Anne Bancroft

Star of 'The Miracle Worker' who found new fame as the predatory Mrs Robinson
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The Independent Online

Anna Maria Louise Italiano (Anne Bancroft), actress: born New York 17 September 1931; married 1953 Martin May (marriage dissolved 1957), 1964 Mel Brooks (one son); died New York 6 June 2005.

An Academy Award-winner for her searing portrait of dedication and tenacity in The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft will also be particularly remembered for portraying an iconic figure of the Sixties, Mrs Robinson, seducer of her daughter's boyfriend in The Graduate. She was given an Oscar nomination for that, as well as her performances in The Pumpkin Eater, The Turning Point and Agnes of God, and she won two Tony Awards for her Broadway work. In a career of over 50 years, she gave many performances noted for their emotional intensity and raw truth, and her huskily seductive voice could convey either vulnerability or grit. Since 1964 she was the wife of Mel Brooks.

A performer from the time she could walk, she was born Anna Maria Louise Italiano in 1931 in the Bronx, New York, to Italian immigrant parents. Her father was a pattern-maker for the garment trade and her mother was a telephone operator. "When I was two," she said, "I could sing 'Under a Blanket of Blue'. I was so willing, so wanting, nobody had to coax me."

While attending Christopher Columbus High School she acted in school plays, then attended the American Academy of Art for one year before breaking into television in 1950, playing numerous small roles under the name of Anne Marno. Signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1952, she changed her name to Anne Bancroft and made her screen début in Roy Baker's gripping psychological thriller Don't Bother To Knock, notable for giving Marilyn Monroe her first major dramatic role, as a disturbed young girl hired as a baby-sitter. The action took place in a large New York hotel, and Bancroft played a singer in the hotel's lounge, and sweetheart of the hero, Richard Widmark. Though she sang several songs (all from past Fox films), her performance seemed wan compared to those of Monroe and Widmark.

It was the first of 15 films in which she played mainly secondary roles - she was the wife of the impresario Sol Hurok in Tonight We Sing (1952) and a courtesan in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). She had a leading role in Gorilla at Large (1954), made in 3-D, playing a trapeze artist who commits a series of murders dressed in an ape outfit, and she was the daughter of a mob chieftain (Broderick Crawford) who kills herself in disgust at her father's business, in a gritty exposé of organised crime, New York Confidential (1955). The best film she made during this period was Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall (1956), a powerful film noir in which she befriends an innocent man (Aldo Ray) on the run for a crime he did not commit.

This highpoint was followed by roles as a squaw in the Audie Murphy western Walk the Proud Land (1956), and a half-caste in another western, The Restless Breed (1956). Though Bancroft later said that she enjoyed these years ("Everybody drank beer for breakfast. We had a ball") she was astute enough to realise that her film career was not progressing. Returning to New York in 1955, she lived at home and took roles on such television anthologies as Playhouse 90 and Lux Video Theater while participating in the acting classes of the Viennese actor and teacher Herbert Berghof. "It was the beginning of a whole new aproach to acting, a deeper, more fulfilling, and more thinking approach," she said:

I learned to think a little, to set certain tasks for myself. My work became much more exciting.

In January 1958, she made her Broadway début as Gittel Mosca, a Bronx-born Jewish girl living in Greenwich Village who has an affair with a Nebraskan lawyer in the two-character play by William Gibson Two for the Seesaw. Gibson later wrote of the casting difficulties the play had faced:

The difficulty in casting the girl was that she was very specifically written, a Jewish gamin from the Bronx, and not one of the eminent actresses we named had anything of her quality.

Wanting a "name" actress, the producers offered the script to Gwen Verdon, Julie Harris and Kim Stanley before the actor Richard Basehart, a contender for the male lead, suggested Bancroft, an actress totally unknown to Gibson. The author was to describe his first meeting with Bancroft in the office of the producer Fred Coe:

I was sitting there, very sceptical, when she blew in. She was a dark, quick, not pretty but vitally attractive girl with a sidewalk voice that greeted me instantly with "How was the coast, lousy, huh?" and my mind blinked; she could have walked off my pages.

Gibson confessed there was some trepidation:

Miss Bancroft - Annie henceforth to us - had never been on a Broadway stage. We were gambling on a minor TV and movie actress, whose work in those media I now went out of my way to see and was disappointed by; she might well go up in smoke in a theatre. Also, her name pulled no commercial weight on its own.

Henry Fonda, despite reservations that his role was underwritten and less weighty than the girl's, liked the play enough to accept the male lead. Both stars received rave notices, but the larger share of the plaudits went to Bancroft. Richard Watts in the New York Post,

Henry Fonda is naturally excellent in his share of the proceedings, but the exhilarating surprise is that a young actress from the films named Anne Bancroft, who is making her first Broadway appearance, gives so brilliant a performance opposite him that Mr Fonda is pushed to keep from seeming almost her straight man.

Bancroft won a Tony Award for her portrayal, and stayed with the show for a year and a half:

For the first time in my life I was a star, an honest-to-gosh star in an important production. There was a tremendous sense of achievement in me and I really felt like an actress.

