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Obituary: Mike Nichols, film and theatre director

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Here's to you: French actress-dancer Leslie Caron presents the Oscar for best director for the movie ‘The Graduate’ to Mike Nichols at the 1967 Academy Awards. Photo: AP

Here's to you: French actress-dancer Leslie Caron presents the Oscar for best director for the movie ‘The Graduate’ to Mike Nichols at the 1967 Academy Awards. Photo: AP

AP

Here's to you: French actress-dancer Leslie Caron presents the Oscar for best director for the movie ‘The Graduate’ to Mike Nichols at the 1967 Academy Awards. Photo: AP

Mike Nichols, who has died aged 83, was a Broadway and Hollywood director popularly supposed to possess the Midas touch thanks to an early stream of critical and commercial hits.

He won nine Tony awards for his work in the legitimate theatre and an Oscar for his second film, The Graduate (1967), which introduced Dustin Hoffman to the screen and became a landmark of the new permissive cinema of the 60s. In his younger days, he was also a performer.

While acknowledging Ingmar Bergman and Jean Renoir as artists of the cinema, Nichols placed himself in an altogether lower category. "The rest of us", he said, "make entertainment. And that's an absolutely honourable profession." He saw no consistency in his work between one production and another and discouraged attempts to find one.

Michael Igor Peschkowsky was born in Berlin on November 6 1931, the son of a Russian-Jewish doctor who had emigrated to Germany after the revolution. His grandparents on his mother's side were Hedwig Lachmann, who wrote the German libretto for Richard Strauss's opera Salome, and Gustav Lachmann, leader of the German Social Democrat party, who was murdered by the Nazis.

In 1938, Nichols's father emigrated to the United States, obtained American medical qualifications and set up in practice as a GP in Manhattan under the name Paul Nichols, formed out of his Russian patronymic Nicholaievitch. His two sons followed him in 1939 and his wife two years later.

They lived near Central Park, and the young Mike Nichols attended a series of upper-class schools. He was stage-struck from a young age but his teachers advised against a theatrical career. From Walden High he graduated to New York University but dropped out and, after a period as a shipping clerk, enrolled in 1950 at the University of Chicago, where he studied Psychiatry.

His father having died, leaving the family hard-pressed, Mike worked his way through college in a number of part-time jobs. He also took part in campus theatrical activities, making his debut as a director with a production of Yeats's Purgatory.

In 1954, Nichols returned to New York and joined the Actors Studio, home of the Method. To pay for his tuition, he taught horseback riding, became a disc jockey and was a waiter at a Howard Johnson's diner. He was fired from this last job, however, when a difficult customer asked him to recommend an ice cream to accompany his hot fudge sundae and Nichols suggested "chicken flavour".

In 1955 he signed on with the Compass Theatre in Chicago, an improvisational group including Alan Arkin, Shelley Berman, Zorah Lampert, Barbara Harris and Elaine May. They performed satirical sketches and cabaret routines which, after the collapse of Compass in 1957, formed the nucleus of the show that became known as An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which reached Broadway in 1960.

Nichols and May became constant companions on and offstage, though the liaison broke up when their careers began to move in different directions. May wanted to write, and the relationship did not survive her unsuccessful 1961 play A Matter of Position, in which Nichols appeared.

After the break with May, Nichols concentrated on direction, initially in Vancouver, and then on Broadway, where he had his first hit with Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (1963), for which he won his first Tony award. A stream of successes followed. He was the hottest director on Broadway, on the strength of which Hollywood beckoned and he signed to make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Warner Bros in 1966.

He seemed to take instantly to the cinema, delivering a high-octane production that attracted a slew of Oscar nominations and five awards, including best actress and best supporting actress for Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis. Taking time out only to stage another Tony-winning Neil Simon comedy on Broadway, Plaza Suite, he plunged into a fully-fledged film career and picked up an Oscar for his own work on The Graduate (1967).

This was one of the most influential films of its time. It launched Dustin Hoffman as a star, cheerfully broke taboos on the depiction of screen sex and came equipped with a Simon and Garfunkel score that became an instant popular classic. It was the high-water mark of Nichols's career.

In keeping with his reputation as a satirist, he was never averse to mocking his Hollywood masters. With the success of The Graduate he could have written his own meal-ticket in Tinseltown. What do you want to do next? the moguls asked; just tell us and we'll sign the cheque. Nichols thought hard and long and finally pronounced. The Green Awning: he wanted to film The Green Awning. What's it about? they asked. Well, it's about a green awning, with nobody underneath. Nothing happens, there's no love interest, no jokes, just the play of light on this green awning. Sounds great, they said: who can we get to play the awning?

Though he had subsequent successes, none matched The Graduate, which grossed more than $50m. His next film was an adaptation of Joseph Heller's cult novel Catch-22 (1970). Critics found the all-star cast, including Jon Voight and Orson Welles, overpowering, inflating what was originally a sardonic novel into something close to slapstick. Audiences were baffled, too, by the title joke (faithfully transposed from Heller's novel).

Nichols had more success with Carnal Knowledge (1971), a title chosen to appeal to young people who had responded to The Graduate. Spanning 30 years, it charted the love lives of two college chums, Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, with diametrically different views of women. Where Nicholson treats them as sex objects, Garfunkel idealises them; and neither, in the long run, is able to forge a lasting relationship.

Alternating with stage work, Nichols continued to make movies. But his next two were flops. For the next eight years, Nichols devoted himself to theatre and television, not returning to the screen until 1983. Silkwood was a critical, though not a commercial, success, based on the true story of factory worker Karen Silkwood, who died after trying to blow the whistle on a nuclear scandal. It was distinguished by Meryl Streep's performance in the title role, confirming that Nichols had not lost his touch with actors.

His more successful films of the 1980s included Heartburn (1986) and Working Girl (1988). The film was popular, thanks largely to Griffith's on-screen romance with Harrison Ford; it secured several Oscar nominations, but an award only for the theme song.

Nichols continued to flourish on the New York stage, his film work, however, showed signs of drift.

His last film was Charlie Wilson's War, a rollicking yarn based on a true story, with a script by Aaron Sorkin, about a US congressman secretly funding Afghan rebels against the Soviets. Tom Hanks played the congressman, Wilson, and Julia Roberts co-starred. The film was well-received by most critics.

At the time of his death Nichols had been working on an adaptation for HBO of the play Master Class about Maria Callas, starring Meryl Streep.

Mike Nichols married, first, the singer Patricia Scott. He married, secondly, Margo Callas and, thirdly, the novelist Annabel Davis Golf. All three marriages, resulting in two daughters and a son, were dissolved. In 1988, he married the broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer, who survives him.

Sunday Independent