When I was in my early teens, I distinctly remember a woman approaching me on the sidewalk one day and saying I reminded her of “a young Anne Bancroft.”
I didn’t know who Anne Bancroft was.
This was the early days of the Internet and, thus, a laggy AskJeeves search gave me something to go on: I did recognize her from The Miracle Worker. She’d played Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. I looked at a few photos of her and decided that the comparison was at least a compliment — she was quite strikingly beautiful with her sultry, smoky eyes and beautiful mop of dark hair. But then a few photos of her in nothing but a silky bra seductively smoking a cigarette popped up and I clicked out of the search fearing someone would accuse me of looking at pornography.
As soon as I’d become aware of her, I’d forgotten about Anne Bancroft.
But the next time she came into my consciousness, it would again be an image of her in that leopard print coat, smoking and seducing Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. After watching the film in college, I was reminded of and intrigued by the dark beauty and wanted to find out more about her.
Anne Bancroft was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano — an Italian-American girl from The Bronx whose father and mother were ordinary working class folk. From the beginning Anne was a force — a bubbly, energetic child who was routinely showcasing her song-and-dance skills in school, her neighborhood and to more or less anyone who would stop and listen. As a teenager, she and her friends had a quarter-hour spot on a local radio station where they produced dramas — she insisted in those days on billing herself rather regally as Anne St. Raymond.
While her family supported her endeavors — using what little spare income they had to see to it that she took tap dancing lessons each week — Anne wasn’t yet entirely certain she wanted to become an actress. She rather liked the idea of becoming — of all things — a lab technician. She did well and was infinitely curious about her science courses and thought, perhaps, she could make a name for herself in the medical field.
As her high school days came to an end, a boy she was interested in announced he intended to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Since Anne was already on the track to graduate early, once her parents gave their blessings (and money), she too entered AADA — one of the youngest in her class. A class that, in the end, did not wind up including the boy (at the last minute, he’d decided to matriculate elsewhere).
Anne excelled in her drama studies whilst holding down several jobs — as college kids often do. Just before she graduated, a faculty member named Frances Fuller happened across her during rehearsal — and decided that Anna Italiano should audition for Studio One, a television program that Fuller’s husband directed. For Anne, it sounded like her big break — and she headed off to Hollywood without another thought.
When she was 19, she snagged her first movie role while reading for an actor who was actually auditioning. Thus, one serendipitous afternoon, she was snatched up by 20th Century Fox and almost immediately had to change her name to something “less ethnic” — going first to Anne Marno, then eventually Bancroft. Under her new name, she debuted alongside Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe in 1952’s Don’t Bother To Knock.
From here on out, Fox began consistently casting her in really shitty movies — some of which were so memorably awful that many an inside joke with her future husband, Mel Brooks, stemmed from simply a mention of Gorilla At Large.
The studio also took issue with her distinct lack of Marilyn Monroe sex appeal and began to groom her for the ultimate bombshell makeover. Her early films, press reels and photographs reveal a confusion and insecurity that she seems almost desperate to escape.
At first, she thought marriage might be the answer and wed Martin May in 1953 — but she couldn’t seem to reconcile her passion for her career with the demands of being a wife. They divorced a few years later, having barely made headlines. Later, May would comment on their brief union:
“Annie was intense about everything. She’d lie on the floor and watch television by the hour, or she’d fry an egg, standing there leaning over the skillet staring as if the fate of the city depended on that egg. She was either a hungry tiger or a lovable lap dog.” Later, he would add: “She tried to combine two loves — one a marriage and the other a career. The career turned out to be the greater of the two.”
Knowing what she wanted — or rather, didn’t want — in terms of her career, she fled 20th Century Fox, a marriage, and Hollywood to came back to New York City. It was here that her intensity and edginess were rewarded — beginning with her role in Two For The Seesaw opposite Henry Fonda: the role that garnered her her first Tony Award at just 26 years old.
Seesaw’s playwright, William Gibson, was enamored by Bancroft and the following year, cast her as Annie Sullivan in his teleplay about Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker. He soon after transplanted the script to Broadway, taking Bancroft and Patty Duke (who was cast as Helen) with it.
Bancroft almost immediately began her work developing the character of Annie Sullivan— spending a lot of time at a school for the blind (Sullivan was not completely blind, but her vision was limited.)
Gibson also did a bit of a favor for Bancroft, who was having trouble shaking her thick accent from Seesaw when she was rehearsing for Annie Sullivan: Gibson wrote Sullivan with an Irish brogue, though the real Sullivan did not have one (she was born in Massachusetts).
To this day, when the play is produced, Sullivan is played with the brogue, as Bancroft played her.
