The director of ''The Graduate'' and ''Silkwood'' leaves behind a legacy of unparalleled versatility

By Keith Staskiewicz
November 28, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

Mike Nichols’ laugh was a thing of pure joy. It bubbled up like a pot boiling over, genuine and as contagious as the chicken pox. You can hear it immortalized on wax (and YouTube) in ”Nichols and May at Work,” the final track of his and Elaine May’s third comedy album. It’s four minutes of the comedy duo riffing and cracking each other up. There’s barely even a setup, let alone a fully formed sketch, but once the rip cord is pulled on that hiccuping guffaw, you’ll find a smile plastered on your face as wide as a crosstown block.

Nichols, an astonishingly versatile master of both stage and screen, died unexpectedly on Nov. 19 of cardiac arrest at the age of 83. Those who knew him are now remembering his exuberant roar, including longtime collaborator Meryl Streep, who recalled him in a statement as ”a director who cried when he laughed.” (Streep was about to work with him again in Master Class, an HBO drama about opera star Maria Callas.) And Emma Thompson said, ”He laughed and cried in equal measure, to excess and always with good reason.” That was something he had in common with his audiences, whom he could make weep and giggle in succession and oftentimes simultaneously. Ever dexterous and multitalented, he was equally comfortable with straight drama (Angels in America, Silkwood) and comedy (The Birdcage, numerous Neil Simon productions). Even more impressive, he had an alchemist’s knack for melding the two in such films as Working Girl, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, and, of course, The Graduate.

He was a strikingly American artist, perhaps because he wasn’t originally from America. Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Nichols and the rest of his German-Jewish family immigrated to the United States with Russian papers. He landed in New York in 1939, knowing only two phrases in English: ”I do not speak English” and ”Please do not kiss me.” Those two notes would eventually balloon into a full orchestration of phraseology marshaled by a double-time wit.

Nichols’ love of the theater came early. When he was a teen, the mother of a girl he was seeing gave him tickets to the original productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, and he was smitten by the stage lights.

After helming two acclaimed Neil Simon theater productions, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, Nichols stepped behind the camera in 1966 with a film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, wrangling the tempestuous relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor into electrifying cinema. The following year, the director avoided the sophomore slump in spectacular fashion with The Graduate. The story of Benjamin Braddock’s existential drift and his affair with Mrs. Robinson bore a tap directly into the zeitgeist in a way that few films manage to do, summing up an entire generation’s aimlessness in a single indelible closing shot. In subsequent decades, Nichols worked at a prodigious pace, directing 20 movies and even more stage productions, each a slightly different creature than the last. Even in his 70s, he could pivot without so much as a sneaker squeak between the steamy, gripping Closer and the supremely silly Spamalot in a single year’s time.

He won nine Tony awards in all (including one for Spamalot), although he seemed to have stopped counting somewhere along the way. ”I don’t remember which ones I got the Tony for,” Nichols told EW in 2012. ”Why would I?” Indeed, to list the prizes he took home would be a formidable task and beside the point. Suffice it to say, his shelves at home were likely groaning. He was a member of the EGOT club — the winner of at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony — a concrete reminder of his peerless range.

Collaboration and improvisation were necessities to him, and he possessed an easy rapport with his actors, many of whom became fast friends and returned time and again to work with him. ”His musings were like pearls, his jokes were timeless and perfectly placed, his stories detailed and wholly entertaining, his warm embrace was where you wanted to live forever,” Julia Roberts said in a statement. ”He was my most cherished friend.” 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, ”except if you can marry Diane, you’ll be in great shape.”

Nichols wasn’t one to commandeer his material, but an expert craftsman who bolstered whatever he tackled. The breadth of his talent by no means precluded its depth. He was still putting out good work right up to the end, telling stories with a vision as clear and delightful as that laugh.