Born in 1931 in Berlin, Nichols’ family fled the Nazis, settling in New York City in the early 1940s. He attended the University of Chicago, where he met future director Elaine May. As Nichols and May, the duo would go on to make three best-selling comedy albums; their second release, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, won the 1961 Grammy for Best Comedy Album.
After splitting with May, Nichols began to direct for the stage. His 1963 production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park would go on to become one of the longest-running plays on Broadway, and garnered Nichols a 1964 Tony Award for Best Direction (Dramatic).
Nichols made his feature debut in 1966 with the searing drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a powerful portrait of a rocky marriage starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Nichols’ followup would turn out to be his most iconic work; starring Dusting Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, The Graduate (1967) was a huge box office success that influenced a number of off kilter comedies to come. These and Nichols’ next two films — the anti-war farce Catch-22 and the generation-spanning dramedy Carnal Knowledge –though wildly different in tone, each explored themes of alienation, confusion, and dissatisfaction.
After returning to theater in the late 1970s (and directing Annie, for which he won another Tony), Nichols’ films continued to explore serious themes with both humor and weight, be they the struggles of women in the workplace (Working Girl, 1988), drug addiction (Postcards from the Edge, 1990), and U.S. foreign policy (Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007). Nichols also won Emmys for his HBO productions of Wit (2001) and Angels in America (2003).
He is survived by his wife Dianne Sawyer and three children from previous marriages.