Oscar-Winning Actress Anne Bancroft Dies at 73

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Anne Bancroft, the versatile actress who won an Academy Award for portraying Helen Keller's teacher in "The Miracle Worker," but who may be best remembered as the sultry suburban housewife who seduced Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," died June 6 of uterine cancer at a New York hospital. She was 73.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Ms. Bancroft won every major acting award -- the Oscar, Tony and Emmy -- and played such a range of roles that she defied typecasting. She performed opposite such stars as Anthony Hopkins, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine and two generations of Fondas, Henry and Jane, and was considered as formidable an acting talent as any of them.

"She was the most wonderfully rich, malleable, interesting, independent actress I ever worked with," Arthur Penn, who directed Ms. Bancroft in the stage and film versions of "The Miracle Worker," said several years ago. "She can play anything."

Besides her Academy Award for "The Miracle Worker" (1962), a role she originated on Broadway in 1959, Ms. Bancroft received Oscar nominations for "The Pumpkin Eater" (1964), "The Graduate" (1967), "The Turning Point" (1977) and "Agnes of God" (1985).

She received a Tony Award in 1958 for her first starring role on Broadway, playing opposite Henry Fonda in "Two for the Seesaw." The following year, she won her second Tony for the role of Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker," in which she was the teacher working with the blind and deaf Helen Keller, played by 12-year-old Patty Duke.

"She and I spent a moment in time that can never be re-created," a tearful Duke said yesterday from her home in California. "By her example, she was a teacher to me. What she gave me in those times has taken me through my whole life."

Ms. Bancroft lamented that "The Miracle Worker" had become overshadowed in recent years by her role as Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate." Ms. Bancroft's stocking-clad leg arched across the movie poster, its signature song by Simon and Garfunkel ("Mrs. Robinson") was a huge hit, and the movie's themes of rebellion and alienation made it a cultural touchstone of its generation. With her low, smoky voice and her matter-of-fact seduction of the young college graduate played by Hoffman, Ms. Bancroft could almost be said to have seduced an entire nation.

In a statement, Mike Nichols, who directed "The Graduate," praised Ms. Bancroft for her "combination of brains, humor, frankness and sense. . . . Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and because she was a consummate actress, she changed radically for every part."

In later years, Ms. Bancroft received praise for "Golda," her one-woman portrayal on Broadway of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in 1977 and 1978; as a mother superior in "Agnes of God"; as the sympathetic wife of the unemployed Jack Lemmon in "Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1974); as a letter-writing bookworm in the charming "84 Charing Cross Road" (1986); as a centenarian widow of a Civil War veteran in "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" (1994). For her role as the mother of a mixed-race child in the TV film "Deep in My Heart" (1999), Ms. Bancroft won an Emmy Award.

Explaining her ability to play such diverse roles, she told the Virginian-Pilot in 2001, "To be an actress, you have to be a liar."

She was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano on Sept. 17, 1931, into a family of Italian immigrants in the Bronx, N.Y. By age 4, she was taking dance and acting lessons. At 9, she wrote on the fence behind her family's house, "I want to be an actress."

She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before going to Hollywood in 1950. It was Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, who gave her the name Bancroft.

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