On Tina Fey's wonderfully weird "30 Rock," there was a running joke about how the megalomaniacal star Tracy Jordan (played, somewhat confusingly, by Tracy Morgan), was on the quest for achieving the mythical EGOT, meaning he wanted to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. He wanted to conquer the whole of the entertainment industry. Few have achieved this nearly mythical goal. But director Mike Nichols did. And today, Mike Nichols died suddenly at the age of 83, leaving behind a staggering body of work and, yes, lots and lots of awards.
Nichols was born in Germany in 1931 before immigrating to this country in 1938, when Nazis started arresting Jews in Germany. (He went with his brother and met his father in America; his mother escaped later through Italy.) His father was a doctor in New York City and Nichols lived a tony lifestyle near Central Park. (He also, presumably, got to see lots and lots of plays.) While in college in Chicago he met Elaine May, who would go on to become his near-constant partner, first in comedy (as the duo Nichols and May) and later on a series of theater and film projects. This entire biography is staggering, encompassing beloved Broadway shows, revivals of old timey musicals, feature films, and television projects (including television shows, TV movies and miniseries). Nichols did it all.
But let's focus on his film output for a moment, since this is, after all, Moviefone. This debut feature was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woofl?" Yes, that was his first movie. Based on the Edward Albee play and starring Elizabeth Taylor, George Segal, Richard Burton and Sandy Dennis, it was nominated for 13 Academy Awards (and won 5). The following year he directed "The Graduate," a classic of ennui and sexual anxiety; it won Nichols an Oscar for Best Director. In the next few decades, Nichols had about as varied a career as a single filmmaker could – he made bizarre, high-profile literary adaptations like "Catch-22," strongly political fare like "Silkwood" and "Primary Colors," gut-busting comedies like "Heartburn," "The Birdcage" and the extremely successful "Working Girl," and movies that were just plain weird like "Day of the Dolphin." Anyone who works that prolifically for that long is liable to have some duds, too, and Nichols certainly did, like the saccharine Harrison Ford drama "Regarding Henry" (written by a young J.J. Abrams), the WTF-worthy pseudo-horror film "Wolf" and "What Planet Are You From?," the movie where Garry Shandling plays an alien with a vibrating penis.
Nichols' legacy is one of extreme intellectual curiosity. You can tell from his work that he loved people, he loved exploring what makes them tick and getting into all the nasty little places that most filmmakers actively avoid (he directed "Carnal Knowledge" after all). All of his films, even the ones that weren't entirely successful, are bursting with this kind of effervescent humanity. They never felt detached and no one could ever level the claim that the films were "cold." Even when they didn't work, you could still feel their big, beautiful heart beating at the center. Mike Nichols will be missed and mourned but never, ever forgotten.