HUMANITAS Mourns Loss of Winner Mike Nichols


mike-nichols-mainMike 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 on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 83.

His death was announced by James Goldston, the president of ABC News. Mr. Nichols was married to the ABC broadcaster Diane Sawyer. A network spokeswoman said the cause was cardiac arrest, giving no other details.

Dryly urbane, Mr. 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 film and theater.

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 zany Monty Python musical, “Spamalot,” four decades later; and, nearly a decade after that, an acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s bruising masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman.”

In June 2012, at age 80, he accepted the Tony for directing “Salesman.” When his name was announced at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the neighborhood where he grew up, he kissed Ms. Sawyer, stepped to the stage and recalled that he once won a pie-eating contest in that very theater.

“It was nice, but this is nicer,” he said. “You see before you a happy man.”

From 1968 to 2000 his work included revivals of classics like Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes”; astringent dramas tied to world affairs like “Streamers,” David Rabe’s tale of soldiers preparing to be shipped out to Vietnam, and Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden,” about the revenge of a former political prisoner; incisive social commentaries like “The Real Thing,” by Tom Stoppard, and “Comedians,” by Trevor Griffiths; and comedies, by turns acid (Mr. Rabe’s “Hurlyburly”), sentimental (“The Gin Game,” by D. L. Coburn), dark (Mr. Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue”) and light (his “Plaza Suite,” a tripartite work that goes from melancholy to loopy to slapstick).

In 1984, as a producer, Mr. Nichols brought a talented monologuist to Broadway, supervising the one-woman show — it was called, simply, “Whoopi Goldberg” — that propelled her to fame. Alone or with the company he founded, Icarus Productions, he produced a number of well-known shows, including the musical “Annie,” from which he earned a fortune (and a Tony); “The Real Thing” (another Tony); and Jules Feiffer’s play “Grown Ups.”

Conquering Hollywood

The first time Mr. 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. Though he didn’t win, the film won five.

Mr. Nichols did win an Oscar for his second film, “The Graduate” (1967). A social satire that lampooned the Eisenhower-era mind-set of the West Coast affluent and defined the uncertainty of adulthood for the generation that came of age in the 1960s, the film anticipated the antiheroism of many movies to come.

The film also made a star of an unknown actor, Dustin Hoffman, who was nearly 30 when he played Benjamin Braddock, the 21-year-old protagonist, a Southern Californian and a track star who sleeps with the wife of his father’s best friend and then falls in love with her daughter. A small, dark, Jewish New York stage actor (though he was born and raised in Los Angeles), Mr. Hoffman was an odd choice for the all-American suburban boy whose seemingly prescribed life path has gone awry.

“There is no piece of casting in the 20th century that I know of that is more courageous than putting me in that part,” Mr. Hoffman said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2000.

By the end of Mr. Nichols’s career, he was bravely casting the star Hoffman of a different generation — Philip Seymour — with whom Mr. Nichols made the political film “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) and, later, more provocatively, the Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman.” He cast Hoffman, then 44, to play Miller’s tragic American in defeat, Willy Loman, a man in his 60s. In addition to Mr. Nichols’s Tony Award for directing, the play won for best revival.

He had also turned his attention to television, winning Emmy Awards for directing adaptations of two celebrated plays for HBO: Margaret Edson’s “Wit” (2001), about a woman dying of cancer, and Tony Kushner’s AIDS drama, “Angels in America” (2003).

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

Not every project was a winner; he had a number of duds, and for periods — part of the 1970s, when he made the science-fiction thriller “The Day of the Dolphin” and a comedy about bumbling hustlers, “The Fortune”; and the late ’80s and early ’90s, when his work included “Regarding Henry,” a sappy tale about a hard-driven lawyer who learns the true meaning of life as he recovers from a shooting, and “Wolf,” the macabre tale of a book editor (Jack Nicholson) who turns into a werewolf — his career lost a bit of luster.

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

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UncategorizedJosh Neimark