The man behind The Graduate, Annie and Working Girl is survived by his wife, Diane Sawyer

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated November 20, 2014 07:05 AM
Credit: Polaris

Mike Nichols, the prodigious theater, film and TV director-producer and performer, died suddenly on Wednesday, ABC News announced. He was 83.

“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, ABC News president James Goldston said in a statement. Nichols’s wife is ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer.

“No one was more passionate about his craft than Mike,” added Goldston.

Nichols’s impressive five-decade career won him an Oscar, four Emmys, nine Tonys, a Grammy and AFI and Kennedy Center honors, among several other accolades. As he said when he collected his AFI Award, the motto he lived by was, “The only safe thing is to take a chance.”

Nichols started taking those chances in the 1960s and began to guide such enduring efforts as the films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate (Best Director Oscar), Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood and Working Girl, as well as Catch-22, Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge and The Birdcage; the Broadway smashes Annie, Spamalot, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing and Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite, among others; and the Emmy-laden HBO miniseries Angels in America.

He is also the man who helped launch Whoopi Goldberg by presenting her – then unknown – in her own one-woman Broadway show.

These all took place after Nichols dissolved his historic comedic collaboration with his former University of Chicago classmate Elaine May, in which the two brilliant improv artists hilariously skewered such sacrosanct American institutions as the telephone company and the funeral industry – and became household names in the process.

“The greatest thrill is that moment when a thousand people are sitting in the dark, looking at the same scene, and they are all apprehending something that has not been spoken,” Nichols told The New York Times in 2009. “That’s the thrill of it, the miracle – that’s what holds us to movies forever. It’s what we wish we could do in real life. We all see something and understand it together, and nobody has to say a word.”

Lonely Childhood

Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky on Nov. 6, 1931, in Berlin, the son of a Russian doctor who had escaped to the German capital after the Russian revolution, Nichols and his family escaped Hitler in 1939, when the boy was 7.

Arriving in New York, Nichols spoke no English and was completely hairless as a result of a reaction to whooping cough medicine (his condition, like his boyishness, was to remain throughout his life, disguised by artful hairpieces).

His father died when he was 12, and Nichols took refuge at the movies and in the theater, first as a young spectator, then as one of its most gifted participants. Besides the countless awards, Nichols became a very wealthy man, and for many years bred Arabian horses on his 60-acre Connecticut farm. He also lived large, marrying four times and divorcing three.

He is survived by his widow, newswoman Diane Sawyer (they married in 1988), as well as three adult children from his former marriages: Daisy, Max and Jenny, and four grandchildren. This week the family will hold a private service, with a memorial planned for a later date, Goldston said.

About their relationship – and their busy schedules – Sawyer told O magazine in 2010: “We have time in the evening. We cook. It’s like kids, we can’t believe we get to stay up so late and we’ll cook really late. We stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning because we’re talking.”

That’s one thing at which he always excelled. When his name was announced at the 2012 Tony Awards, a frail-looking Nichols kissed Sawyer before taking to the stage of the Beacon Theater to accept his best director award for the revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

“I’ve been here before,” Nichols told the crowd, seemingly in reference to all the Tonys he had won over the decades. But that was not what he meant. Explaining that when he was a child, back when the Beacon was a movie house, he had won a pie-eating contest there, the director recalled with a youthful grin, “That was nice.”

A lifetime later, holding his Tony, the elder statesman of American arts added, “But this is nicer.”

Want more stories like this?

Sign up for our newsletter and other special offers:

Thank you for signing up!