November 20, 2014 / 12:21 PM / 3 years ago

Mike Nichols, award-winning American director, dies at 83

(Reuters) - Mike Nichols, a nine-time Tony Award winner on Broadway and the Oscar-winning director of influential films such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "The Graduate," and "Carnal Knowledge," died on Wednesday at age 83.

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

No director had ever moved between Broadway and Hollywood as easily as Nichols, one of the few people to win the 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 Nichols' death in a memo to staff, saying he "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."

In memory of Nichols, marquees on Broadway theaters in New York will be dimmed on Friday evening for one minute.

“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,” actress Meryl Streep said in a statement.

Playwright Tom Stoppard described Nichols as his hero.

"Everyone who was close to Mike has suffered a loss which cannot be repaired, ever. To have been his friend was a blessing. To have worked with him was both a privilege and the best of times," he added.

Actor Tom Hanks said Nichols "changed the lives of those who knew him, who loved him, who will miss him so ..."

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.

Actress Meryl Streep (C) is joined by "Angels in America" director Mike Nichols (R) and fellow cast member Al Pacino backstage at the 56th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, in a September 19, 2004 file photo.Lucy Nicholson/files

In the mid-1960s, Nichols became a directing powerhouse on Broadway with "Barefoot in the Park," the first of what would be a successful relationship with playwright Neil Simon. Later he would stage Simon's "The Odd Couple," "Plaza Suite" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

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

Nichols also made an impact on American cinema with three influential movies in a five-year period.

Slideshow (3 Images)

The first, a 1966 adaption of the Edward Albee play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was nominated for an Oscar in all 13 categories 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 then little-known Dustin Hoffman as an aimless college graduate seduced by Anne Bancroft as an older woman before falling in love with her daughter. Nichols won an Academy Award for his direction and the movie, which became a 1960s cultural touchstone, thanks to several memorable lines and the music of Simon and Garfunkel.

In 1971, Nichols put out "Carnal Knowledge," which created a sensation because of its sexual nature. The manager of a movie 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 commercially unsuccessful and he did not make a feature film from 1975 until 1983, rebounding with "Silkwood," for which he was nominated for another Oscar.

In the second act of his movie career, Nichols 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. 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.

Additional reporting by Patricia Reaney; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Chizu Nomiyama, G Crosse, James Dalgleish and David Gregorio

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