Iconic director Mike Nichols, 83, succumbs to heart attack

Photo of Elaine May, Mike Nichols and Dorothy Loudon as panelists from the TV game show Laugh Line. (Via Wikipedia)

NEW YORK, November 20, 2014 – Legendary comic, actor and director of stage and film productions Mike Nichols (1931-2014) died at his Manhattan home Wednesday evening, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 83.

Meryl Streep was working with Nichols on an adaptation of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play about Maria Callas, for HBO for premiere in early 2015. Upon learning of Nichols’ death, she sent the following statement to Deadline, praising Nichols as:

“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.”

Having first won fame as one-half of the Mike Nichols and Elaine May comedy duo, the one-time improve comic and actor quickly grew into a theater and film director of considerable note, particularly after winning the “Best Director” Oscar for the 1968 satirical film classic, “The Graduate,” which also launched newcomer Dustin Hoffmann’s long career.

Nichols’ storied career almost never happened. Born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin to Russian-Jewish parents, he fled with his father to the United States just in the nick of time in 1939. His mother was soon able to join them.

Settling in New York, his father Paul, a physician, was soon able to establish a successful practice, changed the family name to Nichols.

An indifferent college student, Nichols attended and dropped out of New York University and then the University of Chicago to study medicine in the early 1950s. But, bitten by the theater bug and working part time as a radio announcer, he was constantly distracted from his studies and eventually departed Chicago for New York—but not before meeting his eventual comic partner, Elaine May.

While back in New York, he studied acting under Lee Strasburg, but was drawn back to Chicago in 1955 by an invitation to join the Compass Players comedy troupe, the predecessor to the long-lived Second City troupe that has brought many of its improve players to fame via Saturday Night Live.

Reuniting with Elaine May, the duo created their popular “Mike Nichols and Elaine May” comedy act in 1958. Their success led to a 1960 Broadway show of their own, “An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

Likely due to the usual “creative differences,” Nichols and May split the following year, although they eventually did reconcile professionally, working together from time to time over many years.

For his own part, Nichols evolved toward directing stage plays and eventually films. After hitting the big time with “The Graduate,” he continued his winning streak by directing an incredible array of important films including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Catch 22,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The Birdcage,” and others, including his final stint as a film director, the much-acclaimed “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

He also directed original Broadway productions including “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” and the Monty Python movie sendoff, “Spamalot.”

Still active at 83, Nichols had been working with Streep on adapting Terrence McNally’s popular play, “Master Class,” for HBO. Seen here at the Kennedy Center a couple of seasons back, the play revolves around the real life opera master classes conducted by the recently retired opera legend, Maria Callas.

Nichols was married to longtime TV newscaster Diane Sawyer, currently working for ABC News. Upon learning of Nichols’ death, ABC News President James Goldston responded for the network in a formal statement praising the late director as “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.”

In addition to Diane Sawyer, Nichols is survived by children Daisy, Max and Jenny, as well as four grandchildren. Final arrangements have not yet been made public.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17