Mike Nichols, the director of matchless versatility who brought fierce wit, caustic social commentary and wicked absurdity to such film, TV and stage hits as The Graduate, Angels in America and Monty Python’s Spamalot, has died. He was 83.
During a career spanning more than 50 years, Nichols, who was married to ABC’s Diane Sawyer, managed to be both an insider and outsider, an occasional White House guest and friend to countless celebrities who was as likely to satirize the elite as he was to mingle with them.
A former stand-up performer who began his career in a groundbreaking comedy duo with Elaine May and whose work brought him an Academy Award, a Grammy and multiple Tony and Emmy honours, Nichols had a remarkable gift for mixing edgy humor and dusky drama.
“No one was more passionate than Mike,” Goldston wrote in an email announcing Nichols’ death.
His 1966 film directing debut Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? unforgettably captured the vicious yet sparkling and sly dialogue of Edward Albee’s play, as a couple — played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — torment each other over deep-seated guilt and resentment.
Angels in America, the 2003 TV miniseries adapted from the stage sensation, blended rich pathos and whimsy in its portrait of people coping with AIDS and looking to the heavens for compassion they found lacking in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America.
Similarly, Nichols’ 2001 TV adaptation of the play Wit packed biting levity within the stark story of a college professor dying of ovarian cancer.
He was a wealthy, educated man who often mocked those just like him, never more memorably than in The Graduate, which shot Dustin Hoffman to fame in the 1967 story of an earnest young man rebelling against his elders’ expectations.
Nichols himself would say that he identified with Hoffman’s awkward, perpetually flustered Benjamin Braddock.
Young people laughed hard when a family friend advised Benjamin that the road to success was paved with “plastics” or at Benjamin’s lament that he felt like life was “some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
At the time, Nichols was “just trying to make a nice little movie,” he recalled in 2005 at a retrospective screening of The Graduate. “It wasn’t until when I saw it all put together that I realized this was something remarkable.”
Nichols won the best-director Oscar for The Graduate, which co-starred Anne Bancroft as an aging temptress pursuing Hoffman, whose character responds with the celebrated line, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”
Not just actors, but great actors, clamoured to work with Nichols, who studied acting with Lee Strasberg and had an empathy that helped bring out the best from the talent he put in front of the camera.
Nichols often collaborated with Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson.
Other stars who worked with Nichols included Al Pacino (Angels in America), Gene Hackman and Robin Williams (The Birdcage), Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl) and Julia Roberts (Closer). In 2007, Nichols brought out Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
Just as he moved easily among stage, screen and television, Nichols fearlessly switched from genre to genre. Onstage, he tackled comedy (The Odd Couple), classics (Uncle Vanya) and musicals (The Apple Tree, Monty Python’s Spamalot, the latter winning him his sixth Tony for directing).
On Broadway, he won nine Tonys, for directing the plays Barefoot in the Park (1964), Luv and The Odd Couple“(1965), Plaza Suite (1968), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972), The Real Thing (1984), and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (2012).
He also won in other categories, for directing the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot (2005), and for producing Annie (1977) and The Real Thing (1984).
“I think a director can make a play happen before your eyes so that you are part of it and it is part of you,” he said. “If you can get it right, there’s no mystery. It’s not about mystery. It’s not even mysterious. It’s about our lives.”
Though known for films with a comic edge, Nichols branched into thrillers with Day of the Dolphin, horror with Wolf, and real-life drama with Silkwood. Along with directing for television, he was an executive producer for the 1970s TV series Family.
Nichols’ golden touch failed him on occasion with such duds as the anti-war satire Catch-22, with Alan Arkin in an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s bestseller, and What Planet Are You From?, an unusually tame comedy for Nichols that starred Garry Shandling and Annette Bening.
Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky on Nov. 6, 1931, in Berlin, Nichols fled Nazi Germany for America at age seven with his family. He recalled to the AP in 1996 that at the time, he could say only two things in English: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.”
He said he fell in love with the power of the stage at age 15, when the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them theatre tickets to the second night of the debut of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando in 1947.
“We were poleaxed, stunned. We didn’t speak to each other. We just sat like two half-unconscious people. It was so shocking. It was so alive. It was so real,” he said. “I’m amazed about our bladders because we never went to the bathroom and it was about 3½ or four hours long.”
Nichols attended the University of Chicago but left to study acting in New York. He returned to Chicago, where he began working with May in the Compass Players, a comedy troupe that later became the Second City.
In the late 1950s, Nichols and May formed a stand-up team at the forefront of a comedy movement that included Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen in satirizing contemporary American life. They won a Grammy in 1961 for best comedy album — An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May — before splitting, partly because May liked to improvise and Nichols preferred set routines.
“People always thought we were making fun of other people when we were in fact making fun of ourselves,” Nichols told the AP in 1997. “We did teenagers in the back seat of the car and people committing adultery. Of course, you’re making fun of yourself. You’re making jokes about yourself. Who can you better observe?”
They reunited in the 1990s, with May writing screenplays for Nichols’ Primary Colors and The Birdcage, adapted from the French farce La Cage aux Folles.
After the break with May, Nichols found his true calling as a director, his early stage work highlighted by Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, each of which earned him Tonys.
Nichols came to be a directing powerhouse on Broadway in the mid-1960s with Barefoot in the Park, the first of what would be a successful relationship with playwright Neil Simon. Later he would do Simon’s The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Time magazine called him “the most in-demand director in the American theatre.”
“I never worked with anyone in my life — nor will I ever work with anyone — as good as Mike Nichols,” Simon told the New Yorker.
Other honours included Oscar nominations for directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Silkwood and Working Girl, a best-picture nomination for producing The Remains of the Day, and a lifetime-achievement award from the Directors Guild of America in 2004.
Never one to analyze his career and look for common themes, Nichols would shrug off questions that sought to link his far-flung body of work.
“What I sort of think about is what Orson Welles told me, which is: Leave it to the other guys, the people whose whole job it is to do that, to make patterns and say what the thread is through your work and where you stand,” Nichols told the AP in 1996. “Let somebody else worry about what it means.”