Filmmaker and Broadway director Mike Nichols, whose movie-making career spanned nearly fifty years, sadly passed away suddenly late yesterday, just a couple weeks after having celebrated his 83rd birthday. He is survived by his wife of 26 years, ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer, as well as three children and four grandchildren.
The news of Nichols’ passing was announced this morning by ABC News President James Goldston, who issued the following statement about Nichols:
“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 in his lifetime. No one was more passionate about his craft than Mike.”
Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931, and he lived there until he and his parents (who were Jewish) fled Germany in 1938, as the Nazi regime was coming into power. He briefly attended New York University before, in 1950, Nichols enrolled in the University of Chicago’s pre-med program. However, he ended up frequently skipping class to participate in theater activities, during which time he befriended such people as Elaine May and Susan Sontag.
That anti-establishment and rebellious attitude, which inspired Nichols to pursue his true passion (the arts) instead of medicine, would go on to define much of his work in both film and the theater over the decades that followed. First, however, Nichols would join the Chicago-based comedy group known as the Compass Players (whose ranks included May) in 1955; their comedy album work was both popular and acclaimed, as it earned the troupe a Grammy in 1962.
Nichols turned to directing the theater beginning in the early 1960s, putting his name on the map by overseeing new productions of such iconic works as The Importance of Being Earnest before he directed Barefoot in the Park – not only his first Neil Simon project, but also a huge success that earned Nichols his first Tony Award for direction. He would win another Tony for directing Simon’s classic play, The Odd Couple, in the mid-1960s, before Nichols made the jump to filmmaking.
Appropriately enough, Nichols made his movie directorial debut in 1966 with a film adaptation of the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which ended up taking home five Oscars (including a win for lead Elizabeth Taylor). A year later, Nichols released The Graduate, the critically-acclaimed dramedy (starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft) that won him a Best Director Oscar; and now, the film is widely considered a definitive portrayal of young adulthood for many people who grew up in the 1960s.
Over the remaining decades of the 20th century, Nichols the filmmaker continued to thumb his nose at authority and the social status quo, whether it was through political farce and satire (Catch-22, Primary Colors), his class privilege critiques starring Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge), and/or his comedies laced with heavy social/cultural commentary (Working Girl, The Birdcage).
Nichols remained true to his theater roots at the same time, by not just continuing to work on Broadway, but also with his play-turned movies such as Biloxi Blues (another Simon play adaptation). This was also the case for him on through to the 2000s, when Nichols called the shots on the well-received HBO TV movie adaptations of such plays as Margaret Edson’s Wit and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (the latter of which won five Golden Globes).
Even over the last ten years of his career, Nichols didn’t lose his edge, as he tackled such projects as an adaptation Patrick Marber’s adult romance play Closer for the big screen (earning Oscar nods for co-leads Clive Owen and Natalie Portman), before he collaborated with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on the true-story based political comedy Charlie Wilson’s War (featuring an Oscar-nominated turn by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).
More recently, Nichols had been planning another HBO TV movie based on the play Master Class, which would’ve reunited him once more with Meryl Streep – who put it best when she once said of Nichols, “No explanation of our world could be complete and no account or image of it so rich, if we didn’t have [him].”
We wish Mike Nichols’ surviving family and friends strength and support in their time of loss.
R.I.P. Mikhail Igor Preschkowsky: November 6th, 1931 – November 19th, 2014.
(Header image via Deadline)