Born in Germany (birth name: Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky), young Mike and his brother, Robert, were sent to the United States to escape arrest by the Nazis — the family was Jewish. His Russian father had already escaped to the U.S., and welcomed his sons and, later, his wife, to New York City, where the family changed their name to Nichols. Mike had a difficult childhood: a reaction to the whooping cough vaccine made him lose his hair — permanently. “I was a bald little kid” from age 4, he said, and he wore wigs for the rest of his life. He became an American citizen at age 13, and went to school at the University of Chicago, where he got interested in theater. He met actress and comedian Elaine May at The Compass Players (predecessor to Chicago’s Second City), and together became the improv comedy team Nichols and May, which saw good success: their three comedy albums all charted in the Billboard Top 40 between 1959 and 1962. They disbanded, though, in part because Nichols was chosen to direct Neil Simon’s 1963 play, Barefoot in the Park — making Nichols realize he wanted to be a full-time director. “On the first day of rehearsal, I thought, ‘Well, look at this. Here is what I was meant to do’,” he said later. “I knew instantly that I was home.”
Nichols went on to win Tony awards for Barefoot, The Odd Couple (1965), Annie (1977), Spamalot (2005), and more. He also excelled in film. His first: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director; it won five, and in 2013 was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” His second film, The Graduate (1967), won Nichols the Oscar for Best Director. Nichols went on to direct such seminal films as Catch-22 (1970), Silkwood (1983), The Birdcage (1996) and more. In all, Nichols received one Grammy Award, one Academy Award, four Emmy Awards (for TV work), nine Tony Awards, and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He died November 19, from a heart attack. He was 83.