Mike Nichols, 83, the director of matchless versatility who brought fierce wit, caustic social commentary, and wicked absurdity to such films, TV, and stage hits as The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Angels in America, and Monty Python's Spamalot, died Wednesday evening.
In a career spanning more than 50 years, Mr. Nichols, who was married to ABC News' Diane Sawyer, managed to be both insider and outsider, an occasional White House guest, and friend to countless celebrities, but a man who was as likely to satirize the elite as he was to mingle with them.
A former stand-up performer who began his career in a groundbreaking comedy duo with Elaine May and whose work won Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, and a Grammy, Mr. Nichols had a remarkable gift for mixing edgy humor and dusky drama.
Meryl Streep, whose films for Mr. Nichols included Silkwood and Heartburn, said he was "an inspiration and joy to know, a director who cried when he laughed . . . an indelible, irreplaceable man."
Steven Spielberg called him "a muse, a mentor, one of America's all-time greatest film and stage directors."
His 1966 film directing debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, unforgettably captured the vicious, yet sparkling and sly, dialogue of Edward Albee's play as a couple (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) torment each other.
Angels in America, the 2003 TV miniseries adapted from the stage sensation, blended rich pathos and whimsy in its portrait of people coping with AIDS and looking to the heavens for compassion they found lacking in 1980s America. Similarly, Mr. Nichols' 2001 TV adaptation of the play Wit packed biting levity within the stark story of a professor dying of ovarian cancer.
Mr. Nichols, who won directing Emmys for both Angels and Wit, said that he liked stories about real people and that humor pervades even the bleakest of such tales. "I have never understood people dividing things into dramas and comedies," he said in a 2004 Associated Press interview. "There are more laughs in Hamlet than many Broadway comedies."
He was a wealthy and educated man who often mocked those just like him, never more memorably than in The Graduate, which shot Dustin Hoffman to fame in the 1967 story of an earnest young man rebelling against his elders' expectations. Mr. Nichols himself would say that he identified with Hoffman's awkward and perpetually flustered Benjamin Braddock.
Mixing farce and oedipal drama, Mr. Nichols captured a generation's discontent without ever mentioning Vietnam, civil rights, or other issues of the time. But young people laughed hard when a family friend advised Benjamin that the road to success was "plastics."
At the time, Mr. Nichols was "just trying to make a nice little movie," he recalled in 2005 at a retrospective screening of The Graduate, for which he won the best-director Oscar. "It wasn't until I saw it all put together that I realized this was something remarkable."
Divorced three times, Mr. Nichols married Sawyer in 1988. He admitted in 2013 that many of his film and stage projects explored a familiar theme. "I keep coming back to it, over and over - adultery and cheating," he said. "It's the most interesting problem in the theater."
Great actors clamored to work with Mr. Nichols, who studied acting with Lee Strasberg and had an empathy that helped bring out the best from the talent he put in front of the camera. He often collaborated with Jack Nicholson, Streep, and Emma Thompson. Other stars who worked with Mr. Nichols included Al Pacino (Angels in America), Gene Hackman and Robin Williams (The Birdcage), Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith (Working Girl), and Julia Roberts (Closer).
Just as he moved easily among stage, screen, and television, Mr. Nichols fearlessly switched from genre to genre. Onstage, he tackled comedy, classics, and musicals. On Broadway, he won nine Tonys, for directing plays ranging from Barefoot in the Park (1964) and Luv and The Odd Couple (1965) to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (2012).
"I think a director can make a play happen before your eyes so that you are part of it," he said, "and it is part of you."
Though known for films with a comic edge, Mr. Nichols branched into thrillers with The Day of the Dolphin, horror with Woolf, and real-life drama with Silkwood.
Mr. Nichols' golden touch failed him on occasion, with such duds as the antiwar satire Catch-22, with Alan Arkin in an adaptation of Joseph Heller's best-seller, and What Planet Are You From?, starring Garry Shandling and Annette Bening.
Born Michael Igor Peschkowsky on Nov. 6, 1931, in Berlin, Mr. Nichols fled Nazi Germany for America at 7 with his family. He recalled that at the time, he could say only two things in English: "I don't speak English" and "Please don't kiss me."
He said he fell in love with the power of the stage at age 15 when the mother of his then-girlfriend gave them tickets to the second night of the 1947 debut of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Marlon Brando.
"We were poleaxed, stunned. We didn't speak to each other. We just sat like two half-unconscious people. It was so shocking. It was so alive," he said.
Mr. Nichols attended the University of Chicago but left to study acting in New York. He returned to Chicago, where he began working with Elaine May in the Compass Players, a comedy troupe that became Second City. The two developed their improvisational rapport into a saucy, sophisticated stage show that took on sex, marriage and family in a frank manner that startled audiences of the late 1950s and early '60s.
Their Broadway show, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, earned them a Grammy for best comedy recording in 1961. The two split up soon afterward, though they reunited in the 1990s, with May writing screenplays for Mr. Nichols' Primary Colors and The Birdcage.
"People always thought we were making fun of other people," Nichols told the AP in 1997, "when we were in fact making fun of ourselves."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966. Five Oscars.
The Graduate, 1967. Oscar for best director.
Carnal Knowledge, 1971.
Working Girl, 1988. One Oscar.
Postcards From the Edge, 1990.
The Birdcage, 1996.
Primary Colors, 1998.
Charlie Wilson's War, 2007.
An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, 1960.
Barefoot in the Park, 1964. Tony for best director.
The Odd Couple, 1965. Four Tonys, including best director.
Plaza Suite, 1968. Tony for best director.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1972. Two Tonys, including best director.
Annie, 1977. Nichols-produced; seven Tonys including best musical.
The Real Thing, 1984. Five Tonys including best director.
Monty Python's Spamalot, 2005. Three Tonys, including best director and best musical.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, 2012. Two Tonys, including best director and best revival.
Wit, 2001. Three Emmys, including outstanding directing.
Angels in America, 2003. 11 Emmys, including outstanding directing.
An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, 1961. Grammy for best comedy album.