The Miracle Worker won Bancroft her second Tony.
Since she was back in New York City — her home no longer the Bronx, but in a brownstone on 11th Street in Greenwich Village (which I walked by yesterday on my way to have lunch with my agent) — she became a student of the Actor’s Studio and Lee Strasberg.
Method acting doesn’t work for every actor, but Bancroft seemed to take to it quite brilliantly. It may have been, in part, due to her need to invest herself deeply in her work throughout the 1960s (the decade that produced the majority of her best work) as she struggled to reconcile the false-starts of her trip to Hollywood in the late ’50s . Something that had very nearly driven her mad (or, at the very least, to drink). The use of Method may have been as much about capturing the soul of her character as it was tapping into and doing the emotional work on herself that would mature her into the refined actress she ultimately became.
She also spent a lot of time in therapy during these years, coming to the conclusion that she “had too many character quirks to eliminate” before expecting to remarry — if ever she did.
When The Miracle Worker was adapted into a film in 1962, both Bancroft and Duke reprised their roles — and it took the world by storm. Both had unforgettable powerhouse performances and brought both the stage choreography of the “fight scenes” and the intimacy of live theatre, miraculously, to the big screen. Both Duke and Bancroft won Academy Awards for The Miracle Worker the following year.
Somewhere in the midst of her whirlwind success, Bancroft was rehearsing for an appearance on Perry Como’s television hour. In addition to her acting skills, Bancroft was also a gorgeous singer/dancer, and the many television variety shows of the era lent themselves to her delightful on-screen presence. She was also quite the comedienne, and her almost naughty, throaty voice and laugh made her seem like a fun lady to be around . Yet, on the heels of her two major wins, she recalled once in an interview that men were intimidated by her — and never approached her, certainly not with the intention of asking her out.
Until one day a brass-balled lad called out to her from across the studio:
“This aggressive voice came out from the dark,” recalled Bancroft, “and I thought it must be a combination of Clark Gable and Robert Taylor, Robert Redford. It turned out to be Mel Brooks, and he never left me from that moment on.”
Brooks often recalls with an impish fondness that he would follow her around over the course of the next few weeks — whether it be to her agent’s office or wherever she was headed for lunch, he’d make sure to be going that way as well.
“He would say, ‘Where ya goin’?’ And I’d say, ‘To William Morris Agency,’ and he’d say, ‘So am I.’ He’d say, ‘Where ya goin’?’ ‘I’m goin’ to that delica-.’ ‘So am I.’ Wherever I said I was going, he would say he’s going there. … It just went on and on, the man never left me alone, thank God.”
Brooks and Bancroft may not have seemed like a likely pair in terms of aesthetics (she was tall, lithe and elegant while he is short, a bit stout and a self-proclaimed goof) but they shared a profound enjoyment of one another’s company. Bancroft continued to talk little about her private life and hardly ever gave interviews, but one she gave in 1984 summed it up pretty well: she said the day after she met Brooks, she told her analyst, “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.”
Still, she wasn’t quite sure that she was ready to give up being an independent woman, telling one reporter, “He [a suitor] kept opening doors for me and trying to help me on with my coat. I’m not the kind of woman who needs those gestures and I can’t stand being forced to accept them. I can’t stand any man trying to make me behave like his image of me — women don’t need doors opened for them anymore. That’s an old social custom that has no more meaning. As women are becoming liberated and independent, they need men who find other ways to prove they’re men.”
Plus, she added, she had a rigorous schedule and needed to find a man who could keep up, “My husband has to understand that sometimes I must work from 4 A.M. to 6 P.M. — but not always.”
According to James Robert Parish’s biography of Mel Brooks, Bancroft claims that despite Brooks’ apparent unyielding love for her (and the borderline stalking of her through NYC in the early days of their courtship) he never proposed.
Instead, she asked to get married and they went to New York City Hall — wrangling in a stranger they met in the clerk’s office to be a witness — and in their haste, forgot all about wedding rings. So, Bancroft removed one of her silver earrings and made do with that as they said their vows.
While she had perhaps not expected that another marriage would come, she took it as something of a sign of her own emotional maturation — and began to parse out what it meant to be Anne Bancroft the woman versus Anne Bancroft the artist.
“I learned to uncork my thoughts, if nothing else,” she said of her psychoanalysis, “If my artistry is based on my neurosis, well then, my artistry will have to go out the window. Because I think being a human being is the finest thing that’s ever been put on this earth, and it’s bigger and better than anything else it can produce.”
