STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The actress Anne Bancroft has died. Bancroft was one of the few performers to win all three of the major acting awards: one Oscar, two Tonys and an Emmy. She is best known for two parts: the feisty teacher Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker" and Mrs. Robinson, the seductive older woman in "The Graduate." Bancroft died Monday of cancer at the age of 73, and she is survived by her husband, the producer Mel Brooks. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.
LYNN NEARY reporting:
Before she was Anne Bancroft, she was Anna Maria Louise Italiano, a girl from the Bronx whose parents had come to this country from Italy. She took the name Bancroft when she began acting in Hollywood, but it was on Broadway that she first made her mark in the 1957 production of "Two for the Seesaw" with Henry Fonda. Arthur Penn was the director.
Mr. ARTHUR PENN (Director, "Two For the Seesaw"): You know, I think she was, by my lights, perhaps the best American actress in the theater.
NEARY: Penn says when they began working on "Two For the Seesaw," Bancroft was a young actress full of talent that needed some shaping.
Mr. PENN: What she was was an extraordinary body of raw emotion, and she didn't quite know how to work, how to use it and to be able to have control over it. And so during the rehearsals of that play, essentially, I slowly, I think, taught her how to work and how to accomplish what she had to accomplish.
NEARY: Bancroft won her first Tony for that play. Penn says when he was getting ready for his next production, he had no doubt who he would cast in the role of Annie Sullivan, the fiercely determined teacher of Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Bancroft's passionate performance won her another Tony and then an Oscar for her portrayal of Sullivan in the film version of the play.
(Excerpt from "The Miracle Worker)
Ms. ANNE BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) I want complete charge of her.
Unidentified Man: You already have that. The result...
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) No, I mean day and night. She has to be dependent on me.
Unidentified Woman: For what?
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Everything: the food she eats, the clothes she wears, fresh air. Yes, the air she breathes. Whatever her body needs is a primer to teach her out of. It's the only way. The one who lets her have it should be a teacher, not anyone who loves her.
Unidentified Woman: But she'd run from you to us.
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Yes, that's the point.
NEARY: During the making of "The Miracle Worker," Bancroft became known for the intensive research she did for the part. Film critic Roger Ebert.
Mr. ROGER EBERT (Film Critic): In order to find out what it would have been like to be Helen Keller, she lived with her eyes taped shut, with her ears blocked for long periods of time so that she could identify with her.
NEARY: But it was her portrayal of the cooey ferocious Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 film "The Graduate" that won Bancroft her greatest fame. `In the years since the film was made,' says Ebert, `Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson has lost none of her appeal.'
Mr. EBERT: I told her in the late '90s that I had seen the film again and realized what I didn't realize in 1967, which was that Mrs. Robinson was the only person in the film I would ever want to spend any time with. She was the only interesting one. She was the babe. And she smiled at me--Anne Bancroft--and she said, `I know. That's why I took the role.'
NEARY: Bancroft also told interviewers that a lot of people tried to talk her out of taking the part of Mrs. Robinson because the role was all about having sex with a younger man. But her seduction of Dustin Hoffman was sexy, funny and sad all at once, and this scene has left an indelible mark in the culture.
(Excerpt from "The Graduate")
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) I'll get undressed now. Is that all right?
Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN: Sure. Shall I--I mean, shall I just stand here? I mean, I don't know what you want me to do.
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Why don't you watch?
Mr. HOFFMAN: Oh, sure. Thank you.
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Will you bring me a hanger?
Mr. HOFFMAN: What?
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) A hanger.
Mr. HOFFMAN: Oh, yes. Wood?
Ms. BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What?
Mr. HOFFMAN: Wood or wire? They have both.
NEARY: Off screen, Bancroft had ample opportunity to hone her comic skills with husband Mel Brooks. In an interview with NPR's Susan Stamberg, Brooks talked about their long and, by all accounts, happy marriage.
Mr. MEL BROOKS (Producer): We raised a boy called Max Brooks. Max Brooks wrote a book called "The Zombie Survival Guide," just in case you run into a zombie. 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 for 40 years.
NEARY: The beach that Brooks and Bancroft loved was on New York's Fire Island where they bought a home. In an interview with the public radio show "The Savvy Traveler," Bancroft talked about how she used to escape the pressures of acting there.
(Soundbite of "The Savvy Traveler")
Ms. BANCROFT: I'll never forget the time that my youngest sister and I were lying on the beach and our children were off playing somewhere. We knew not where. We didn't have to know where because we knew they would be safe. And it was so wonderful. It must have been about 5:00, you know, just before you had to go upstairs and start dinner, and my sister looked at me and said, `Do you realize we're only an hour and a half from Broadway?' I mean, the peace that we were feeling was impossible to think that it was only an hour and a half from Broadway.
NEARY: Later in her career, Bancroft starred in a number of other successful roles, most notably the aging dancer Emma in "The Turning Point" and the formidable Mother Superior in "Agnes of God." Eventually, good roles were hard to come by. And in the end, Bancroft was always best known for Mrs. Robinson, which she sometimes found frustrating. `But,' says Robert Ebert, `it's nothing to be ashamed of.'
Mr. EBERT: Most actresses don't even--or most actors, for that matter, don't even get one iconographic role that absolutely penetrates into the consciousness of all moviegoers, even people who have not seen the movie. And so the fact that she did that with Mrs. Robinson is a considerable achievement.
NEARY: Director Arthur Penn says Bancroft was larger than life, and what he will remember best about her is her laughter.
Mr. PENN: She had a great zest for living and a great appetite. You know, when she committed to work, it was deeply emotional and full. And when she was out having fun, she had more fun than anybody.
NEARY: Actress Anne Bancroft died earlier this week in New York. She was 73 years old.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: In honor of Anne Bancroft, lights on Broadway will be dimmed tonight.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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