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Mike Nichols, celebrated director, dies at 83

Nov. 6, 1931 – Nov. 19, 2014

NEW YORK – Mike Nichols, one of America’s most celebrated directors, whose long, protean résumé of critic- and crowd-pleasing work earned him adulation both on Broadway and in Hollywood, died Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 83.

His death was announced by James Goldston, the president of ABC News. Nichols was married to the ABC broadcaster Diane Sawyer. A network spokeswoman said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Dryly urbane, Nichols had a gift for communicating with actors and a keen comic timing, which he honed early in his career as half of the popular sketch-comedy team Nichols and May. An immigrant whose work was marked by trenchant perceptions of American culture, he achieved – in films like “The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Carnal Knowledge” and in comedies and dramas on stage – what Orson Welles and Elia Kazan, but few if any other directors have: popular and artistic success in both theater and film.

An almost ritual prize-winner, he was one of only a dozen or so people to have won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy.

His career encompassed an entire era of screen and stage entertainment. On Broadway, where he won an astonishing nine Tonys (including two as a producer), he once had four shows running simultaneously. He directed Neil Simon’s early comedies “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s, the Monty Python musical “Spamalot” four decades later, and nearly another decade after that, an acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

The first time Nichols stepped behind the camera, in 1966, it was to direct Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in an adaptation of Edward Albee’s scabrous stage portrayal of a marriage, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including one for best director. Although he didn’t win then, the film won five.

In 1967, Nichols did win an Oscar for his second film, “The Graduate,” a social satire that lampooned the Eisenhower-era mindset of the West Coast affluent and defined the uncertainty of adulthood for the generation that came of age in the 1960s.

Driven, forceful and, for all his wit and charm, known occasionally to strafe the feelings of cast and crew members, Nichols was prolific – too prolific, according to some critics who thought he sometimes chose his projects haphazardly or took on work simply for money.

But his projects almost always had a high-profile glow, mainly because stars flocked to work with him.

Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Ron Silver, Anne Bancroft, Candice Bergen and Gene Hackman all worked with Nichols more than once.

Nichols was born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, on Nov. 6, 1931. His father, from whom Nichols said he got his sense of humor, was a Jewish doctor from Russia who fled to America to escape the Nazis in 1938.

In 1999, Nichols was honored at Lincoln Center in New York for a lifetime of achievement, and Elaine May, his onetime foil and, after a hiatus, his longtime friend, addressed the crowd and offered an encomium with just enough bite to make it ring true.

“So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared and he writes,” she said. “But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.”

– New York Times

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