NEW YORK – Anne Bancroft (search), the actress who famously portrayed cradle-robbing seductress Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," has died. She was 73.
She died of cancer on Monday at Mount Sinai Hospital, John Barlow, a spokesman for her husband, producer Mel Brooks (search), said Tuesday.
"Her combination of brains, humor, frankness and sense were unlike any other artist," Mike Nichols (search), who directed her in "The Graduate," (search) 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."
Bancroft was among the most lauded actresses of the 1960s and 1970s. She won the 1962 best actress Oscar as the teacher of a young Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." She also won one of her two Tony awards for creating the role on Broadway of poor-sighted Annie Sullivan, the teacher of Keller, who was deaf and blind. She repeated her portrayal in the film version.
Despite her Academy Award and four other nominations -- for "The Pumpkin Eater" (1964), "The Graduate" (1967), "The Turning Point" (1977) and "Agnes of God" (1985) -- "The Graduate" overshadowed her other achievements.
Bancroft complained to a 2003 interviewer: "I am quite surprised 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."
Dustin Hoffman (search) delivered the movie's most famous line when he realized his much-older neighbor was coming on to him at her house: "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"
After a series of B pictures, she escaped to Broadway in 1958 and won her first Tony opposite Henry Fonda in "Two for the Seesaw." The stage and movie versions of "The Miracle Worker" followed.
Her beginnings in Hollywood were unimpressive. She was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1952 and given the glamour treatment. She had been acting in television as Anne Marno (her real name: Anna Maria Louise Italiano), but it sounded too ethnic for movies. The studio gave her a choice of names; she picked Bancroft "because it sounded dignified."
After an unhappy three-year marriage to builder Martin May, Bancroft married comedian-director-producer Brooks in 1956. They met when she was rehearsing a musical number, "Married I Can Always Get," for the Perry Como television show. 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.
Bancroft appeared in three of Brooks' comedies: "Silent Movie," a remake of "To Be or Not to Be" and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." She was the one who suggested that he make a stage musical of his movie "The Producers." She explained that when he was afraid of writing a full-blown musical, including the music, "I sent him to an analyst."
When Bancroft 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."
She was born Sept. 17, 1931, in the Bronx to Italian immigrant parents. She recalled scrawling "I want to be an actress" on the back fence of her flat when she was 9. 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 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."
In mid-career Bancroft attended the Actors Studio to heighten her understanding of the acting craft. Later she studied at the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women at UCLA. In 1980 she directed a feature, "Fatso," starring Dom De Luise. It received modest attention.
Among her notable portrayals: a potential suicide in "The Slender Thread"; Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth"; actress Madge Kindle in "The Elephant Man"; Anthony Hopkins' pen pal in "84 Charing Cross Road"; feminist U.S. senator in "G.I. Jane"; the Miss Haversham role in a modernized "Great Expectations."
Bancroft also appeared as Winston Churchill's American mother in the film "Young Winston"; as Golda Meir in "Golda" onstage; a gypsy woman in the film "Love Potion No. 9"; a centenarian for the TV version of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All."
She also lent her voice to the computer-animated feature "Antz," and played for laughs in 2001's "Heartbreakers."
But Bancroft was remembered most for Mrs. Robinson. In 2003 she admitted that nearly everyone discouraged her from undertaking the role "because it was all about sex with a younger man." She viewed the character as having unfulfilled dreams and having been relegated to a conventional life with a conventional husband.
She added: "Film critics said I gave a voice to the fear we all have: that we'll reach a certain point in our lives, look around and realize that all the things we said we'd do and become will never come to be -- and that we're ordinary."
Besides her husband, Bancroft is survived by her mother, two sisters, son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
The lights on Broadway will be dimmed Wednesday in Bancroft's honor, the League of American Theatres said.
Funeral services will be private.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.