Not to put too fine a point on it, but Anne Bancroft’s star started its ascent on February 7, 1957—simultaneously on both coasts.
In New York, she sauntered into the office of producer Fred Coe and wasted no time getting down to the pressing business at hand. “Where’s the john?” she barked. (It’s called “coming on as the character you’re going out for”—in this case, Gittel Mosca, the brash bohemian who amorously collides in New York with a sad, marriage-broken Nebraskan in Two for the Seesaw.) Coe was certain she was his Gittel—an opinion soon shared by the play’s director, Arthur Penn, and writer, William Gibson, both of whom were in Los Angeles on that first day, steering Teresa Wright and Patty McCormack through the roles of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in the Playhouse 90 premiere of their play The Miracle Worker.
Gittel Mosca got Bancroft a Tony Award—as did Annie Sullivan, and an Oscar, too—when Gibson’s scripts moved to Broadway. Topping the brilliance of both those performances was her iconic Mrs. Robinson, the older woman out to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend in The Graduate. A half-century later, that’s how the world still remembers Anne Bancroft, now the subject of a richly detailed and definitive biography by Douglass K. Daniel out September 1.
A great actor was already formed and functioning in the pre-Gittel days. Bronx-born as Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, she started stage training at 16 at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts; spent six years learning her craft during the golden age of live television; and won a studio contract while helping a friend with his screen test.
Luck and loyalty are as key to Bancroft’s success as her talent. When United Artists insisted on casting Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn in The Miracle Worker, “the three most important men in my life”—Coe, Penn, and Gibson—held their ground, formed a company, and made the movie with her for a measly $1.2 million. None of these three ever had to ask twice whenever they had a project they wanted her for.
Similarly, she snatched The Pumpkin Eater right out from under Deborah Kerr and Ingrid Bergman by flying to London and personally convincing director Jack Clayton she should play the part. “The second I set eyes on her, I agreed with her,” he said.
It’s still called “coming on as the character you’re going out for.”