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Remembering Mike Nichols, legendary director of sophisticated crowd-pleasers

Mike Nichols, a prolific figure in theater and film, directed numerous American classics, including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate,” a film known for its commentary and influence on American life. Nichols, who arrived in the U.S. at 7 years old after fleeing Nazi Germany, was the winner of an Oscar, a Grammy, 9 Tonys and 4 Emmys. Jeffrey Brown looks back at Nichols' career.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We learned today of the death of a Broadway and Hollywood legend. Producer and director Mike Nichols' career on stage and screen spanned five decades.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look back at his life and work.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mike Nichols was prolific and hugely successful on the big screen, small screen, and on stage.

  • MIKE NICHOLS:

    My greatest pleasure in "The Graduate" was making it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Winner of an Oscar, nine Tony Awards, four Emmys, even a Grammy Award.

    Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday:

  • ANN HORNADAY, Film Critic, The Washington Post:

    He honed a sort of double sensibility. On the one hand, he was extremely sophisticated, very cosmopolitan, maybe even a little bit rarefied. But, on the other hand, he had superb instincts about what pleased an audience.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nichols' own story had its own improbable beginnings. He was born in Germany. His family fled the Nazis. Then he arrived in the U.S. at 7 speaking little English. He would eventually attend medical school at the University of Chicago. But then his life take a turn when he met actress Elaine May, and the two formed a successful comedy duo.

  • ELAINE MAY:

    It is a moral issue.

  • MIKE NICHOLS:

    A moral issue.

  • ELAINE MAY:

    And to me, that is always so much more interesting than a real issue.

  • MIKE NICHOLS:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    His very first film featured the high-powered cast of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in an adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

  • DUSTIN HOFFMAN:

    Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That was followed by "The Graduate," which earned Nichols an Oscar for best director, created scenes that became woven into American life, and brought fame to a then unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman.

    Years later, Hoffman spoke when Nichols was given an AFI lifetime achievement award.

  • DUSTIN HOFFMAN:

    God bless you, sir. You are more than a great director. You're a real artist down to your toes, because you're insanely courageous. You took a chance on me. You should never have done that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Film critic Hornaday says in fact Nichols' sense of casting was yet another way he influenced American film and theater.

  • ANN HORNADAY:

    When he cast Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," he really broke open the whole idea of the classic American leading man.

    Let's not forget, it was the mid-'60s. It was the ascendance of people like Robert Redford, the kind of blond, blue-eyed, uber-wasp, jock, guy next door as the all-American leading man. And here comes Dustin Hoffman, who does not fit that description.

    But, nonetheless, what Nichols recognized was he had great magnetism, as well as superb gifts as an actor.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A string of other successful films followed over the next decades, including, and these show his range, "Carnal Knowledge," "Working Girl," "The Birdcage," and "Closer."

    Nichols talked about his approach to directing in this PBS "American Masters" interview.

  • MIKE NICHOLS:

    Well, I was talking about shooting a scene. I said, what you do is you keep shooting until the thing happens that nobody could've planned and then say, OK, now we can go on. That's the whole — that's what a movie is. Namely, it's the place in which unconsciouses meet both in the making of and in the seeing of. That's what they're for.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the theater, Nichols was equally at home and talented. His first Broadway show, "Barefoot in the Park" in 1964, earned him his first Tony.

    Later efforts included the madcap musical "Monty Python's Spamalot" and an update of the classic Arthur Miller play "Death of a Salesman" just two three ago starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

  • MERYL STREEP:

    You shouldn't talk that way. You should make a better show of yourself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For television, Nichols' work included an acclaimed adaptation of Tony Kushner's epic "Angels in America." It featured Meryl Streep, who'd appeared in numerous Nichols works, on stage and in films, including "Silkwood."

  • MERYL STREEP:

    You have created a quality, an essence that is composed of wit, race, outrage, delight, skepticism, and true love. And in doing so, you have shown us how a person can become essential. You're one of our era's essential artists, Mike.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In an interview for WNYC's "Greene Space" series, Nichols spoke of actors and acting.

  • MIKE NICHOLS:

    It's the most mysterious thing, acting, and the people who can really do it, the thing that characterizes them every time, all of them, is that they won't and can't talk about it. They won't go near it. And who can blame them? Would you? Would I? No, because you're afraid it's going to go away. Stay the hell away from it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nichols, married for more than 25 years to Diane Sawyer of ABC News, was once asked about his favorite works.

  • MIKE NICHOLS:

    I have many. You know, it's sort of like asking about your kids. You know, what's your favorite kid? What's your favorite memory? It's your life. It's what you love. It's what I love as much as, in fact, my family. And I'm very lucky. I feel lucky. That's what I mostly feel.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mike Nichols died of cardiac arrest last night in New York. He was 83 years old.

    "A Conversation with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mike Nichols" from WNYC's The Greene Space series. The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space event footage, courtesy of New York Public Radio.

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