Hello, The Graduate, our old friend. We’ve come to look at you again. The seminal 1967 satire helped usher in the “New Hollywood” era of moviemaking and turned an unknown actor named Dustin Hoffman into a star. It provided hotshot director Mike Nichols his first and only Oscar. It gave us “Mrs. Robinson” as a new slang term and reminded us of the importance of plastics. Here, while you’re sitting at the bottom of the pool in your scuba gear, read these behind-the-scenes details.
1. DUSTIN HOFFMAN HAD TO DROP OUT OF THE PRODUCERS TO STAR IN IT.
The young actor, who’d worked steadily in theater and TV throughout the 1960s but hadn’t had a major film role yet, was set to appear as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks’ first movie when The Graduate came along. Brooks didn’t blame Hoffman one bit for taking the bigger opportunity—especially since Brooks’s wife, Anne Bancroft, was already cast as Mrs. Robinson.
2. IN REAL LIFE, THERE WAS ONLY A SIX-YEAR AGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BENJAMIN AND MRS. ROBINSON.
What everyone remembers about The Graduate is that Benjamin is seduced by his parents’s middle-aged friend. “Mrs. Robinson” even became a slang term for a sexually aggressive older woman, what we today might call a “cougar.” But Bancroft was only 35 when the film was shot, and Hoffman was 29. Mike Nichols used lighting and makeup to give Bancroft an older look.
3. THE ADULTS ONLY HAVE LAST NAMES.
Even after they’ve begun sleeping together, Benjamin never calls Mrs. Robinson anything other than “Mrs. Robinson.” We never learn what her first name is—nor the first name of any other adult in the movie. Only Benjamin and his peers have first names, underscoring the generation gap at the heart of the movie.
4. THAT’S NOT A CHRIST REFERENCE AT THE END.
It may look like crucifixion imagery when Benjamin shows up to stop Elaine’s wedding and spreads his arms out across the church window, but there was actually a more practical reason for it. As Hoffman later explained, the idea was that Benjamin would be pounding his fists against the glass to get Elaine’s attention. But the minister of the church where they were filming was keeping a close eye on things, so pounding was out of the question. Instead, Hoffman spread his arms out against the window, suggesting urgency without doing any damage.
5. THE DIRECTOR HIJACKED AN UNRELATED PAUL SIMON SONG AND TURNED IT INTO THE MOVIE’S SIGNATURE TUNE.
Paul Simon had been contracted to write three new songs for The Graduate but had only produced one by the time editing was nearly done. Mike Nichols later recounted how he pestered Simon for more, anything, and Simon said he had a new number he was working on, but not for the movie. “It’s a song about times past—about Mrs. Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio and stuff,” Simon said. Nichols replied, “It’s now about Mrs. Robinson, not Mrs. Roosevelt.” And the rest is history.
6. GENE HACKMAN WAS FIRED FROM THE FILM.
Hackman had been hired to play Mrs. Robinson’s husband, but three weeks into rehearsal, Mike Nichols realized something: Hackman was too young. He was actually a year older than Anne Bancroft, who was playing his wife, but for whatever reason it wasn’t working. He and Nichols parted ways amiably, and Murray Hamilton took over the part.
7. NOBODY, INCLUDING DUSTIN HOFFMAN, THOUGHT DUSTIN HOFFMAN SHOULD STAR IN IT.
The obvious choice for the role of Benjamin Braddock—a privileged Beverly Hills kid with wealthy parents—was someone tan, handsome, white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Robert Redford was everyone’s first choice, but Nichols vetoed him on the grounds that the audience wouldn’t believe him as a character who has been rejected by women. Nichols auditioned hundreds of actors for the part. After seeing Hoffman’s audition, Nichols realized the key to the character should be that he’s out of place. He’s surrounded by tall, beautiful blond people, but he’s none of those things. Hoffman thought his audition had been terrible, but Nichols hired him, against the advice of the producers and financiers.
8. THAT FAMOUS POSTER USED A STUNT LEG.
The iconic image of Benjamin looking at Mrs. Robinson’s leg stretched across the frame does not feature the actual leg of Anne Bancroft. It’s Linda Gray, then an unknown model. (She said she was paid $25.) Gray went on to play Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas, and later starred in West End and Broadway productions of—wait for it—The Graduate. As Mrs. Robinson.
9. THE AUTHOR PATTERNED BENJAMIN AFTER HIMSELF, RIGHT DOWN TO HIS DISTASTE FOR HIS PARENTS’ WEALTH.
Charles Webb, the son of a successful San Francisco doctor, published The Graduate in 1963. He said Ben and Elaine were modeled after himself and his wife (there was no real-life Mrs. Robinson, though), and that included his anti-materialism attitude. He sold the movie rights to The Graduate for $20,000 (a pittance considering how valuable it later became), gave most of his royalties to charity, and turned down an inheritance from his father.
10. ONLY ONE OF THE TWO CREDITED SCREENWRITERS ACTUALLY WROTE THE MOVIE.
After producer Lawrence Turman had secured Mike Nichols to direct the film, he sent the novel to a screenwriter named William Hanley to take a crack at adapting it. Hanley’s draft was “horrible,” Nichols said, so they gave it to another writer, Calder Willingham, “who also turned in a script that I just wasn’t crazy about.” Nichols’ friend Buck Henry ended up writing the version that made it to the screen, but Henry had to share credit with Willingham. “The Writers Guild said that Willingham deserved partial credit,” Nichols said, “but to tell the truth, I didn’t use any of his script. It’s all Buck’s work.”
11. IT COULD HAVE STARRED THE BOY WONDER!
Burt Ward, then becoming very famous as the Caped Crusader’s sidekick in TV’s Batman, was offered the lead role by producer Turman. But Ward’s bosses nixed it. Ward said, “Because Batman was so enormous and successful ... they didn’t want to dilute anything to do with the character by having me play a different role. The studio wouldn’t let me do it.”
12. IT COULD HAVE STARRED ABOUT A MILLION OTHER PEOPLE, TOO.
Besides Redford and Ward, many other actors were considered for Benjamin, including Charles Grodin, who came very close to being cast before dropping out over money and scheduling. Elaine, eventually played by Katharine Ross, was supposed to be Candice Bergen, with Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, and Jane Fonda on the wish list, too. Nichols’ top choice for Benjamin’s father (William Daniels) was Ronald Reagan, who was just then going into politics. Doris Day turned down Mrs. Robinson because the book was too dirty (according to one telling, her husband-slash-manager didn’t even show it to her). And when Nichols visited Ava Gardner, who’d expressed interest in playing Mrs. Robinson, she acted like a nutty movie star. She declared, unasked, that she wouldn’t take off her clothes, and said she’d been trying all day to place a phone call to Ernest Hemingway, who really was a friend of hers but who’d been dead for five years.