comics such as Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

After it ended, the duo split, though they were at the height of their fame. Mr. Nichols' acting career effectively came to an end in 1962 when May's play A Matter of Position, in which he starred, closed in Philadelphia. (He returned to acting three decades later in the premiere of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner in London, as well as the subsequent film.)

Mike Nichols began his Broadway directing career in the most auspicious manner possible, by directing Simon's romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park to a four-year run. "Mr. Nichols has directed the play with a knowing verve that understands how to whip up bizarre truths out of the least likely ingredients," wrote critic John Simon.

Further hits followed, making him the hottest director on Broadway, with a reputation for stagework that was inventive and clever (sometimes, according to his detractors, clever to a fault). He ended the decade staging a revival of The Little Foxes at Lincoln Center and Neil Simon's Plaza Suite (another hit), and also found time to direct The Knack, an Off-Broadway success, in 1964.

By the late '60s, Mr. Nichols was what writer William Goldman termed in his book "The Season," "a culture hero." "It's not just success that is increasing for Nichols—it's everything. He is not a director any more: he is a star… He is, while still in his middle thirties, becoming legend." To a certain extent, he would remain thus throughout his life.

Following Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue, he ventured into more serious fare, director David Rabe's Streamers and Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians with success. In 1977, he donned the hat of producer, almost single-handedly saving the aborning musical Annie from the scrapheap by agreeing to back it.

"His relationship to the project validated it in the eyes of the grownup theatregoer," recalled Annie librettist Thomas Meehan. "It also got us a Broadway theatre. And it got us the last bit of capitalization."

Mr. Nichols' career stumbled a bit in the late '70s. After the failure of the Jack Nicholson-Warren Beatty film "The Fortune" in 1975, he didn't direct another movie for eight years. On Broadway, he did well with the two-hander The Gin Game, but didn't score with Jean Kerr's The Lunch Hour or Simon's Fools.

By the early '80s, he had regained his footing. The 1983 film "Silkwood," based on the story of Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker who tried to expose worker safety violations at her plant, was a critical hit, and thought to be his most serious work to date. The following year, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing became a success under his direction. Another critical and popular hit, David Rabe's Hurlyburly, followed.

All three of these production amply displayed Mr. Nichols' knack for attracting the best acting talent for both movie and stage projects, including Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver, Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. In 1984, he single-handedly created Whoopi Goldberg's career by producing her solo show on Broadway. A 1988 production of Waiting for Godot, starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin, however, was thought to be self-serving and disrespectful of the text. It, too, though, was popular with audiences.

Following a long break from stage directing, he returned in triumph in 2005 with the Monty Python musical Spamalot. It ran for four years.

Over the years, Mr. Nichols also developed a reputation as a show doctor who was occasionally brought in to advise on developing productions. One notable patch-up job of his was the Tommy Tune musical My One and Only.

On the screen, he scored with the Melanie Griffith comedy "Working Girl" (1988) and the sex farce "The Birdcage" (1996). Less liked by audiences and critics were "Regarding Henry," "Postcards From the Edge," "Wolf," "Closer" and "Primary Colors." And, in general, it was thought that he had lost some of his edge as a filmmaker, both as a stylist and in his selection of material. Late in his career, however, he scored two triumphs on the smaller screen, directing television adaptations of Margaret Edson's Wit and Tony Kushner's Angels in America. He won Emmy Awards for his direction of both.

He was nominated for Academy Awards for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "The Graduate," "Silkwood" and "Working Girl." He won for the second, which remains his best-known movie.

Mike Nichols was married four times. His first wife was Patricia Scott; they were married from 1957 to 1960. He was then married to Margo Callas from 1963 to 1974, producing a daughter, Daisy Nichols. The third union was to Annabel Davis-Goff, whom he divorced in 1986. The couple had two children, Max Nichols and Jenny Nichols. In 1988, he married news anchor Diane Sawyer, who survives him.

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