In the early days, Brooks’ career had not yet taken off and it was Bancroft who really supported them fiscally — a role reversal that would be tedious in today’s culture, but that the two handled with gratitude and good nature. Brooks recalled that his wife would at the very least try to save his ego by slipping money for dinner under the table in a restaurant — only to have her scold, “Don’t leave such a big tip — it’s my money!”
In 1963 — the fall that President Kennedy was assassinated— Bancroft was in London filming The Pumpkin Eater (my personal favorite of all her films).
The moody, atmospheric drama was adapted from the book of the same title by Penelope Mortimer and chronicles the breakdown of a woman and her marriage. Her character, Jo, is on her third marriage and has an unspecified number of children. Throughout the film, her seemingly limitless fertility begins to present challenges both fiscal and emotional, and eventually she discovers that her husband is being unfaithful. This revelation leads to her ultimate “nervous breakdown” — a striking scene that takes place in the middle of bustling Harrod’s.
Her psychoanalyst suggests that she may (subconsciously) find the inherent vulgarity of sex repulsive, thus why she continues to get pregnant — thereby justifying the act with its “purpose” — she considers this, but does get pregnant again, and allows her husband to talk her into an abortion — and a tubal ligation. Her husband’s philandering nature does not improve, and she first retaliates by attacking him physically — then, by having an affair with her previous husband. The film ends with their ultimate, tentative reconciliation — largely for the sake of the children.
Bancroft’s turn as Jo was received well both in the UK and in the US, and while it was certainly the kind of gritty role she’d been hungry to take on, the film fell somewhat aside — Bancroft, however, did not.
A few years later, in 1966, Mike Nichols had a new film in the works and had worked his way through Hollywood’s leading ladies. He knew, however, that deep down he’d always envisioned Bancroft in role of the seductress — Mrs Robinson. So, he sent the script along to her.
Everyone in her life told her not to even consider it — except, oddly enough, her husband. Brooks liked the script and encouraged her to undertake it.
When Bancroft read it — and read with the young stud she was to seduce, Dustin Hoffman, she decided that she could bring a dimension to lonely, frustrated Mrs Robinson that perhaps not even her writer had seen in her conception. Furthermore, she knew that she could create the character in a way no other actress ever could. Nichols didn’t offer the role of Mrs Robinson to any other actress — only Anne Bancroft.
Despite the collective protestations, she confidently took on the role and unwittingly became not just a legendary staple of popular culture — but, for many men coming of age in the late 1960s, the ultimate sexual fantasy.
Although she was supposed to be the older woman preying on a younger man (canonically old enough to have believably been his mother) in fact Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman, and just eight years older than Katherine Ross, who played her daughter.
Anne Bancroft was just 35 when she played Mrs Robinson in The Graduate.
When I first watched The Graduate— in pieces, mind you, and I was just 19, the age that Bancroft was when her journey began — I didn’t have the same appreciation of Mrs Robinson that I have now, after subsequent viewings of the film. Bancroft did, as she suspected she would, create a complex character out of a woman who could have been merely a cool, predatory alcoholic exploited to advance the plots of the younger characters (in fact, it’s only these characters that are given first names — all of the adults in the film are “Mr” or “Mrs” so-and-so).
There’s a scene in bed where Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, makes a perfectly awkward attempt at some pillow talk and Mrs Robinson makes the subtle revelation that she was an art major before she got pregnant and had to marry Mr Robinson.
“She was not understood by herself, and she was also not understood by the society around her,” Bancroft told Salon in 2001, “I think she had dreams, and the dreams could not be fulfilled because of things that had happened. And so she spent a very conventional life, with this conventional man, in a conventional house. … And meantime, all the dreams that she had had for herself, and the talent — she probably was a gifted artist … I thought that she was — and none of that could happen anymore.”
While Bancroft was forever emblazoned as a fur-draped, martini-drinking, chain-smoking sex goddess, in fact, the brief nudity in the film and the famous poster of Dustin Hoffman framed beneath a long, elegant leg was all done by a body double. The dark, husky allure of Mrs Robinson as Bancroft brought it was all in the face, the voice and — of course — the acrid elegance.
Over the next few years, while Brooks was putting all of his creative effort into making the film The Producers a reality, Bancroft began to slow down. Though she was at her peak professionally (and, in her mind, aesthetically) she became very choosy about the roles she would take on. She, quite simply, just started to say No a lot more. She took the roles she wanted to take and didn’t bother with anything else.
That is until the early 1970s when a role that had yet to be offered finally came her way — that of mom. She and Brooks had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get pregnant for several years, and having just turned 40, Bancroft was quite shocked to find out that she was. Almost immediately she was put on bedrest. Their only child, a son Max, was born in May of 1972.