She followed the play with another Broadway triumph, playing the resilient Annie Sullivan, teacher and tamer of the rebellious Helen Keller in Gibson's The Miracle Worker (1959), which won her another Tony. When the play was filmed in 1962, Gibson and the producer Fred Coe and director Arthur Penn all insisted that Bancroft and Patty Duke, who played Keller, should repeat their stage roles. Penn said, "More happens in her face in 10 seconds than happens in most women's faces in 10 years." The excellent film transcription, with a memorable eight-minute sequence in which Bancroft and Duke physically fight as the teacher tries to teach her pupil some manners, won Oscars for both the stars.

Bancroft's singing skills had been rarely tapped, though she did a sterling song-and-dance routine to "Married I Can Always Get" on Perry Como's television show, but in 1963 she was scheduled to star in the Jule Styne musical about the Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice, Funny Girl. When Bob Merrill was signed as lyricist, she abruptly left the project - according to Styne, she had earlier had an affair with Merrill, which had ended with a stormy night-club argument. Her next Broadway appearance was in 1963 as Mother Courage in the Brecht play, after which she came to the UK to star in Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater (1964), a powerful study (by Harold Pinter from Penelope Mortimer's novel) of a woman having a nervous breakdown, with a superbly modulated performance by Bancroft that won her an Oscar nomination and a shared Best Actress prize at Cannes.

In 1964, Bancroft married Mel Brooks, her second husband, and they had a son, Maximilian. She had married a Texan building contractor, Martin May, in 1953, but they divorced in 1957, and she had said in 1962, just before winning the Oscar, "The man I marry, if I do, must accept the fact that I am a totally involved actress."

On screen, she starred with Sidney Poitier in a mild thriller, Sidney Pollack's The Slender Thread (1965), in which she was a suicidal woman who takes an overdose of sleeping pills then rings a Samaritan-like volunteer (Poitier) who tries to keep her talking while her location is traced.

Her next film, John Ford's Seven Women (1966), was one of her most controversial. Patricia Neal had started filming in the leading role when she was brought down by near-fatal strokes. Bancroft was rushed in to replace her, re-shooting scenes already shot. An unusual project for the director, telling of a mainly female religious mission in China threatened by a Mongolian warlord, it cast Bancroft as a free-living physician at loggerheads with the prim, repressed lesbian in charge (Margaret Leighton), and it was Ford's last film. Generally disliked at the time, it has since gained a more favourable reputation.

Bancroft was then offered (after Doris Day, among others, turned it down) what has become her most famous role, that of the predatory Mrs Robinson in Mike Nichols's acerbic comedy of sexual awakening, The Graduate (1967). With Dustin Hoffman achieving stardom as the shy graduate of the title, its best-known scene is the one in which Bancroft, as a close friend and contemporary of Hoffman's parents, crooks her left leg on the stool of her cocktail bar, while Hoffman, framed behind it, awkwardly murmurs, "Mrs Robinson, you're trying to seduce me . . . aren't you?" Bancroft received another Oscar nomination for her performance and, with its haunting Paul Simon score, The Graduate became one of the biggest hits and most iconic movies of the Sixties.

She returned to the stage to play Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1967), staged by Mike Nichols, but despite consistently outstanding performances, Bancroft's screen work remained sporadic. In 1972 she was cast as the American-born Lady Randolph Churchill in Richard Attenborough's Young Winston, then it was another three years before she starred with Jack Lemmon in Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), based on one of Neil Simon's lesser plays. She was a decadent, reefer-smoking countess in Robert Wise's disappointingly flat The Hindenburg (1975) and had a cameo role in her husband's Silent Movie (1976). "I still get deeply involved in the roles I take," she said:

Mel gets totally involved when he's writing, too, and I am shut out, alone. But life is not all work now. Work is just part of life.

After attending the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women she directed a film called The August (1976), but it was never released.

In 1977 she and Shirley MacLaine (who had played Gittel in the screen version of Two for the Seesaw) teamed in Herbert Ross's tale of the ballet world and its rivalries The Turning Point. Bancroft played a star ballerina (with skilful cutting concealing the fact that she could not perform the steps), and MacLaine was her former colleague and friend who opted for marriage and family. The climactic scene, in which the two thrash out their resentments and accusations, was the dramatic highlight, and Bancroft won another Oscar nomination.

She then starred on stage in Golda (1977), a dramatisation by William Gibson of Golda Meir's autobiography, My Life, which won her another Tony nomination. To prepare for the role, she travelled to Israel and accompanied Meir to religious, political and social events. "Golda was a legend to me. She was out of my realm," she said.

In 1980 she both wrote and directed Fatso, but it was not a success. She acted in The Elephant Man (1980), and starred with Brooks in To Be Or Not To Be (1983), which, though not the equal of the earlier Lubitsch version, was nevertheless very funny. She won another Oscar nomination for her role as a Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985), and the Bafta Award as Best Actress for her warm portrayal of the American writer and book-lover who conducted a long-term correspondence with a bookseller (Anthony Hopkins) in 84 Charing Cross Road (1987).

On television she won Emmy nominations for Mrs Cage (1992) and Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994), and she played the contessa in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (2003). On Tuesday night the lights of Broadway were dimmed in her honour.

Tom Vallance