Mike Nichols, who forged an influential path as a comedy star in the 1950s before emerging as a Broadway director and filmmaker of manifold talent, hopscotching from a revered film about nonconformity (“The Graduate”) to slickly commercial projects like “Primary Colors,” died Nov. 19 at his home in New York. He was 83.
The death was confirmed by ABC News, where his wife, Diane Sawyer, has long been a broadcast journalist. His publicist said the cause was cardiac arrest.
In a career spanning more than six decades, Mr. Nichols was one of the few show-business figures to win Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards — the so-called EGOT that established him as a major figure in American cultural life. Early on, he earned the nickname “Midas” for his golden touch, coaxing poignant, rollicking or riveting performances from some of the biggest names on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Before his artistic and critical success as a director, he was a popular comic whose partnership with Elaine May helped create a model for urbane comedy during the Eisenhower era and influenced such future entertainers as Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin.
The Nichols-May send-ups of modern life often centered on uncomfortable encounters, including teenagers in an awkward make-out session, a man hassled by his guilt-inducing Jewish mother, literate satires of Dostoevsky and Pirandello, and comically deficient phone operators (“K as in knife, P as in pneumonia”).
The duo pulled off one of their seminal acts during the 1959 Emmy Awards telecast, when May announced a winner for a new category, “Most Total Mediocrity.”
Gerald Nachman, an authority on comedy history, said Mr. Nichols and May reveled in “pointed social satire and a higher level of intellectualism” than their precursors who mostly extracted laughs from one-liners or physical comedy. The result, he said, was “brilliant little jewels of sketches” that still sound fresh today.
Mr. Nichols and May found enthusiastic audiences in New York nightclubs, then on TV talk shows, and with a Grammy Award-winning concert album, “An Evening With Nichols and May.” At their peak in the early 1960s, they separated, with Mr. Nichols finding almost immediate success as a director of Broadway comedies.
He guided some of Neil Simon’s earliest plays, including “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park,” both of which ran for years. Mr. Nichols continued accumulating Tony Awards later in life, when he directed Tom Stoppard’s social satire “The Real Thing” (1984), the Monty Python farce “Spamalot” (2005) and a revival of Arthur Miller’s tragedy “Death of a Salesman,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman.
In 1966, Mr. Nichols was recruited to Hollywood by his friends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As a novice movie helmsman, he directed them in Edward Albee’s scorching marital drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Made in luscious black-and-white, it won five Oscars but none for Mr. Nichols. It nonetheless introduced him as a wunderkind capable of effortlessly shifting from theater to film.
His next movie outing, “The Graduate” (1967), made a star of Dustin Hoffman, a diminutive, Jewish stage actor who learned to embody a Southern California track star and college graduate. As Benjamin Braddock, he fends off entreaties by well-meaning adults (“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. . . . Plastics.”) and, out of boredom, begins an affair with a married friend of his parents, Mrs. Robinson, while falling in love with her daughter.
“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 told the New Yorker in 2000.
Mr. Nichols won a best-director Oscar and elicited top-notch performances from Hoffman, Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson and Katharine Ross as the daughter who runs off with Braddock to an uncertain new beginning.
With its Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, “The Graduate” became a touchstone of generational alienation in the 1960s. The American Film Institute ranks it No. 7 on its list of 100 best movies ever made.
Mr. Nichols also earned kudos for directing “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), a Jules Feiffer story about two misogynists adrift in the sexual revolution. Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, in a rare acting role, were the stars, but it was a surprisingly bracing performance by the light-comedy and musical actress Ann-Margret.
But Mr. Nichols struggled to maintain his early momentum. The plodding “Catch-22” (1970), based on the Joseph Heller novel, “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973) and “The Fortune” (1975) were all-star duds. Depressed, he took an eight-year leave from moviemaking.
He returned to the camera with such dramas as “Silkwood” (1983), starring Meryl Streep as a whistleblower, and “Heartburn” (1986), with Streep and Nicholson in Nora Ephron’s marital drama. Mr. Nichols became a specialist in middlebrow fare — the sort that film historian and critic David Thomson has described as “really neat, cute, smart ideas that can be grasped in 20 minutes.”
With the exception of the comedy “Working Girl” (1988), with Melanie Griffith as an upwardly mobile secretary and featuring a Carly Simon soundtrack, much of Mr. Nichols’s later feature-film work was undistinguished but for fine performances by the stars.
His portfolio included “Biloxi Blues” (1988), with Matthew Broderick in a World War II boot camp; “Postcards From the Edge” (1990), with Streep and Shirley MacLaine working out a fractured mother-daughter relationship; “Regarding Henry” (1991), with Harrison Ford as a ruthless lawyer who changes after an accident; “The Birdcage” (1996), with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple; “Primary Colors” (1998), with John Travolta as a Clinton-like presidential candidate; and “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), with Tom Hanks as the louche Texas congressman who helped provide arms to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan.
