She said in 2003 that nearly everyone discouraged her from playing the role of Dustin Hoffman's middle-aged seductress "because it was all about sex with a younger man." Yet Bancroft saw something deeper, viewing the character as having unfulfilled dreams and having been relegated to a conventional life with a conventional husband.
"Film critics said I gave a voice to the fear we all have: that we'll reach a certain point in our lives, look around and realize that all the things we said we'd do and become will never come to be — and that we're ordinary."
Friends recalled Bancroft as anything but ordinary Tuesday, a day after the actress died at the age of 73. She died of uterine cancer, according to John Barlow, a spokesman for her husband, producer Mel Brooks.
"Her combination of brains, humor, frankness and sense were unlike any other artist," Mike Nichols, who directed her in "The Graduate," said in a statement. "Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and because she was a consummate actress she changed radically for every part."
The lights on Broadway will be dimmed Wednesday in Bancroft's honor.
Bancroft was among the most lauded actresses of the 1960s and 1970s, earning five Academy Award nominations and one Oscar, for playing the teacher of a young Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," a role that also brought her one of two Tony Awards.
That was the first Broadway show Entertainment Tonight Film Critic Leonard Maltin ever saw.
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Yet "The Graduate" overshadowed her other achievements. Hoffman delivered the famous line when he realized his girlfriend's mother was coming on to him at her house: "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"
"I am quite surprised that with all my work, and some of it is very, very good, that nobody talks about `The Miracle Worker.' We're talking about Mrs. Robinson. I understand the world," she said in 2003. "I'm just a little dismayed that people aren't beyond it yet."
Bancroft's beginnings in Hollywood were unimpressive. She was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1952 and given the glamour treatment. She had been acting in television as Anne Marno (her real name: Anna Maria Louise Italiano), but it sounded too ethnic for movies. The studio gave her a choice of names; she picked Bancroft "because it sounded dignified."
"She was in movies like 'Gorilla At Large,'" laughed Maltin, "and wore tights and showed off her legs, and did everything that young actresses were expected to do in those cheesy Hollywood movies."
After a series of B pictures, she escaped to Broadway in 1958 and won her first Tony opposite Henry Fonda in "Two for the Seesaw." The stage and movie versions of "The Miracle Worker" followed. Her other Academy nominations: "The Pumpkin Eater" (1964); "The Graduate" (1967); "The Turning Point" (1977); "Agnes of God" (1985).
"I never wanted to be pigeonholed and I never wanted to play one part all the time," she said.
She was one of the few people to ever win the entertainment industry's "triple crown" — an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy.
In recent years, Bancroft appeared opposite Demi Moore as a feminist U.S. senator in "G.I. Jane," lent her voice to the computer-animated feature "Antz," and played for laughs in 2001's "Heartbreakers."
After an unhappy three-year marriage, Bancroft married comedian-director-producer Brooks in 1964. They met when she was rehearsing a musical number, "Married I Can Always Get," for the Perry Como television show.
"He yelled across the auditorium, 'Anne Bancroft, I'm Mel Brooks,' and I looked over at him and he looked just like my father, acted just like my mother and I said 'that's the one for me,'" she recalled.
A son, Maximilian, was born in 1972. She also is survived by her mother, two sisters, a daughter-in-law and a grandson.
When Bancroft watched Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick rehearse "The Producers," she realized how much she had missed the theater. In 2002 she returned to Broadway for the first time since 1981, appearing in Edward Albee's "Occupant."
She was born Sept. 17, 1931, in New York City to Italian immigrant parents. She recalled scrawling "I want to be an actress" on the back fence of her apartment when she was 9. Her mother encouraged her to enroll at the American Academy for Dramatic Arts.
Live television drama was flourishing in New York in the early 1950s, and Bancroft appeared in 50 shows in two years. "It was the greatest school that one could go to," she said in 1997. "You learn to be concentrated and focused."
Among her notable portrayals: a potential suicide in "The Slender Thread;" Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth;" actress Madge Kindle in "The Elephant Man;" Anthony Hopkins' pen pal in "84 Charing Cross Road" — "You'll see what wonderful acting is all about," says Maltin — and the Miss Havisham role in a modernized "Great Expectations."