Bancroft was more than film seductress


NEW YORK - Anne Bancroft, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Keller's teacher in 1962's The Miracle Worker, but cleared a place for herself in pop-culture history five years later as the alluring, embittered Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, has died. She was 73.

She died of cancer Monday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, John Barlow, a spokesman for her husband, writer-director- comedian Mel Brooks, said yesterday.

Throughout a career that spanned the last half of the 20th century, Ms. Bancroft won respect from both her peers and the public as one of the most versatile and resourceful actors of her generation.

She excelled in both drama and comedy and her resume is testament to a spirited talent that was up for anything, whether it was playing Golda Meir on stage, camping up in her husband's wacky comedies, including Silent Movie (1976) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1996) or providing the voice of insect royalty in the digitally animated comedy, Antz in 1998.

Ms. Bancroft was born Sept. 17, 1931, in the Bronx, the daughter of Italian immigrants. She had wanted to act since she was 9 years old. Her father derided her ambitions, saying, "Who are we to dream these dreams?"

Her mother was the dreamer, encouraging her daughter in 1958 to enroll at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts.

Live television drama was flourishing in New York in the early 1950s, and Ms. Bancroft appeared in 50 shows in two years. "It was the greatest school that one could go to," she said in 1997. "You learn to be concentrated and focused."

With her dark, sultry beauty, the young woman born Anna Maria Louise Italiano, seemed destined for a conventionally glamorous Tinseltown niche. Her first movie role was second banana to Marilyn Monroe in the comedy, Don't Bother To Knock (1952).

After a string of ingenue parts in movies with titles like Treasure of the Golden Condor (1953) and Gorilla at Large (1954), she returned to New York and enjoyed her first stage coup in 1958 opposite Henry Fonda in Two for the Seesaw, for which she won a Tony.

She won another Tony two years later for her performance in The Miracle Worker as Annie Sullivan, the mercurial, passionate woman hired by Helen Keller's family to teach their deaf and blind daughter, played on stage and screen by Patty Duke. The play's popular, critically acclaimed transformation into a movie signaled a triumphant jump-start to Ms. Bancroft's film career.

"I looked up to her certainly as an actress, but also as a person and a woman," Ms. Duke, who first worked with Ms. Bancroft as a 12-year-old, said in a telephone interview.

"She was a gorgeous and sexy woman to be my role model. What more could you ask for?"

After her Miracle Worker Oscar, Ms. Bancroft was nominated four other times for Academy Awards: The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Graduate (1967), The Turning Point (1977) and Agnes of God (1985).

As the malevolent seductress Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, Ms. Bancroft blended sensuality with an undercurrent of desperate pathos, helping propel Dustin Hoffman, as her young preppie prey, to major stardom and Mike Nichols' black comedy to classic status.

Mr. Nichols called Ms. Bancroft a masterful performer.

"Her combination of brains, humor, frankness and sense were unlike any other artist," Mr. Nichols said in a statement. "Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and because she was a consummate actress she changed radically for every part."

Ms. Bancroft seemed baffled by the sustained attention her Graduate turn had drawn through the decades relative to her entire oeuvre.

"I am quite surprised," she said in a 2003 interview, "that with all my work, and some of it is very, very good, that nobody talks about The Miracle Worker. We're talking about Mrs. Robinson. I understand the world. I'm just a little dismayed that people aren't beyond it yet."

Still, there were many people who recognized how good Ms. Bancroft could be in so many different venues, whether as a suicidal woman in 1965's The Slender Thread, a would-be ballet star in Turning Point, the desperate movie fan in 1984's Garbo Talks, the compassionate stage diva in 1980's The Elephant Man, the feminist U.S. senator in 1997's G.I. Jane and the all-knowing centenarian in 1994's The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

After an unhappy three-year marriage to builder Martin May, Ms. Bancroft married Mr. Brooks in 1964. They met when she was rehearsing a musical number, "Married I Can Always Get," for the Perry Como television show, and a voice from offstage called: "I'm Mel Brooks."

In a 1984 interview she said she told her psychiatrist the next day: "Let's speed this process up - I've met the right man. See, I'd never had so much pleasure being with another human being. I wanted him to enjoy me too. It was that simple." A son, Maximilian, was born in 1972.

Ms. Bancroft was the one who suggested Mr. Brooks make a stage musical of his movie The Producers.

When she watched Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick rehearse The Producers, she realized how much she had missed the theater. In 2002 she returned to Broadway for the first time since 1981, appearing in Edward Albee's "Occupant."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing Newspaper. The Associated Press and Bloomberg News Service contributed to this article.

Anne Bancroft filmography

Selected movies from the career of actress Anne Bancroft, who died Monday.

Don't Bother to Knock (1952)

The Restless Breed (1957)

The Miracle Worker (1962)

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Graduate (1967)

Young Winston (1972)

Lipstick (1976)

The Elephant Man (1980)

Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994)

Home for the Holidays (1995)

G.I. Jane (1997)

Great Expectations, Antz (1998)

Heartbreakers (2001)

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