(Max Brooks grew up to be the acclaimed writer of “World War Z”)
She didn’t rush back to making films, making a conscious decision to spend time with her son — mostly because she’d waited long enough to have him and didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
“I made a choice, a conscious choice, that the rewards of having a family were as important, if not more important, than whatever love you get from an audience.” (x)
Over the next 30 some years, both Brooks and Bancroft enjoyed steady work. Bancroft’s films from this time — The Turning Point, To Be or Not To Be, 84 Charring Cross Road, ‘night Mother, Agnes of God, Garbo Talks, Fatso, How To Make An American Quilt and Home for The Holidays ran the gamut from poignant drama to slapstick comedy to quite a bit in between. Brooks, too, produced some of his most well-loved films during these years — Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, The History of the World: Part I and Young Frankenstein come to mind.
(For the uninitiated — no, my parents weren’t necessarily huge Mel Brooks fans and my name — Abby Norman—is not an intentional nod to Abby Normal, though I’ve used it to my professional advantage: introductions almost always get a good-natured laugh or friendly jab.)
But there was also a distinct shift on the Hollywood side of things that kept Bancroft from getting consistent offers: she was aging. Brooks was sort of coming into his own but Bancroft, who was now approaching fifty, was now taking on the “overbearing Italian mother” roles that she’d not particularly wanted to be typecast into.
Though, in either conscious or unconscious opposition to that, she took matters into her own hands and wrote, directed and acted in a film— Fatso—about an Italian-American family in New York City. A little film close to home that gave her another distinct creative feather in her cap — though Brooks did help it get off the ground from a production standpoint (it was the first film from “Brooksfilms” which went on to produce The Elephant Man and Frances) Bancroft did not ask for his advice: “I don’t want to make a Mel Brooks film,” she told one reporter, “I want to make an Anne Bancroft film.”
And Brooks was supportive — even as the decades wore on and their careers and home life with their son shifted, he still credited the success of their marriage to the simple fact that they loved one another dearly — and laughed a lot.
“Anne is simply terrific,” he said, “She’s beautiful— she has great shoulders— and she makes me laugh.”
“I do make him laugh,” Bancroft retorted, “that’s true — Mel’s sort of jaded about funny things, because he knows almost everything, but I guess I’m spontaneous. Things pop out and that makes him laugh. That’s why our marriage works so well. When you strip away who we are as Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and you think of us as children, you can see we would have been in love as kids. We have the same values. We think alike about what’s important and what makes us happy. It’s the simple things — our son, my garden, making other people happy.”
She goes on, “He’s funny, he’s fast, he talks a lot — but that’s a facade. Mel is much more private than I am. He’s enormously sensitive and he’s twenty times as funny in private and a thousand times more lovable.”
The new millennia brought them both to AARP age and — still, the interest in the zany couple remained. Although they didn’t give frequent interviews and rarely talked in depth about their private lives, Brooks did sum up his marriage: “So, we made a crazy child together and we have a pretty happy life. We like each other. We like Chinese food. We like foreign films. We like the beach. We really appreciate each other. So — I mean—it’s been a great, great thing being married to Anne Bancroft.”
He’d taken The Producers to Broadway and was now working on reviving the original ’60s film when Bancroft was diagnosed with uterine cancer. They kept her illness largely private, though it kept Brooks away from the set as he struggled to be at her side as her condition rapidly deteriorated.
Anne Bancroft died in New York City on June 6, 2005. She was 73.
Losing the love of his life—the woman he had fallen so madly in love with that he’d chased her up and down New York City streets just to be near her, had spent countless hours doubled over with laughter in her company—changed Mel Brooks. As such a great loss would change anyone.
“If any of you are grieving, keep it to yourself,” he said at her funeral, “I don’t want to hear it.”
I let my gaze stretched down the length of 11th street as I strolled through the village — not the same place it had been when Bancroft lived there, of course, and no doubt I’d’ve been hard pressed to find her stoop even if I’d had the gumption to try — but I did send up a warm-hearted little salute to her as I made my way across the street.
My cell phone rang and I smiled before I answered it — reaching up to pluck off my earring first, a nod to Bancroft, as this graceful little move was something she did in nearly every one of her films.
The night before I’d been at a gala with some of New York City’s most rich and famous. I’d been awake all night worrying that I hadn’t been charming or refined or interesting — that I’d made a bad impression on someone, or— God forbid—been a bore.
I looked back over my shoulder toward 11th and thought of one of my favorite things Anne Bancroft ever said, when reflecting on the life-changing move she made back to NYC when she was my age:
Abby Norman is a science writer & editor based in New England. Her first book,ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN, will be released March 6, 2018 by Nation Books/Hachette.