September 17, 1931 – Anna Maria Louisa Italiano:
“I’d never had so much pleasure with another human being.”Bancroft on Brooks
She was an Italian-American girl from The Bronx whose parents were ordinary working-class folk.
At the start of her career, she decided on billing herself rather regally as “Anne St. Raymond”. She went to Hollywood where she found work in small film roles, but her studio, 20th Century Fox, didn’t really know what to do with her intensity and her off-kilter beauty. Knowing what she wanted, or rather didn’t want in terms of her career, she left Hollywood and an early marriage, and moved back to New York City.
The stage was a good match for her edginess, beginning with her role in Two For The Seesaw (1958), opposite Henry Fonda no less. The role brought her that first Tony Award at just 26 years old.
Two For The Seasaw playwright William Gibson was so enamored of Bancroft that the following year he cast her in The Miracle Worker, his play about Helen Keller, a deaf, blind, almost feral child, and Anne Sullivan, the teacher who introduced Keller to education, activism, and international superstardom. Gibson’s first version was a Playhouse 90 broadcast in 1957 starring Teresa Wright as Sullivan and Patty McCormack (The Bad Seed) as Keller. He rewrote the script for the stage and it was produced on Broadway in 1959 with Bancroft and Patty Duke, winning Bancroft her second Tony Award.
When The Miracle Worker was adapted to film in 1962, both Bancroft and Duke reprised their roles and they both won Academy Awards. Bancroft wasn’t at the Oscar ceremony; she was starring on Broadway in Mother Courage. Lovely Joan Crawford selflessly accepted Bancroft’s Oscar on her behalf, an event dramatized so nicely in Ryan Murphy‘s Feud: Bette And Joan (2017). Bancroft is one of just ten actors to win both an Academy Award and a Tony Award for the same role.
Somehow with all this success, Bancroft agreed to an appearance on a Perry Como television special. Bancroft was a gorgeous singer/dancer, and a great comic actor. Her naughty, throaty voice and laugh made her a true original. Yet, for all her success she recalled in an interview that men were intimidated by her and never approached her. During rehearsals for Como’s show, a voice called out to her from across the studio. Bancroft:
“This aggressive voice came out from the dark, and I thought it must be a combination of Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Robert Redford. It turned out to be Mel Brooks, and he never left me from that moment on.”
Brooks followed her around for the next few weeks, to her agent’s office or wherever she was headed; he always found a way to to be going that way too.
“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 were not a likely pair. She was tall, lithe and elegant; he is short and goofy, but they shared a profound enjoyment of one another’s company.
Bancroft claimed that despite Brooks’ apparent love for her and the stalking of her around Manhattan in the early days of their courtship, he never proposed. Instead, she asked to get married and they went to City Hall, wrangling a stranger they met in the clerk’s office to be the witness and in a hurry, they forgot about wedding rings. So, Bancroft removed one of her silver earrings and used that as they said their vows.
At the time, Brooks’ career had not yet taken off and Bancroft was the bread winner, a role reversal that seems unimportant in today’s culture, but in that era they handled it with gratitude and good nature. Brooks has said that his wife would 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 1966, Mike Nichols had a new film in the works and had considered Hollywood’s biggest female stars for the lead. But really, he had always envisioned Bancroft in role of Mrs. Robinson. So, he sent the script 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 take it.
She confidently took on the role and unwittingly became a legend in popular culture, and for many straight guys in the late 1960s, the ultimate sexual fantasy.
Although she was supposed to be the older woman seducing a younger man, old enough to have believably been his mother, in fact, Bancroft was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman, and just eight years older than Katherine Ross, who played her daughter. In fact, Bancroft was just 35 years old when she played Mrs. Robinson. Bancroft will always be remembered as that fur-draped, martini-drinking, chain-smoking sex goddess, but in fact, the brief nudity in the film and the famous poster of Hoffman framed beneath a long, elegant leg were all done by a body double. The dark allure of Mrs. Robinson as Bancroft brought it, was all in the face, that husky voice and her elegance.
Over the next 30 years, both Brooks and Bancroft enjoyed steady work. Bancroft’s films from this time: The Turning Point (1977), To Be Or Not To Be (1983), 84 Charing Cross Road (1987), ‘Night Mother (1986), Agnes Of God (1985), Garbo Talks (1984), The Elephant Man (1980) ran from dramas to comedies, some were okay, others award caliber, but Bancroft was always amazing. She won three BAFTA Awards; received six Emmy Award nominations, with two wins, one for a musical special; eight Golden Globe nominations, winning twice; two Screen Actors Guild Awards; and a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress for Bert Rigby, You’re A Fool (1989).
Brooks was supportive of his wife’s career. He even hired her a few times. Through the decades, he credited the success of their marriage to the simple fact that they loved one another and laughed a lot.
“Anne is simply terrific. She is beautiful, she has great shoulders, and she makes me laugh.”
“Mel is 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. “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 20 times as funny in private and a thousand times more lovable.”
“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.”
Brooks was readying his film version of his stage musical version of his 1966 film The Producers when Bancroft was diagnosed with that damn cancer. They kept her illness private, though it kept Brooks away from rehearsals as he struggled to be at her side as her condition rapidly deteriorated. Bancroft’s final credits rolled died in June 2005. She was 73 years old when she left. Too young.
Brooks said at her memorial:
“If any of you are grieving, keep it to yourself. I don’t want to hear it.”