TV personality Diane Sawyer and husband director Mike Nichols attend...

TV personality Diane Sawyer and husband director Mike Nichols attend MoMA's Mike Nichols retrospective opening night screening of "Carnal Knowledge" at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on April 14, 2009. Credit: Getty Images / Stephen Lovekin

Mike Nichols, who directed many of the most influential plays and movies in his brilliant, wide-ranging, 60-year career, died Wednesday of cardiac arrest after an undisclosed illness. He was 83 years old and, since 1988, had been married to ABC newscaster Diane Sawyer.

Nichols was one of the rare artists who is an EGOT, with Tony Awards (seven as director, two as producer), an Oscar ("The Graduate") and Emmys (HBO's adaptations of the plays "Angels in America" and "Wit"). He also began his varied and far-reaching career with a 1962 Grammy for a comedy album with Elaine May, his dazzling early partner in overeducated, irreverent, angst-driven improvisation.

In a statement Thursday, Meryl Streep, who worked with Nichols in many movies, including "Heartburn" and "Silkwood," described him as "an inspiration and joy to know, a director who cried when he laughed, a friend without whom, well, we can't imagine our world, an indelible irreplaceable man." They were planning to reunite for an HBO adaptation of "Master Class," Terrence McNally's play about Maria Callas.

Cynthia Nixon, just 17 when Nichols hired her to dash between roles in simultaneous productions of "The Real Thing" and "Hurlyburly," said Thursday, "As an actor there was no greater joy, opportunity or imprimatur than being hired by Mike Nichols. Except being hired by him again."

It was always hard to pin down a Nichols style, which ranged from directing the blissfully silly 2005 musical "Spamalot" to the landmark 2012 revival of "Death of a Salesman" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and producing a little musical gold mine called "Annie." When his films were the subject of a 2009 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, frequent collaborator Nora Ephron said, "Mike doesn't use the camera in a flamboyant way, but he has a style just the way a writer who's crystal clear has a style. He has an almost invisible fluidity."

Nichols was born Michael Igorevitch Peschkowsky in Berlin and raised in New York, a 1939 refugee with his family from Hitler's Germany. As he told New York magazine in 2012, one of the few English sentences the 7-year-old knew was "Please, don't kiss me." His father, a Russian whose family came to Germany after the 1917 revolution, was a doctor who died when Nichols was 9 -- a catastrophe he later described as the "defining event of my life." Nichols had been completely bald since he was 4, the result of a bad reaction to a whooping cough medicine. Nichols went through life with false eyebrows and wigs.

He had dropped out of the University of Chicago in the 1950s when he met May in a legendary iconic forebear to the improvisation hub, Second City. When Nichols and May disbanded in 1962, he returned to New York, where, almost immediately, he became the go-to director of a new young comedy playwright, Neil Simon, a collaboration that resulted in "Barefoot in the Park," "Luv," "The Odd Couple," "Plaza Suite" and "The Prisoner of Second Avenue."

By 1966, he was already so celebrated that Newsweek ran a cover story about his defection to Hollywood. There he hooked immediately into America's changing profile -- and helped define it -- with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "The Graduate," "Catch-22" and "Carnal Knowledge."

"I never understand when people say, 'Do you do comedy or tragedy?' " he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. "I don't think they're very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn't a great play in the world that doesn't have funny parts to it -- as 'Salesman' does, as 'King Lear' does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both."

Nichols had a lifelong passion for Arabian horses. He also supported young comedians, directing the 1980 documentary "Gilda Live," based on one of the late Gilda Radner's solo shows, and introduced Broadway to the little-known Whoopi Goldberg with her 1983 one-woman show.

Nichols, who had been married three times before meeting Sawyer, is also survived by three children, Daisy Nichols, a film production manager; Max Nichols, a music executive; and Jenny Nichols, an actress; and four grandchildren.

"My happiness in life really started with seeing my children become astonishing people," he told New York in 2012, "but my ultimate happiness began in 1988, when I married Diane."

This story was supplemented by wire services.

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