Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy loved Mike Nichols. So did Hollywood’s brightest stars—not least because the director orchestrated “periods of hilarity that I am surprised I survived,” says Emma Thompson (Primary Colors, Wit, Angels in America). Nichols, 83, who died Nov. 19 of cardiac arrest, was simply “the funniest man on the face of the earth” in the eyes of his wife, Diane Sawyer. Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, he came to America when his Jewish parents fled Hitler. He learned English in New York cinemas and became famous in the ’60s for a comedy act with Elaine May. But it was as a film director, starting with 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that he was best known. His upcoming project was to be Master Class with old pal Meryl Streep. To the end he lived by his words: “The only safe thing is to take a chance.”
Nichols, says Meryl Streep (with him and costar Cher), was “an inspiration and joy to know, a director who cried when he laughed, a friend without whom, well, we can’t imagine our world, an indelible, irreplaceable man.”
NICHOLS & MAY, 1960
“We found the same things funny,” May told Vanity Fair in 2013. They became a comedy duo—and the toast of Broadway—after an impromptu chat in a train station in which they pretended to be Russian spies.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, 1966
In his diaries Richard Burton admitted he envied how women adored Nichols, who was then dating Mia Farrow. The first-time movie director led Elizabeth Taylor to an Oscar in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s famed play.
THE GRADUATE, 1967
Nichols cast 29-year-old unknown Dustin Hoffman as disillusioned Benjamin Braddock, a move the star calls “insanely courageous.” His director won the Oscar—and the film became a classic.
WORKING GIRL, 1988
Working with his friend Nichols “wasn’t really like work,” said Harrison Ford, who teamed with Melanie Griffith in the beloved romantic comedy.
THE BIRDCAGE, 1996
Nichols paired Nathan Lane with Robin Williams in the box office hit. He had previously directed Williams onstage in Waiting for Godot at N.Y.C.’s Lincoln Center.
CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, 2007
Tom Hanks, who starred in Nichols’s final big-screen feature, says the director “changed the lives of those who knew him, who loved him, who will miss him so.”
“There are so few heroes in our world, so few impeccable craftsmen, so few people who personify unconditional love and friendship,” says Julia Roberts. “[He] was like no other.”
HBO’S ANGELS IN AMERICA, 2003
“Working with him was like going to an eclectic, unorthodox and highly original university,” says Emma Thompson.