Actress Anne Bancroft, 1931-2005

by Scott Holleran
Anne Bancroft
June 7, 2005

The actress who portrayed Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, in the 1962 film version of William Gibson's play, The Miracle Worker, died of uterine cancer on Monday at age 73, it was widely reported.

Born to Italian immigrant parents in the Bronx, New York City, on Sept. 17, 1931, her acting career spanned several decades on stage and screen, including movie roles as a countess in The Hindenburg (1975), a ballerina in The Turning Point (1977) and a nun in Agnes of God (1985). She was cast as assassin Bridget Fonda's trainer in Point of No Return (1993), a remake of La Femme Nikita, and she provided the voice of the queen in the computer-animated Antz in 1998.

But it was her role in the popular drama, The Miracle Worker, with which she would be most ceremoniously associated. After widespread praise for playing a blind teacher named Annie Sullivan—whose radical approach to the instruction of a deaf, dumb and blind Alabama pupil named Helen Keller became legendary—she was cast in the movie version.

According to Turner Classic Movies, the studio, United Artists, reportedly made director Arthur Penn and playwright William Gibson an offer: five million dollars for casting Elizabeth Taylor as Annie Sullivan or half a million dollars for using Miss Bancroft. They remained loyal to Anne Bancroft—who had won a Tony Award for her stage performance—and the studio backed down. Miss Bancroft won the Best Actress Oscar in 1962.

She had made her movie debut in a 1952 picture called Don't Bother to Knock starring Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe. Miss Bancroft was called upon to replace actress Patricia Neal, who had suffered a stroke, in director John Ford's last picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 7 Women (1966), in which she played a doctor among Christian missionaries who smokes, swears and does not believe in God.

Besides winning the Oscar, Miss Bancroft was nominated for an Academy Award on four other occasions: for her role opposite Peter Finch and James Mason in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), for her portrayal of Mrs. Robinson, the predatory older woman who seduces her daughter's boyfriend in The Graduate (1967), as Shirley MacLaine's friend and rival in The Turning Point (1977) and for her role as Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985). She also portrayed Mary Magdalene in NBC's 1977 television miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth.

The actress married comedian and producer Mel Brooks in 1964, and she starred in his farce, the 1983 remake To Be or Not to Be. She appeared as herself in his Silent Movie (1976) and had a small part in his Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). Their son, Maximilian, and one grandchild also survive Miss Bancroft, who was briefly married before her union with Mr. Brooks.

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