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Movie News: Oscar-Winning Director Mike Nichols Dies at 83

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NEW YORK CITY – He was an immigrant kid from Germany who directed the most American of stage plays and films. Mike Nichols uplifted the culture with his art, and along the way won the famed EGOT – Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Nichols passed away suddenly at his home. He was 83.

Nichols brought the Chicago improvisation sensibility to his work – he was part of the original Compass Players of the University of Chicago, the group that morphed into The Second City. He achieved Beatle-like fame in the early 1960s with his comedy act Nichols and May, paired with Elaine May. But his destiny was behind the camera, and after making a huge splash on Broadway, conquered the film world with the one-two triumphs of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the classic “The Graduate.”

Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols in a Recent Photo
Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky was Nichols birth name, born in Berlin in 1931, after his family fled Russia after the Revolution there. His Jewish family fared no better in Germany during Hitler’s uprise, and they emigrated to New York City in 1939. It was his physician father who changed the family name to Nichols, and his son settled into his new country – naturalized in the 1940s, and attending college at the University of Chicago in 1950, studying pre-med.

Nichols never really adapted to medicine, and would skip classes to do theatrical activities. It was during one of his performances that he met Elaine May, who criticized his acting upon meeting him. Determined, he did some work at the Actors Studio in New York, before coming back to Chicago to help form The Compass Players, which also included May, comedian Shelley Berman and Second City legend Del Close. Nichols and May formed their comic duo in 1958, and exploded when their comedy act was a sensation on Broadway in 1960, and a recording of their routines won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album. Although they seemed like the perfect comic pair, tensions forced a breakup at the height of their fame in 1961. Elaine May would later write screenplays for the Nichols-directed films “The Birdcage” and “Primary Colors.”

Elaine May, Mike Nichols
Nichols and May: Elaine May and Mike Nichols in an Undated Photo
Photo credit: File photo

Nichols turned to directing, first on stage with the huge Neil Simon hit, “Barefoot in the Park” in 1963. He followed that up with the first stage version of “The Odd Couple,” and Hollywood took notice. While developing “The Graduate,” he made his film debut with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – and garnered his first Oscar nomination. He followed that up with the counterculture classic “The Graduate,” and won the trophy for Best Director.

After those triumphs, he mixed stage and screen for the rest of his directing career, guiding Broadway productions of “The Apple Tree,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” “The Real Thing” and “Spamalot.” His films included “Catch-22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Silkwood,” “Postcards from the Edge” and the spectacular HBO adaptation of “Angels in America.” He won two Emmys, a Grammy, an Oscar and seven Tony awards for Best Direction.

Nichols was married four times, lastly to ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. He is survived by three children. He died suddenly of cardiac arrest on Wednesday, November 19th.

Nichols was a quote machine, here are some of his best. On acting…”All the theories that acting is reacting to imaginary circumstances as though they are real, and directing is turning psychology into behavior, those are all stabs at something that can’t be taught. All the great actors can’t talk about what they do, and they don’t want to begin to talk about it. They just do it.” On laughs…”The whole point about laughter is that it’s like mercury – you can’t catch it, you can’t catch what motivates it – that’s why it’s funny.” On Chicago…”Chicago is not a fashionable place. Nobody says, ‘oh you’ve come to see the fabulous people.’ Nobody cares.” And finally, on Life…”The only safe thing is to take a chance.”

Sources for this article from CNN.com, Wikipedia and BrainyQuote. Mike Nichols, 1931-2014.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Writer, Editorial Coordinator
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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