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Friends recall director Mike Nichols as ‘greatest of the great’

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FILE - Television journalist Diane Sawyer and her husband, film director Mike Nichols, pose together at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' 13th Annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, in this Nov. 1, 1997 file photo taken in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles. ABC News confirms director Mike Nichols and husband of Diane Sawyer died Wednesday Nov. 19, 2014. He was 83. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
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Director Mike Nichols poses next to a poster for his new film 'Closer' as he arrives for the film's premiere in Los Angeles in 2004.
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Al Pacino, left, Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols backstage at the 56th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2004
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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Mike Nichols, a nine-time Tony Award winner on Broadway and the Oscar-winning director of films such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge,” died Nov. 19 at age 83, ABC News said.

The prolific director died of cardiac arrest at his home, his spokeswoman said. A private service for the family will be held this week, followed by a memorial at a future date.

No director ever moved between Broadway and Hollywood as easily as Nichols, and he was one of the few people to win Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards.

Nichols, whose career first blossomed with a comedy partnership with Elaine May in the late 1950s, was married to Diane Sawyer, former anchorwoman of ABC’s “World News Tonight” broadcast. ABC News President James Goldston announced his death in a memo to news staff, saying Nichols “passed away suddenly on Wednesday evening.”

“In a triumphant career that spanned over six decades, Mike created some of the most iconic works of American film, television and theater,” Goldston said. “He was a true visionary.”

Fans and colleagues took to Twitter to express their sorrow.

“Funniest, smartest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all,” actress Mia Farrow tweeted. “Mike Nichols, a truly good man.”

Actor Tony Goldwyn said Nichols was the greatest of the great. “What a gigantic loss!” he added.

Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, where his parents had settled after leaving Russia. He came to the United States at age 7 when his family fled the Nazis in 1939.

He grew up in New York feeling like an outsider because of his limited English and odd appearance — a reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine had caused permanent hair loss. As a University of Chicago student, he fought depression but found like-minded friends such as May.

In the late 1950s, Nichols and May formed a stand-up team at the forefront of a comedy movement that included Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen in satirizing contemporary American life. They won a Grammy in 1961 for best comedy album before splitting, partly because May liked to improvise and Nichols preferred set routines.

Nichols came to be a directing powerhouse on Broadway in the mid-1960s with “Barefoot in the Park,” the first of what would be a successful relationship with playwright Neil Simon. Later, he would do Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” “Plaza Suite” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” and Time magazine called him “the most in-demand director in the American theater.”

“I never worked with anyone in my life — nor will I ever work with anyone — as good as Mike Nichols,” Simon told the New Yorker.

In all, he won best-director Tonys for his four collaborations with Simon, as well as for “Luv” in 1965, “The Real Thing” in 1984, “Spamalot” in 2005 and a revival of “Death of a Salesman” in 2012, and best musical award as a producer of “Annie” in 1977.

Turning to Hollywood

When he was ready to try movies, Nichols made an impact on American cinema with three influential movies in a five-year period.

The first starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a 1966 adaption of the Edward Albee play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” It was nominated for an Oscar in all 13 categories in which it was eligible and won five of them, although Nichols did not take the best director award.

He followed that up a year later with “The Graduate,” starring a little-known Dustin Hoffman as an aimless college graduate seduced by an older woman before falling in love with her daughter. Nichols was rewarded with an Academy Award for his direction, and the movie, thanks to several memorable lines and the music of Simon and Garfunkel, became a ’60s cultural touchstone.

In 1971, Nichols put out “Carnal Knowledge,” which created a sensation because of its sexual nature. The manager of a theater in Georgia was arrested for showing the film and had to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court before being exonerated.

Sometimes Nichols’ movies did go off the road. “Catch-22,” “Day of the Dolphin” and “The Fortune” were generally considered unsuccessful, and he did not make a feature film from 1975 until rebounding with 1983’s “Silkwood,” for which he was nominated for another Oscar.

In the second act of his movie career, he also directed “Heartburn,” Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Regarding Henry,” “The Birdcage,” “Primary Colors,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Working Girl,” which earned him another Oscar nomination.

He won an Emmy in 2001 for “Wit” and another in 2003 for “Angels in America,” a TV miniseries about the AIDS epidemic.

In the mid-1980s, Nichols suffered a psychotic breakdown, which he said was related to a prescription sedative that made him so delusional he thought he had lost all his money.

Despite his urbane, intellectual manner, Nichols once had a reputation as an on-the-set screamer. Meryl Streep told the Hollywood Reporter, “He was always the smartest and most brilliant person in the room — and he could be the meanest, too.”

The actress said that changed after Nichols married Sawyer, his fourth wife.

Nichols had three children from his earlier marriages.

Friends and fans on twitter

Ron Howard: “RIP the Great Mike Nichols — elite member of the pantheon of directors whether stage screen or tv. Any conversation was rich w/wit & wisdom”

Kevin Spacey: “Mike Nichols gave me my start. A mentor, friend, colleague. One of the best observers of life. My thoughts are with Diane & his children.”

Harvey Fierstein: “Mike Nichols — Never heard him sing opera but he had the rest of show biz conquered. Writer, performer, director extraordinaire. A sweetie.”

Norman Lear:“The theater lost a genius in Mike Nichols, and its flag is at half mast.”

Josh Groban:“Mike Nichols was a true visionary. So sad to hear of his passing this morning.”

Jon Tenney: “Mike Nichols. Gave me my Equity card and changed my life. One of the great artists of our time. His profound gifts will be missed by all!”

Pedro Pascal: “Mike Nichols. Have always been in denial that he was mortal. RIP.”

Julianne Moore: “So very sad to hear of Mike Nichols death. A great talent, a wonderful, bright, charming human being.”

Connie Britton: “Thank you Mike Nichols. And here’s to you Mrs. Robinson. RIP”

Mia Farrow: “Funniest, smartest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all. Mike Nichols, a truly good man”

Six facts about director Mike Nichols

Few directors have moved between Broadway and Hollywood as easily as Mike Nichols. Here are six facts about Nichols.

• A bad reaction to a whooping-cough vaccine at age 4 left Nichols permanently hairless, according to New Yorker magazine. Later, he would come to rely on wigs and fake eyebrows.

• Nichols told The New York Times that when he came to the United States from Germany in 1939 at age 7 as Michael Igor Peschkowsky, he knew only two English sentences: “I do not speak English” and “Please, do not kiss me.”

• Nichols met ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer in 1986 in a Paris airport lounge as they waited for a Concorde flight to New York. He said he approached Sawyer and told her that she was his hero, and she responded by saying he was her hero. In 1998, Sawyer became Nichols’ fourth wife.

• Nichols and Buck Henry were boyhood schoolmates in New York. Later, Henry would write the screenplays for Nichols’ movies “The Graduate,” “Catch-22” and “The Day of the Dolphin.”

• When not directing, Nichols often concentrated on breeding prize-winning Arabian horses.

• During a tribute to Nichols at the 2003 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen read Nichols’ “Five Rules for Filmmaking”: 1. The careful application of terror is an important form of communication. 2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for. 3. There’s absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation. 4. If you think there’s good in everybody, you haven’t met everybody. 5. Friends may come and go but enemies will certainly become studio heads.

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