Mike Nichols, Director of 'The Graduate,' Dies at 83

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Brigitte Lacombe

"If you have something terrible happen to you, it teaches you to hear what people think," says Nichols. "I actually do hear people think. I can walk into a show I've directed, and in 15 seconds I know how it's going because I hear the audience."

The Oscar and Tony winner and husband of Diane Sawyer also helmed 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' 'The Birdcage,' 'Carnal Knowledge' and many others

Director Mike Nichols, who made such films as The Graduate, which earned him a best director Oscar, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has died. He was 83.

He was married to ABC News veteran Diane Sawyer and was hugely successful on Broadway as well. Notably, he was one of only a dozen people to have won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award.

See more Mike Nichols' Life and Career in Pictures

James Goldston, president of ABC News, shared the news of his death with his staff in a note on Thursday morning. The U.S. director, who was born in Germany under the name Michael Igor Peschkowsky, died of cardiac arrest, according to an ABC News representative.

"I am writing with the very sad news that Diane's husband, the incomparable Mike Nichols, passed away suddenly on Wednesday evening," Goldston's note read.

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"In a triumphant career that spanned over six decades, Mike created some of the most iconic works of American film, television and theater — an astonishing canon ranging from The Graduate, Working Girl and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Closer, Charlie Wilson's War, Annie, Spamalot, The Birdcage and Angels in America," Goldston wrote. "He was 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."

The family will hold a small, private service this week, with a memorial to be held later.

Read more Critic's Notebook: Todd McCarthy Reflects on the Film Career of Mike Nichols

In 1968, Nichols won the directing Oscar for The Graduate, followed in 1977 by the Tony for best musical for Annie. He also captured best director Tony honors for Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972), Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing (1984) and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (2012) and a best musical direction Tony for the Monty Python-inspired Spamalot (2005). One of his Emmy wins came in 2001 for HBO's Wit in the outstanding TV movie category.

In addition to a best director Golden Globe honor for Graduate and a couple of DGA and PGA awards, he also won best film BAFTA honors for Graduate and Virginia Woolf and a best direction BAFTA for Graduate. He received the AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

Read more Director Mike Nichols on His 60-Year Career: 'Trouble Always Seemed Glamorous

"No one was more passionate about his craft than Mike," Goldston wrote. "He had recently been immersed in a new project for HBO to adapt Master Class, Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play about opera legend Maria Callas. The project reunited him with Meryl Streep, one of his most frequent collaborators. She once said of Mike, 'no explanation of our world could be complete and no account or image of it so rich, if we didn't have you,' in hailing him as one of the essential artists of our time.

"Playwright Tom Stoppard, said, 'He is a giver. He's good at comfort and joy. He's good at improving the shining hour and brightening the dark one, and, of course, he's superlative fun. …To me he is the best of America.' "

Nichols and his parents fled Nazi Germany and came to the U.S. when he was 7. He went to school in New York and studied at the University of Chicago. He initially focused on medicine but ended up in a comedy group, Playwright's Theatre, which would become the improvisational group the Compass Players (a precursor to Chicago's Second City).

By 1958, Nichols and fellow Compass Player Elaine May were performing in New York clubs like the Village Vanguard and on television's The Steve Allen Show. The height of their success came with An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, a 1960 Broadway hit directed by Arthur Penn, and the album of that show won a Grammy for best comedy performance.

The Graduate, which earned seven Oscar nominations in all, was based on Charles Webb's 1963 novel of the same name. The protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, is a WASP from Boston.

Nichols, just off directing Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley on Broadway in Simon's Barefoot in the Park (he also directed the original production of Simon's The Odd Couple), thought that Dustin Hoffman should handle the lead. The actor wasn't so sure.

"I said to Nichols, 'I don't think I am right for the role,' " he said in the 2012 documentary about casting director Marion Dougherty. "[The character in the book] is kind of an Anglo-Saxon, tall, slender, good-looking type.' And he said, 'And you're Jewish.' I said, 'That's right, short and Jewish.' And he said, 'Well, inside, Benjamin Braddock is short and Jewish.' "

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, was his second feature, and he earned an Oscar nomination for it. (His other Academy Award directing noms came for Silkwood (1983) and Working Girl (1988), and he earned a best picture nom for co-producing 1993's The Remains of the Day.)

Nichols' outstanding body of work also includes Catch-22 (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), The Day of the Dolphin (1973), The Fortune (1975), Heartburn (1986), Postcards From the Edge (1990), Primary Colors (1998) and What Planet Are You From? (2000).

He also directed the acclaimed 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, for which he won two Emmys.

"It's always worth remembering that Nichols … for all his modernity and urban cool, is the last of the pre-World War II German-speaking immigrants to come to work in the American film industry, having escaped in the nick of time in April 1939," THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy wrote in 2012. "In this sense, as well as for his flair with insinuating humor and an abiding interest in what goes on behind closed doors, he is the last filmmaker in the line most illustriously defined by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder."

For Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Nichols hired an inexperienced Haskell Wexler to do the cinematography for the adaptation of Edward Albee's dark stage masterpiece. At one point, Wexler recalled in an interview, Nichols told him, "I think it's too dark."

"So I did increase fill light a little bit," Wexler said, who won an Oscar for his work on the drama. "After the film, Mike Nichols gave me a photograph in this silver frame, but there was nothing in the photograph. The photograph was all black in this silver frame. And he wrote, 'It's too dark, Haskell.' "

"Mike had a sparkling wit and a brilliant mind," Goldston said. "Beloved by so many in film, television and Broadway, there was no greater joy in his life than his family, and of course our own Diane Sawyer. A true and beautiful love story, Mike and Diane were married for 26 years. He leaves behind three children — Daisy, Max and Jenny — and four wonderful grandchildren."

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai