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Remembering Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

by AFP
Patrick Kovarik—AFP

Patrick Kovarik—AFP

Tributes stream in for The Graduate director after he dies, aged 83.

Tributes poured in Thursday for Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols, the creative force behind countless classic American films and plays including The Graduate, after his death aged 83.

The legendary filmmaker directed nearly two dozen movies in all, among them the timeless Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and lighter fare with a contemporary edge like Working Girl. Nichols is one of the rare figures in American entertainment to have earned an “EGOT,” having been honored with at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award.

“This is a seismic loss,” said fellow director Steven Spielberg. “Mike was a friend, a muse, a mentor, one of America’s all-time greatest film and stage directors, and one of the most generous people I have ever known.”

Nichols was a member of American entertainment royalty, being married for many years to celebrated ABC television news presenter Diane Sawyer. ABC, which announced his death, said Nichols died of cardiac arrest late Wednesday.

Nichols—an immigrant whose work featured incisive takes on American society over several decades—won a best director Oscar in 1968 for The Graduate. He was also awarded seven Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards, and a Grammy in 1961 for Best Comedic Performance with his longtime artistic partner, Elaine May.

Meryl Streep, who worked several times with Nichols, called him “an inspiration and joy to know … a friend without whom, well, we can’t imagine our world, an indelible irreplaceable man.” Paul Simon, who wrote the song “Mrs. Robinson” for The Graduate, said simply: “My dear friend of 47 years. I love and admire Mike Nichols,” while Art Garfunkel told Billboard: “To act for him on camera was to glide on a liquid film of intelligence.”

Tom Hanks, who played the title role in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War, cited one of the director’s own sayings in paying tribute to him. “Forward. We must always move forward. Otherwise what will become of us?” Hanks said, cited by industry journal Variety.

ABC News said the Nichols family would hold a small, private service for him later this week, and a memorial service at a later date.

The son of a Russian doctor who escaped to Germany after the Russian revolution, Nichols started life as Michael Igor Peschkowsky. His family was forced to flee Nazi Germany for the United States in 1939 and settled in New York City when the boy was just seven years old. His early life of hardship—his father died when he was just 12—led Nichols to seek solace in movie theaters, and to pursue a career in the world of entertainment, eventually becoming one of its leading lights.

He first made his name in comedy, teaming up for four years with May to create imaginative two-person skits that inspired generations of improvisational actors who followed them. Nichols and May also helped co-found the Compass Players, a Chicago-based improvisational acting troupe that became the forerunner to the renowned Second City group, which helped launch some of America’s most famous comedians, including John Belushi, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert.

But as gifted as he was in comedy, it was in directing that Nichols found his true calling. In addition to his Oscar win for The Graduate, he was also nominated for Silkwood, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Working Girl. Some of his other films include Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, The Birdcage and Primary Colors.

Nichols’ work on Broadway was just as glittering, with his first Tony coming in 1964 for directing Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park—and the last coming nearly 50 years later, in 2012, for the revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

His vast range included directing the original 2005 Broadway production of the Monty Python stage show Spamalot, which won three Tonys.

The Directors Guild of America earlier this year bestowed upon Nichols its highest honor—its Lifetime Achievement Award. He is one of only 30 directors to have been so honored. “Mike Nichols was a cinematic legend and a one-of-a-kind storyteller,” said DGA head Paris Barclay.

Nichols, who married four times, was wed to Sawyer for the past 26 years. The director is survived by three children and four grandchildren.

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