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Remembering Mike Nichols, an ever-dexterous director

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MIKE NICHOLS OBIT
Everett Collection

Mike Nichols, a man known for his crackling wit as well as an Oscar-winning director who showed enormous versatility on stage and screen, died on Wednesday, Nov. 19 at age 83.

Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany. His family fled to the United States piecemeal—his father first, followed by Nichols and his brother, then finally their mother. He spent his adolescence in New York and fell into theater while attending the University of Chicago, where he first met Elaine May after she criticized his acting in a play.

Together they formed the comedy duo Nichols and May, appearing on Broadway in 1960 in the indelible An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May. That would be the start of a storied career on the Great White Way, one that would result in eight Tony Awards. The latest came just two years ago, in 2012—more than five decades after his debut—for Nichols’ gut-punch mounting of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Nichols’ work in theater was matched equally by his long list of work in Hollywood. Often, the two trajectories intersected: His first film was a 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s bitter pill of a play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The following year, he directed his most famous work, The Graduate, a generation-defining classic that tapped directly into the zeitgeist in a way few films manage to do.

Nichols’ filmography ballooned in the subsequent decades as he effortlessly hopped from genre to genre. He was known for his ease with actors and ear for dialogue, and was one of the few filmmakers who could successfully blend the comedic with the dramatic—without ending in a muddle. Nichols helmed charming chimeras like Carnal Knowledge and Heartburn, swinging as far to the left of the spectrum as farces like The Birdcage and What Planet Are You From? and as far right as the nuclear issues-drama Silkwood and the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries Angels in America, another play he gently transferred off the stage.

In 1988, he married news anchor Diane Sawyer, with whom he remained until his death. “I don’t know any secrets about what makes a marriage work,” Nichols told EW in 2012, “except if you can marry Diane, you’ll be in great shape.”

Nichols’ dexterity in both form and format ensured him success across fields, granting him entry into the exclusive club-room of EGOT winners—those that have taken home at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Who else could turn on a dime between 2004’s steamy, gripping Closer and 2005’s supremely silly Broadway musical Spamalot—while in his 70s, no less? A firm proponent of improvisation, Nichols allowed actors both on camera and under stage lights to explore texts on their own terms. Likewise, as a director, Nichols always felt that he was feeling along the edges of his material with his fingers—ever willing to jump in and try something new and fresh and, above all, interesting.

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