June 1, 2018

Fifty years ago, today, Simon and Garfunkel’s, “Mrs. Robinson” became the number one single in the U.S.  The song is forever intertwined with the top grossing movie of 1968, “The Graduate”. Mike Nichols, the film’s thirty-three- year-old director wanted an eclectic sound track and contracted with Paul Simon to write three songs for the movie. When Nichol’s rejected “Punky’s Dilemma” and “Hazy Shade of Winter”, the two men found themselves in a stand-off. Simon conceded he was working on a new composition but “it’s a song about times past—about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio and stuff”. Nichols replied, “It’s now about Mrs. Robinson, not Mrs. Roosevelt.” 

The Graduate’s Beginnings
“The Graduate” was written in 1963, by Charles Webb, the son of a wealthy San Francisco physician. Like the script’s main character, Webb was uncomfortable with his parent’s wealth and shunned materialism. He sold the movie rights for a mere $20,000, gave most of his royalties to charity, and later turned down his inheritance. Producer Lawrence Turman bought the rights and hired Mike Nichols, a former comedian turned Broadway director for a record $1M. When screenwriter Calder Willingham produced an unsatisfactory first draft, Nichols’ turned to his friend Buck Henry Zuckerman, the lead writer for the television comedy, “Get Smart”. Because of his commitment to “Get Smart”, Henry was only able to work on Nichol’s script at night but he eventually delivered a masterpiece (and was very funny as the hotel desk clerk). 

Casting Benjamin
Turman offered the role of Benjamin to Burt Ward who was playing Robin on the hit series “Batman” but Batman’s producers didn’t want Ward to divide his time. Robert Redford became the studio executives’ top choice, but Nichols rejected his friend, explaining to Redford that audiences wouldn’t believe him as a character who had trouble attracting women. The studio considered top names such as Jack Nicholson and Steve McQueen and Nichols auditioned hundreds of actors. Charles Grodin submitted the best screen-test, but Nichols decided on Dustin Hoffman, a Broadway actor who had never had a major movie role. Despite Hoffman’s disastrous screen-test Nichols realized the key to the character should be that he doesn’t fit in an environment of tall, successful WASPs. Undeterred by the protestations of studio executives, Nichols hired Hoffman. Mel Brooks released Hoffman from his commitment to play Nazi playwright, Franz Liebkind in “The Producers” because Brooks loved The Graduate’s script and had already encouraged his wife Anne Bancroft to take the part of Mrs. Robinson. 

Casting the Ladies 
Turman considered many famous actresses for the role of Mrs. Robinson including Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman, and Ava Gardner. Nichols was focused from day one on Bronx-born, Tony Award winner Anna Maria Louisa Italiano better known as Anne Bancroft.  The producers protested saying that Bancroft at thirty-five was too young for the role. Nichols used lighting and makeup to give Bancroft the older look necessary to play opposite Benjamin. As an aside, Mrs. Robinson’s spouse was played by a former Hoffman roommate named Gene Hackman. Three weeks into filming Nichols decided Hackman was too young and fired him. It was fortuitous as Hackman joined the cast of “Bonnie and Clyde” and was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Meanwhile, for the rest of the Graduate’s filming, the neurotic Hoffman feared he would be the next person fired by the demanding and obsessive Nichols. 

Turman’s wish list for the role of Elaine included Sally Field, Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Lee Remick, Suzanne Pleshette, Patty Duke and Hayley Mills. Among those screen-tested, Candice Bergin was an early favorite, but Nichols quickly decided Katherine Ross was the right fit. Ross received her first and only academy award nomination for her performance. 

Quick Takes 
The Graduate is the only film to win the Best Director Oscar without winning any other category.

Dustin Hoffman was paid only $17,000 for the film and went on unemployment after filming concluded. Soon after, he landed the part of Ratso in Midnight Cowboy and a legendary career was launched. 

That’s not Anne Bancroft’s leg that appears in the iconic poster promoting the movie. The studio paid $25.00 for an unknown model named Linda Gray to pose for the shot. Gray became famous playing Sue Ellen on “Dallas” and later starred in West End and Broadway productions of “The Graduate” as Mrs. Robinson. 

Coo-Coo Kachoo. Have a great weekend.

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