Mike Nichols had reasons to fear he would always be the hapless outsider.
He had fled Hitler's Germany as a child and landed in New York knowing only two English phrases. (“Please don't kiss me” was one of them.) Then he struggled through his school years as “that little bald kid” after losing all his body hair in a medical mishap.
From those shaky beginnings, however, Nichols sailed into a remarkable showbiz career. He broke new ground in comedy in the late 1950s as half of the satirical duo Nichols and May before finding his most enduring success as a director of Hollywood and Broadway hits, including classic Neil Simon comedies such as “Barefoot in the Park” and the landmark films “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.”
“On the first day of rehearsal,” he once recalled in the Washington Post about his directing debut with the Simon comedy, “I thought, ‘Well, look at this. Here is what I was meant to do.' I knew instantly that I was home.”
Nichols, whose talents put him in a rarefied group of artists who won all four of the entertainment world's top honors — the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — died after a heart attack Wednesday night at the New York home he shared with his wife, ABC News' Diane Sawyer. He was 83.
His death was announced by James Goldston, president of ABC News.
With May, Nichols created two-person character sketches that deftly ridiculed the neuroses and pretensions of American life during the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras. After their Grammy Award-winning partnership peaked in a 1960-61 Broadway run of “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” the duo parted ways and he changed course.
The Simon comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley as the newlyweds, was a long-running smash hit and earned Nichols his first Tony Award as a director in 1964.
Over the next five decades, he amassed awards, including an Oscar for “The Graduate” and eight Tonys, the last of which was for the 2012 revival of “Death of a Salesman” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Nichols' golden-boy status was assured when he made his filmmaking debut directing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the tempestuous married couple in the 1966 screen adaptation of the Edward Albee play “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The critically acclaimed drama won five Academy Awards, including best actress for Taylor and best supporting actress for Sandy Dennis.
His next film directing effort brought him his first Oscar.
“The Graduate,” the 1967 adaptation of the Charles Webb novel, turned Dustin Hoffman into a star as the directionless upper-middle-class university graduate who has an affair with the unhappily married wife of his father's partner, then falls in love with her college-student daughter.
“Nichols had the smarts to cast Dustin Hoffman in a role that was really meant for Robert Redford, and that paved the way for the revolution in casting that occurred in the '70s whereby actors who were essentially character actors like Hoffman, [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro — the ethnic actors —could become leading men and big movie stars,” said film historian Peter Biskind, whose books include “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.”
The blockbuster hit, which also starred Anne Bancroft as the predatory Mrs. Robinson and Katharine Ross as her daughter Elaine, memorably featured the music of Simon and Garfunkel and added the word “plastics” to the pop-culture lexicon.
It also cemented Nichols' reputation as a movie director in the minds of many critics.
“After ‘Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' even the Hollywood cynics needed relatively little convincing, but with his second film, ‘The Graduate,' Mike Nichols demolishes any lingering doubts that he is a brilliant, imaginative and freewheeling movie director,” the Los Angeles Times' Charles Champlin wrote in his review.
“I do think that Nichols is one of the best directors of that era,” Biskind told The Times in 2012. “He had a bit of an up-and-down movie career, but every director makes flops, and the films that did succeed were so brilliant and so pioneering.”
Nichols' 22 films included “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “Silkwood” (1983), “Working Girl” (1988) and “The Birdcage” (1996). Among his notable failures were “Catch-22” (1970), “The Fortune” (1975) and “What Planet Are You From?” (2000).
His frequent returns to Broadway brought plaudits, including Tonys for Simon's “The Odd Couple” in 1965, “Plaza Suite” in 1968 and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” in 1972; “The Real Thing” in 1984; and the musical “Spamalot” in 2005.
As a producer he shared a Tony in 1977 for best musical “Annie” and in 1984 for best play “The Real Thing.”
In television, Nichols was an executive producer of the 1976-80 dramatic series “Family” and won directing Emmys for the 2001 HBO movie “Wit” and the 2004 HBO miniseries “Angels in America.”
Nichols was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin on Nov. 6, 1931. His physician father was a Russian Jewish emigre. His German Jewish mother was the daughter of Gustav Landauer, a leading theorist on anarchism in Germany, and the poet and translator Hedwig Lachmann.
