Actress Anne Bancroft Dead at 73; Tony-Winner Was Helen Keller's Hope in Miracle Worker

Obituaries   Actress Anne Bancroft Dead at 73; Tony-Winner Was Helen Keller's Hope in Miracle Worker Tony Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, who played tough, warm and funny roles throughout a respected stage and screen career, died June 6 of uterine cancer at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital, a spokesman for her husband, Mel Brooks, announced.
Anne Bancroft in July 2004
Anne Bancroft in July 2004 Photo by Aubrey Reuben

She was 73. Ms. Bancroft played Annie Sullivan in the Broadway and Hollywood takes on Helen Keller's story, The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson. She won a Best Actress Tony Award for the role in 1960. She won the Academy Award for the role on screen (as did stage and screen co-star Patty Duke, as Helen).

By the time of her Best Actress wins in New York and Hollywood, she already had a Tony on her shelf for her work in Two for the Seesaw. She would later be Tony nominated for the playing Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in Gibson's Golda in 1978.

One of her famous Hollywood roles was playing wealthy middle-aged seductress "Mrs. Robinson" in Mike Nichols' "The Graduate." She was Oscar nominated for the turn.

Broadway's marquees will be dimmed at 8 PM June 8 in tribute to Ms. Bancroft, Mel Brooks' spokesman, John Barlow, told Playbill.com.

Ms. Bancroft was born Anna Maria Luisa Italiano in the Bronx in 1931. Her father was a dress-pattern maker, her mother a telephone operator. She studied acting in the late 1940s and '50s and appeared in TV starting in 1950 (with "The Torrents of Spring"). She made her film debut (with a name change suggested by the Hollywood machine) in 1952's "Don't Bother to Knock," for Fox, followed by a number of pictures that didn't establish her as a household name. She reportedly chose the name "Bancroft" because it sounded "dignified."

The New York theatre, however, is where she seemed to earn legitimacy that would launch her into the wider world. For her 1958 Broadway debut, she won a Best Featured Actress Tony playing quirky Gittel Mosca in William Gibson's Two for the Seesaw.

After her work as sight-impaired teacher Annie Sullivan, who wrestled with, taught and tamed the more seriously sensory-impaired Helen Keller, in The Miracle Worker (directed by Arthur Penn on stage and screen), Ms. Bancroft returned to Broadway as Mother Courage in Jerome Robbins' staging of the Brecht play in 1963. A Hollywood career loomed — and would give her international fame and respect for decades.

She married filmmaker Mel Brooks in 1964 following an earlier marriage to building contractor Martin A. May.

One of her memorable turns in a Brooks film was playing his actress wife in the remake of Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be." In the picture, Brooks and Ms. Bancroft were the 1930s-era Polish acting couple The Bronskis, who were "world famous in Poland." For producer Brooks, she also appeared as Mrs. Kendal in the more serious David Lynch-directed film, "The Elephant Man."

Ms. Bancroft was Academy Award nominated for "The Pumpkin Eater" (for which she won the British Academy Award), "The Graduate" (in which she seduced young grad Dustin Hoffman even though she was the middle-aged mother of his girlfriend), "The Turning Point" (a ballet-world picture that also starred Shirley MacLaine) and "Agnes of God."

Her film credits also include "'night, Mother," "Torch Song Trilogy," "Garbo Talks," "Home for the Holidays," "GI Jane," "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," "Great Expectations," "Up at the Villa," "Keeping the Faith," "84 Charing Cross Road" and Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" and "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," among many others.

For her TV work, Ms. Bancroft won Emmy Awards for 1970's "Annie: The Woman in the Life of a Man" and 1999's "Deep in My Heart." She was Emmy nominated for the TV film of Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound," as well as for "Haven" and "Mrs. Cage."

Ms. Bancroft's additional Broadway credits include The Devils in 1965, The Little Foxes in 1967, A Cry of Players in 1968, Golda in 1977 and Duet for One in 1981.) In 2002, she briefly appeared in the world premiere of Edward Albee's Occupant, for Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre. In it, she played artist Louise Nevelson. As a producer, she helmed Off-Broadway's Squeeze Box.

She appeared as herself in a 2004 episode of Larry David's HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," opposite Brooks. The show was an inside joke referencing the success of Brooks' film and stage musical, The Producers.

Ms. Bancroft is survived by writer-director-producer Mel Brooks, son Max Brooks, grandson Henry Michael and daughter Michelle. The funeral will be private.

The family requests donations to the American Cancer Society.

Anne Bancroft (left, with Patty Duke) in <i>The Miracle Worker</i> and (right, with Henry Fonda) in <i>Two for the Seesaw.</i>
Anne Bancroft (left, with Patty Duke) in The Miracle Worker and (right, with Henry Fonda) in Two for the Seesaw. Photo by Arthur Cantor (<i>Seesaw</i>)
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