Born Anna Maria Louise Italiano, September 17, 1931, in New York, NY; died of uterine cancer, June 6, 2005, in New York, NY. Actress. Award-winning star of stage and screen Anne Bancroft was best known for her role as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 film, The Graduate. Despite a rich and varied career in which she proved herself across a number of challenging roles, Bancroft would be forever linked to the leopard-coat-clad sophisticate who preyed on a young Dustin Hoffman.
Born in 1931, Bancroft grew up in the New York City borough of the Bronx. Her father worked in the garment industry as a pattern-maker, and her mother was a telephone operator. She seemed a natural performer from an early age, and after high school took classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Soon she was working in the fledgling medium of television, and went to Hollywood in 1952, where Twentieth Century-Fox signed her to a contract. Handed a list of surnames that day, she chose "Bancroft" for her new professional name. "My goal was simply to be a movie star. I had no idea what to be an actress meant," the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying. "It was just to be famous and popular and powerful and rich."
Bancroft had a strong start in her film debut, 1952's Don't Bother To Knock, a thriller with Marilyn Monroe. Over the next few years, however, studio executives seemed unsure how to best utilize her talents, and she drifted from film noir capers into B-movies. What was likely the most regrettable role of her career came in 1954's Gorilla at Large, in which she played a trapeze artist who commits murders while wearing an ape suit. Finally, she returned to New York in 1955, living back at home with her family and looking for television work. She also began a more intensive study of her craft, under the guidance of Herbert Berghof, a renowned workshop teacher.
A favorable recommendation from a fellow actor helped her land an audition for a new Broadway play, but its playwright and producer were reluctant to even see her because of her lack of stage inexperience. As the play's author later remembered, Bancroft "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," William Gibson said, according to the London Independent.
Bancroft made her Broadway debut in Gibson's Two for the Seesaw opposite Henry Fonda in January of 1958. She played a free-spirited, bohemian New Yorker opposite Fonda's straightlaced Midwestern lawyer, and won a Tony Award for it. She next originated the role of Annie Sullivan, the determined teacher who taught a blind and deaf Helen Keller to speak, in another play by Gibson, The Miracle Worker. Again, she took the Tony for Best Actress, and went on to reprise the part in the film version, which also starred her stage co-star, Patty Duke. Both women then won Academy Awards for their work.
Bancroft went on to make a number of well-received films over the next few years, but it was her appearance in The Graduate that forever slotted her in the public eye as Mrs. Robinson, the woman who seduces the son of her husband's law partner. Her target is Benjamin Braddock, played by an unknown Dustin Hoffman, a recent college graduate whose ineptness with the opposite sex provides much of the movie's early humor. The plot takes a darker turn when Benjamin is set up on a date with Elaine, the Robinsons' daughter. Bancroft's performance, wrote Mark Harris in Entertainment Weekly, proved to be "one of those acting moments that is simply a permanent part of the fabric of American movies. With a voice that sounded like a liquor cabinet filtered through a cigarette holder and a stone-cold seduction technique that was all business and half bored-to-tears, Bancroft turned Mrs. Robinson, the matron who made mincemeat of Dustin Hoffman, into an alluring and fearsome comic creation."
Bancroft was nominated for another Academy Award for The Graduate, which launched her costar's career. But roles for her became scarcer, and she also became choosier. The few well-written parts she took included The Turning Point, a 1977 drama of female friendship and resentments set in the ballet world, which earned her another Oscar nomination. She was nominated once more, this time as Best Supporting Actress, in 1985 for the film Agnes of God.
Bancroft wrote and directed a 1980 comedy, Fatso, and appeared in some of husband Mel Brooks' projects. In 1999, she won an Emmy Award for her part in the miniseries Deep in My Heart, which made her one of just 15 performers who had won Emmy, Oscar, and Tony awards in their career. She died of uterine cancer on June 6, 2005, at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City at the age of 73. Broadway dimmed its lights the next night in her honor. Survivors include Brooks, her husband of 41 years, as well as their son, Max, a television writer; her mother, Mildred, and two sisters also survive her. Mike Nichols, who directed Bancroft in The Graduate, lamented the loss, remarking to CNN.com that "her combination of brains, humor, frankness, and sense were unlike any other artist. Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and because she was a consummate actress she changed radically for every part." Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Movies/06/07/bancroft.obit. ap/index.html (June 8, 2005); Entertainment Weekly, June 17, 2005, p. 18.; E! Online, http://www. eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,16709,00.html?eol.tkr (June 8, 2005); Houston Chronicle, June 8, 2005, p. 3; Independent (London), June 9, 2005, p. 58; Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2005, p. A1, p. A18; New York Times, June 8, 2005, p. A17; People, June 20, 2005, p. 137; Washington Post, June 8, 2005, p. B6.
— Carol Brennan