In 1938, Nichols' father came to the United States, where he planned to establish a new medical practice in New York before sending for his family.
Four months before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, 7-year-old Nichols and his 3-year-old brother, Robert, left their ailing mother behind and sailed to New York, where their father had assumed the name Nichols.
Nichols later remembered seeing a sign in a New York delicatessen in Hebrew and asking his father, “Is that allowed here?”
At school, Nichols' outsider status was compounded by his wearing a cap to cover his bald head, the result of a rare reaction to a whooping cough vaccination that caused him to permanently lose all of his body hair when he was 4.
“I was quietly unhappy,” Nichols, who later wore a wig, recalled of his school days in a 1984 New York Times interview. “I didn't fit.”
Their mother remained in Germany about a year and a half before she escaped and was reunited with her family.
Nichols' father died of leukemia a few years later and his mother had to take on a series of jobs to support them.
He continued his education on scholarships and graduated from the Walden School in Manhattan in 1948. Two years later, he entered the University of Chicago with the intention of taking pre-med courses to become a psychiatrist.
But Nichols, whose interest in theater had been sparked at 16 when he took a date to see Tennessee Williams' landmark “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway, soon gave up the idea of going to medical school and began acting in campus theater productions.
He was appearing in a production of August Strindberg's “Miss Julie” when, as he recalled in a 2000 interview with the New Yorker magazine, he noticed “this evil, hostile girl in the front row staring at me throughout the performance.”
The girl was Elaine May, who was unofficially auditing classes at the university. As a child, she had acted in a traveling Yiddish theater operated by her father, Jack Berlin. She was married for the first time at 16 and had a young daughter who was being raised by her mother in Los Angeles.
Several weeks after Nichols saw May in the audience, their friendship was launched when he spotted her sitting in a Chicago train station waiting room.
He later recalled approaching her and saying in a Central European accent, “May I seet down, plis?”
“If you veesh,” she replied, as they proceeded to improvise a meeting between two spies.
“We had instant rapport,” said Nichols, who had what the New Yorker article termed “a brief romance” with May after their train-station meeting.
After dropping out of the university in 1953, Nichols returned to New York to study method acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Unable to land any acting jobs, he relocated to Chicago in 1955 and joined the newly formed Compass Players, whose charter members included May.
With the Compass Players, a precursor to Second City, “Elaine and I found the whole world of comedy together. ... That is to say, our way of seeing things and doing things meshed,” he said in a 2010 interview with The Times.
One of their memorable sketches, between a rocket scientist and his mother, who fills him with guilt for not calling her, grew out of a phone call Nichols received from his own mother.
“My mother called and said, ‘Michael, this is your mother, do you remember me?'” Nichols recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, can I call you right back?' Then I called Elaine and said, ‘I have a piece for tonight.' I told her the line and she yelled with laughter. That is all we ever said.
“Then we showed up that night and got on the stools and we did the scene as it was. ... That is what happened with Elaine and me. We thought enough alike and differently to have these things happen.”
After moving to New York in late 1957, Nichols and May became overnight sensations performing at the Village Vanguard and on TV's “Omnibus” and the Steve Allen and Jack Paar shows.
Nichols' partnership with May, he later said, provided the foundation for becoming a director.
“I was always saying, ‘Can't you do that faster?' and ‘You're taking too long over this,''' he told the New York Times Magazine in 1984. “She'd fill things. I'd shape them. She had endless capacity for invention. My invention was not endless. But it taught me about beginnings, middles and ends. I had to push the sketch ahead, because I couldn't invent as she could.”
Despite his success, Nichols, prior to the opening of “Death of a Salesman” in 2012, said that he marveled at the assuredness he displayed directing his first plays but he felt “anything but confident” as a director in his 80s.
Directing, he said, “is mystifying. It's a long skid on an icy road, and you do the best you can to stay on the road. ... If you're still here when you come out of the spin, it's a relief. But you've got to have the terror if you're going to do anything worthwhile.”
Nichols' first three wives were Chicago TV personality Patricia Scot, Margo Callas and novelist Annabel Davis-Goff.
He is survived by Sawyer, his wife of 26 years; three children from his previous marriages; and four grandchildren.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writers Steven Zeitchik and Elaine Woo contributed to this report.