Mike Nichols, Who Directed ‘The Graduate’ for Oscar, Dies at 83

Mike Nichols, the director of the Oscar-winning movie “The Graduate” who matched his success on the big screen with Broadway plays such as “Barefoot in the Park” and “Death of a Salesman,” has died. He was 83.

He died suddenly last night, according to an e-mailed statement from James Goldston, president of ABC News. Nichols’s wife, Diane Sawyer, is the former anchor of the network’s nightly news program.

As a director, Nichols won critical praise and audiences that cheered his work for a half-century. As a performer, he and Elaine May had a hit debut on Broadway with skits they largely improvised in 1960. His stage productions won eight Tony awards.

Nichols quit the theater to become a much-sought director of dramas, comedies and musicals. When television beckoned, he won Emmys for staging TV versions of the plays “Wit” in 2001 and ``Angels in America’’ in 2004.

The critic Edmund Wilson wrote in an open letter to Nichols in the New York Review of Books in 1968: “You are something of a theatrical genius with an intelligence and imagination, together with an ability to make them effective, which are excessively rare on Broadway.”

The first movie he directed, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), led to Academy Awards for Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis. “The Graduate,” released in 1967, gave Nichols his Oscar, propelling his career “faster than any director since Orson Welles,” New Yorker magazine critic John Lahr wrote in 2000. The film, about a love triangle between a young college graduate, the wife of his father’s business partner and her daughter, starred Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

Industry Survivor

Nichols’s film career spanned changes in public tastes -- and Hollywood studio bosses -- eclipsing the reigns of such legends as Billy Wilder, John Huston and Frank Capra.

``You want him because you know that he’s going to tell the story better than it was told in the screenplay you bought,’’ director Steven Spielberg said, according to Lahr. “He tends to get actors to give him their finest hours.”

Over his first two decades, Nichols directed about a dozen Broadway hits; half were plays by Neil Simon, starting with ``Barefoot in the Park’’ (1963). He won a Tony Award for “Death of a Salesman” in a 2012 Broadway revival, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Nichols complained that his acclaim and the box-office receipts didn’t provide him enough compensation. Not only had he staged Simon’s biggest hits, Nichols noted, but he rescued “The Sunshine Boys” (1972) from Simon’s scrap pile.

Royalties Shared

Nichols argued for, and won, a share of the author’s royalties and subsidiary rights to works that he directed.

“I wasn’t pleased with giving it to him,” said Simon, who didn’t protest losing the proceeds. “I never worked with anyone in my life -- nor will I ever work with anyone -- as good as Mike Nichols,” adding that he earned far more from “The Sunshine Boys” than he lost.

Aside from this success, Nichols became the first director to earn a $1 million fee with his “Graduate” follow-up, a film adaptation of Joseph Heller’s book ``Catch-22.’’

More ambitious than “The Graduate,” the picture was “either too much, too soon, or wrong place, wrong time,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 2007 appraisal of Nichols’s career. “Carnal Knowledge” (1971) also “fizzled” with audiences, the paper added, though it said the film shone a merciless light on fallout from the era’s sexual revolution.

Early Years

Born as Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin on Nov. 6, 1931, Nichols and his Russian-Jewish family fled Germany in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution.

His father had already left for New York when Nichols, at age 7, and his younger brother Robert sailed for America. His mother was ill and arrived later. As he remarked often, Nichols knew only two sentences in his new language: “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.”

In addition to lacking English, Nichols had lost all his body hair due to a defective whooping-cough vaccine when he arrived. It made him self-conscious throughout childhood and adolescence, he said.

Nichols was an outsider at school, recalls Buck Henry, a classmate who became a scriptwriter for the director. Though Nichols claims he had become “the most popular of the unpopular kids” by high school, he found himself at the University of Chicago. He met the writer Susan Sontag on his first day there and became friends with future actors Ed Asner, Barbara Harris and Shelley Berman as well as directors Paul Sills and Elaine May.

Stage Duo

He and May, members of the Compass Players, seemed born to improvise. They honed their art by asking audiences to suggest lines they improvised on the spot into skits.

Watching the duo, cartoonist Jules Feiffer didn’t dare laugh for fear of missing something.

“Humor was Bob Hope,” Feiffer said. With Nichols and May, “suddenly you felt not just that this is funny but that this is true.”

Their Broadway success led to the team’s breakup -- and helped Nichols turn into a director. Months into their run of 300 performances, May became unhappy as their improvisational comedy morphed into fixed routines.

Nichols, on the other hand, felt that audiences packed their shows nightly to see funny performances, not improvised skits that might fall flat on a given night.

“I wasn’t happy with getting paid a fortune for something and not having tried it out in advance,” he said.

Simon’s Script

Nichols, depressed by their split, went to Chicago and Vancouver, where he was pushed into directing. With nothing better lined up, an agent sent Nichols to Pennsylvania’s Bucks County playhouse to struggle with a new playwright’s script, “Nobody Loves Me.”

The playwright, Neil Simon, feared his play wasn’t funny. Nichols calmed him by saying, “Let’s do it like ’King Lear.’” The play, renamed “Barefoot in the Park,” made Robert Redford a star and ran for 1,530 performances on Broadway.

The play “marked the beginning of what is probably the most successful commercial partnership in twentieth-century American theater,” wrote the New Yorker’s Lahr.

In theater and movies, Nichols turned actors and scriptwriters into co-conspirators. “He appears to defer to you, then in the end he gets exactly what he wants,” said Richard Burton, who played the husband to Taylor’s character in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Nichols said his goal was to match actors with their parts.

“If I can cast the right people and figure out the things they should be doing, they don’t have to do anything but show up,” he said. “Nobody has to act.”

‘Catch-22’ Flop

The New York Review of Books called “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973) “the worst movie ever directed by Mike Nichols.” The director sulked for a decade until ``Silkwood’’ (1983) gave him another hit and Oscar nomination as well as Academy Awards for actors Meryl Streep and Cher.

Nichols also earned critical acclaim with “Working Girl” (1988) and “Primary Colors” (1998).

Nichols married his fourth wife, Diane Sawyer, in 1988. He had a daughter, Daisy, with his second wife, Margo Callas, as well as a son, Max, and a daughter Jenny, from his marriage to Annabel Davis-Goff.

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