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Note: The audio in this story incorrectly identified the actor in a scene from "The Birdcage." It was Luca Tommassini, not Hank Azaria. We apologize the error.
One of the most honored and successful directors in entertainment has died. Mike Nichols, director of "The Odd Couple" on Broadway, "The Graduate" on film and "Angels in America" on TV, died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 83. He once said his life as the ultimate showbiz insider came from lessons learned while growing up as an outsider.
Mike Nichols pulled unforgettable, landmark performances from some of Hollywood's most accomplished actors. In 1966, he delivered Elizabeth Taylor as a sharp-tongued wife tearing into Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
By 1986, he showcased Meryl Streep slowly unraveling as she talked about her philandering husband in Heartburn.
And 1967's "The Graduate" featured Dustin Hoffman in his breakout role, playing a bewildered twentysomething about to begin an unwise affair with an older, married woman.
Nichols was a master at pushing talents like Hoffman and Streep to unexpected places. Their confused characters often highlighted thorny issues in modern life. In "The Graduate," Hoffman became a symbol of baby boomers' uncertainty in a changing world, suffering through useless advice from clueless elders.
"I immediately realized that all this time I thought I was thinking about acting, I was really thinking about directing."Mike Nichols in 2012
But Nichols shrugged off credit for leading actors to great performances. "You can’t direct actors very much in a movie, because if you tell them what to do, they'll be doing what you told them. What’s interesting in a movie is something happening that nobody planned," he said in a 1990 interview for the Museum of the Moving Image.
Nichols understood American culture as only someone born outside the U.S. really could. He was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Germany, the son of a Russian Jew. He fled the Nazis in 1939 at age 7. His physician father died a few years later, leaving a wife and two sons to struggle in New York City.
"The thing about being an outsider, no matter what, is that there's a good part, which is that it teaches you to hear what people are thinking," Nichols told NPR in 2012. "I learned to hear what people are thinking, quite literally, I think it stood me in good stead. It's probably why I'm in the theater, because I can hear an audience... I could hear an audience thinking when I was in front of them."
That skill at "reading" audiences was crucial when he turned from medical studies to theater in college. By the late 1950s, he had teamed with actress and writer Elaine May to create the improvisational comedy duo "Nichols and May." They were all over the TV shows of the day, including The Jack Paar Show.
But performing lost its luster for Nichols, so in 1963, he agreed to direct a play by a TV joke writer. Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" became a blockbuster success. And suddenly, as Nichols told NPR in 2012, he realized directing was the job he was really meant to do.
"To my surprise, where I never quite got how I was gonna be an actor, 'cause I don't think I'm suited to be an actor, I immediately realized that all this time I thought I was thinking about acting, I was really thinking about directing," Nichols explained.
"It’s a wonderful job. It's exploring and excavating and analyzing all at once."Mike Nichols in 2012
You could spend a long afternoon listing all the classic stage, film and TV projects Nichols touched as a director or producer. "The Odd Couple," "Plaza Suite," "Hurlyburly" and "Spamalot" on Broadway; movies like "Carnal Knowledge," "Silkwood," "Working Girl" and "Primary Colors" — along with versions of "Wit" and "Angels in America" for HBO on TV.
At times, Nichols could seem like a showbiz version of "Zelig." He co-produced Broadway's original 1977 version of the hit musical "Annie" and gave Whoopi Goldberg a career in the mid '80s, when he brought her one-woman show to Broadway. So it makes sense Nichols would be one of only 12 artists to become what industry types call an EGOT; someone who's won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
But when Nichols talked about why he loved directing with NPR in 2012, grand honors weren't a big part of the equation.
"It’s a wonderful job. It's exploring and excavating and analyzing all at once. And plays, especially great plays, yield their secrets over a long period of time and that’s the great excitement."
Despite passion for his work and loads of success, Nichols said it took his fourth wife, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, to rescue him from depression in his mid-50s. By 2012, he was predicting his production of "Death of a Salesman," which won him his sixth Tony award, might be his last play.
But a year later, he was back on Broadway, leading a revival of Harold Pinter’s "Betrayal" and he had worked on adapting a version of the Tony-winning play "Master Class" for HBO with Meryl Streep before his death.
He couldn't stay away; his passion for the stage still driving him after more than five decades.
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