The films, it often was noted, lacked any hallmark visual style. Thematically, he seemed all over the place but returned time and again to stories of sexual and marital rituals. “I think maybe my subject is the relationships between men and women . . . centered around a bed,” he told The Washington Post in 1986.
Even with his best movie work behind him, Mr. Nichols excelled on the small screen. For HBO, he directed adaptations of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Wit” (2001), with Emma Thompson as a caustic professor diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning “Angels in America” (2003), about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
Both TV films earned Mr. Nichols the Emmy for outstanding directing in a miniseries, movie or a dramatic special.
Michael Igor Peschkowsky was born in Berlin on Nov. 6, 1931. His father was aphysician of Russian Jewish ancestry, and his mother was the daughter of German Jewish intellectuals. During the Nazi rise, his father left for New York, established a medical practice and Anglicized his patronymic name, Nicholaiyevitch, to Nichols.
Mike Nichols was 7 when he and a younger brother left for New York on a ship; their mother was delayed from illness and came later. At first, he knew only two phrases in English: “I do not speak English,” and “Do not kiss me.”
His social isolation began much earlier, when at 4 he lost his hair because of a bad reaction to awhooping-cough vaccine. “Everyone who went to school with me remembers,” he later told the New York Times. “I was that little bald kid.” He wore a blond toupee for much of his life.
He was 12 when his father died from leukemia. A voracious reader, Mr. Nichols earned scholarships to private schools. In 1950, he entered the University of Chicago with the intent of studying psychiatry while dabbling in student theater. He met an equally neurotic fellow student with an even more mordant wit, Elaine May, whose father was an actor in Yiddish theater.
He struck up a friendship by trying to make conversation in the voice of a mysterious foreign agent. She instantly played along.
Nichols: “May I seeet down, plis?”
May: “If you veesh.”
Mr. Nichols left college and, after studying with the acting teacher Lee Strasberg, joined the Compass Players, an improvisational theater group in Chicago that included May. It would later morph into the Second City troupe, whose alumni filled the roster of many “Saturday Night Live” casts.
After two years, Mr. Nichols and May went out on their own, a run that culminated in their 1960 Broadway appearance in “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” directed by Arthur Penn.
Mr. Nichols and May remained friends after they ended their partnership and continued to collaborate intermittently over the decades; she wrote the “Primary Colors” screenplay.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nichols reinvented himself as a director of comic plays, which led to his work on Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” Starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley as quarreling newlyweds, the show ran from 1963 to 1966 and brought Mr. Nichols his first Tony Award for directing.
Mr. Nichols became the most vaunted director on Broadway, winning two more Tony Awards in as many years for Murray Schisgal’s “Luv” (1964) and Simon’s “The Odd Couple” (1965), the latter about bickering middle-aged apartment-mates.
It often was Mr. Nichols’s deft touch with staging that made the most of the comedy. He once pointed to a critical scene in “Luv,” which featured Anne Jackson and Alan Arkin on a park bench discussing their failing marriage.
The reading fell flat, until Mr. Nichols suggested the scene would be better if Arkin sat on Jackson’s lap. The decision set the tone for the rest of the play, which ran for three years.
Mr. Nichols’s other Broadway directing credits showed astonishing versatility. They included the Simon plays “Plaza Suite” (1968) and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971); a 1973 revival of the Anton Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya”; D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” (1977), starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn as an elderly couple; such political dramas as David Rabe’s “Streamers” (1976) and Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” (1992); and Whoopi Goldberg’s self-titled one-woman show (1984), which brought her to wide attention.
Along the way, he shared a Tony for co-producing the hit musical “Annie” (1977) and helped produce the popular ABC drama “Family,” which aired from 1976 to 1980.
By the end of his career, Mr. Nichols received some of the highest accolades in show business, including a National Medal of Arts in 2001 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003.
His marriages to Patricia Scott, Margot Callas and novelist Annabel Davis-Goff ended in divorce. He wed Sawyer in 1988. Besides his wife, survivors include a daughter from his second marriage; two children from his third marriage; a brother; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Nichols once told the Times that all the plays and films he directed were about the comedy and tragedy that grow out of self-delusion, which he believed to be a universal trait.
“Life is hopeless — but it isn’t,” he said. “Love is fleeting — but eternal. Our personal lives are everything — but we are unimportant.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Ann-Margret won an Academy Award for his role in “Carnal Knowledge.” She was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress.