“The room number, Benjamin. I think you ought to tell me that.”
Mike Nichols . 1967
At one point, Mike Nichols lambasted his producer.
“Turman, you SOB, you got me into a movie that can’t be cast
The Best Man producer Lawrence Turman read a New York Times review of the book, went out and bought it. Twice. Once from a bookshop, and then film rights from the author. “The book haunted me. I identified with it, personally… I took out an option with my own money, something I counsel my students not to do.” He had a deal with Broadway genius Mike Nichols to direct. “It seemed like a hand-glove fit to me,” he said of the book’s mordant humour matching that of Nichols.
And that’s all Turman had. No money, No studio. No deal. No script. Nothing to move forward with. He needed a partner who was loaded. In New York at that time, that meant the schlockmeister of the hour, a one-time cinema owner turned distributor and producer called Joseph E Levine. He looked like one of the 30/40s Hollywood czars. He had an enviable track record. “He would buy junky fjlms,” said Turman, ”have an imaginative, aggressive ad campaign and plaster his own name all over it.” For example, he bought Australia’s Walk Into Paradise and made a mint by releasing it as Walk Into Hell. Hell sells!
He brought Godzilla and Attila to America. He made a killing with a musclebound Italian sword ‘n’ sand romp – which he called called Hercules Unchained – by the simple, if expensive, expedient of spending $125,000 on dubbing and a whopping $1.25m on promotion – including the first (and last) use of full-pageads in newspapers around the world. He’d also been associated with the off-Broadway production of The Knack – directed Mike Nichols, who Joe knew was Elizabeth Taylor’s choice to make to make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
Levine craved respectability. So he e “nursed” Sophia Loren to her Oscar for Two Women, and won a $30m Paramount deal, resulting in The Carpetbaggers, Nevada Smith, Harlow. Yet he was also the producer of Brigitte Bardot’s Le mepris, who saw the first cut and gave precise orders to Jean-Luc Godard, no less. “No, no, this won’t do. I gotta see Bardot’s ass!” He got his way “Tu les trouves jolies, mes fesses?” etc.
”I don’t even know if he ‘got’ the book,” said Turman, “but he climbed aboard.” A deal was struck. Joe knew the importance of Mike Nichols, even before making his film directing debut with Who’’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? Even so, it was difficult to take the schlock out of Joe. ViewingThe Graduate as a little art-house movie (‘which meant a soft porno,” said Dustin Hoffman), Joe called in his stars, Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, to pose for a poster picture. She was to be sitting on a bed, he would be standing, naked, facing her and she would be clutching his butt! “The only reason that didn’t happen,” said Hoffman, “was that Nichols found out. I think Anne also said: Nothing doin’!”
While the credits state the script is by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, “It’s all Buck’s,” Turman and repeatedly confirmed. He found the Willingham version vulgar and Nichols suggested Buck, who thought the book had the best pitch ever. “This kid graduates from college and has an affair with his parents’ best friend and then falls in love with the friend’s daughter! But give that to 20 writers and you’ve got 20 scripts. It’s just odd to me that it hasn’t been done a 100 times.”
The film proved there #1 critical and box-office e success of the year. Tom Hanks called it the Citizen Kane of disaffected youth.
Benjamin Braddock . “I interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of men,” recalled Mike Nichols. He wanted Robert Redford (having directed him in Broadway’s but not Hollywood’s Barefoot in the Park) and as written by Charles Webb, Braddock was Redford – as the old song put it: “six foot-two, eyes of blue.” Nichols tested hm with Candice Bergen and the director immediately realised his error. The public would never buy Redford as a loser with girls. Idem for Warren Beatty, George Hamilton, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Wagner… None of them would have had to ask: “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me – aren’t you?” They’d know!
Redford didn’t care about losing a role he had no interest in but he was bemused by Nichols’ reasons. “Well” said Mike, have you ever struck out with a girl?’ And he said: ‘What do you mean?’ It made my point.”
Turman said they saw a million kids… From Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to the kid from Shane(Brandon De Wilde, now 25 and dead in a Denver road accident by 30). Mike must have loved Shane. He not only saw Brandon but the Western’s chilling gunfighter, Jack Palance, as well – for Mr Robinson. (Well, it was made by Mike’s favourite director, George Stevens. Before making his screen directing debut withWho’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, Mike watched the1949 Stevens classic, A Place in the Sun, more than 20 times. “Everything you need to know about movies is in that film.”
Stuck in the hunt for Benjamin, Jack Nicholson remembered:
“They considered every actor I was eating lunch with.”
The contenders included: Keir Dullea, Albert Finney, Harrison Ford, Steve McQueen (!), future David Lynch regular Jack Nance, Michael Parks, Gene Wilder. Oh, and Hoffman’s room-mate, Robert Duvall. (Gene Hackman also shared their digs and he was fired from Mr Robinson). The prerequisite outsider: was a MGM pactee turning docu-director, Lee Stanley.
Nichols used as many of ”the kids” as he could. Mike Farrell (TV’s M*A*S*H) and Kevin Tighe won screen debuts. Richard Dreyfuss, for example, got an actual line – “Shall I get the cops? I’ll get the cops.” Muchbetter than just walk-ons for Brian Avery (in TV until 2018) and Donald F Glut (TV’s Frankenstein monster in the 50s). (Nichols also called Charles Grodin and Anthony Perkins back for his 1969 satire, Catch 22).
Burt Ward, aka Robin, The Boy Wonder, for 50 hours of the 1965-1967 Batman TV series, said that his studio, Fox, refused to allow him to make the movie. Holy conspiracy! “That would have been one heck of a part to get,” said Burt. “But the TV show was so hot, they didn’t want to detract from it.” Ever typecast, the boyish Ward was satill Robvin – voicing him in 2018 videos. He later founded an educational programming company.
“We tested Tony Bill,” recalled Turman. “Charles Grodin came in for a reading, and it was a terrific reading’” They heard about Dustin Hoffman and his 30-second scene in The Tiger Makes Out. “Somehow, we arranged to go see that… [and] decided to test him, too.”
“A guy who looked like Dustin could play Benjamin,” said Nichols.
“A guy who looked like Redford would be a joke.”
Hoffman knew his place. He didn’t want to test with or without the wondrous Candice Bergen. He felt he was being made fun of… a Jew being asked to play a WASP. “I’m not supposed to be in movies. An ethnic actor is supposed to be in an ethnic, off-Broadway show… I talked to Mike: ‘I’m not right for this part, sir. This is a Gentile. This is a WASP. This is Robert Redford….’ I know I’m a character actor but there’s a limit,”
Nichols replied: “You mean he’s not Jewish?” And then hit him with his famous zinger winner. “Well, maybe he’s Jewish inside. Why don’t you come out and audition for us?”
Katharine Ross recalls their test. “We were nervous, nothing seemed to be working. He kept saying: ‘This is terrible.’ He didn’t use that word. ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever done.’ He didn’t use those words, either.”
And so he became Benjamin. “There is no piece of casting in the 20th century that I know of,” said Dustin, “that is more courageous than putting me in that part.” He got $17,000 and was then jobless and back on welfare for months. Until catching the Midnight Cowboy bus. Then, his life changed forever – 84 screen roles in in 58 years…
in the final script, the Braddocks were not just a nouveau riche Beverly Hills family – but Jewish. Because Nichols understood, said IMD, that his film had a subconsciously autobiographical element about being an ethnic outsider in a privileged WASP society.
And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson… Lawrence Turman had a handwritten wish list of a dozen star Ingrid, Ava to Jeanne, Shelley…
As older European women were renowned, supposedly, for sexually educating young men, Nichols first fancied Mrs R as Anouk Aimée (future wife of Albert Finney, from the Benjamin shortlist), Ingrid Bergman, Claire Bloom, Deborah Kerr (remember Tea and Sympathy?), Sophia Loren (Joe Levine’s favourite star), Jeanne Moreau, delicious Jean Simmons – and, remembering her Room at the Top smouldering (not to mention Casque d’Or), Simone Signoret. She told him, more or less: “You don’t want me, Mike. But you do need Katharine Ross for the daughter. We just made Games together and I recommend her to you.”
Nichols also wanted Simon & Garfunkel songs. When Turman said he couldn’t have both, Mike realised that, like the songs, the woman had to be American – and, thereby, hypocritically viewed more as predator than educator.
So why on earth did Nichols think of Doris Day??!!
Well, he didn’t. Turman did.
The idea was spurred on by Nichols’ decision have the film looking like a Doris Day picture, where “California is like America in italics.” Doris, however, could not see herself “rolling around in the sheets with a young man half my age whom I’d seduced.”
Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn and Angela Lansbury were all keen on what had disgusted Mr Doris, her husband and (crooked) manager Martin Melcher. Nichols turned from Broadway’s Grayson Hall, Geraldine Page to scrumptious Angie Dickinson, Susan Hayward (or so she claimed), Rita Hayworth, Eva Marie Saint and veterans Jennifer Jones, Eleanor Parker, Rosalind Russell, Shelley Winters. Even Judy Garland! Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… aren’t you?” “Not until I’ve finished singing, honey.”
The Graduate proved to be the final film rejected by Anne Baxter and Lana Turner as well as two of Mike’s Virginia Woolf suggestions, Ingrid Bergman and Rosalind Russell. He had also wanted to put Patricia Neal back to work in the same film aznd as Mrs R, after her multiple strokes during John Ford’s finale, 7 Women, in 1965. (Ford, ironically replaced her with Mrs Robinson, herself, Anne Bancroft).
But Patricia told the man she’d advised not to go into the business: “I’m not sure I can remember lines and I still have a limp.” Nichols replied: “Herbert Marshall had a wooden leg and no one ever noticed it.” And, indeed, Neal came back a year later in The Subject Was Roses… and played a futher 31 other screen roles (among her 73) up to her death in 2010.
Ava Gardner had not made a film since 1964. She showed the script to her Madrid friend, Betty Sicre. “Ava, this is great!” Ava was flown to New York to meet the suits. Mike thought she was too old, but agreed to see her. And she claimed her hit on her. Their hotel rooms had connecting doors – and this became her excuse for passing. “Nichols was coming on to me. He expected me to unlock the doors.” Hardly Nichols’ style. Betty Sicre figured Ava simply blew it. She (a) “got drunk during the evening interview and Nichols decided she’d be too iffy to work with” and (b) “I don’t think she could do it at the time.”
According to Nichols, Ava had quickly stated: “First of all, I strip for nobody.” Spanish bullfighters would disagree.
Nor would the winning Anne Bancroft. She had a no-nudity clause in her contract. During her love scene with Dustin Hoffman, a Sunset Strip-per was called in. Two, in fact. The first wouldn’t remove her pasties. And that’s not Annie’s leg in the famous poster, either, but that of model Linda Gray, soon to be Sue-Ellen in Dallas and, indeed Mrs. Robinson in Terry Johnson’s London stage adaptation. In various UK and US productions Mrs R would be played by, among others, Anne Archer, Glynis Barber, Amanda Donohoe, Morgan Fairchild, Lorraine Bracco, Jerry Hall and Kathleen Turner.
“We didn’t offer it to anyone else except Annie,” declared Nichols. “Everyone cautioned her to turn it down. How can you go from the saintly Annie Sullivan [in The Miracle Worker, 1962] to the Medusa-like Mrs. Robinson? Too risky.” Annie, it must be said, looked very much Nichols’ former satirical-comedy partner, Elaine May. Hey hey hey.
Elaine Robinson . Broadway’s Nichols went tio LA and saw, tested, auditioned almost every babe of the correct age for Mrs Robinson’s daughter. From Baby Doll to Lolita, by way of Saint Joan and The Flying Nun… Julie Christie (Katharine Ross was quite the US Christie,if for a much shorter period), Faye Dunaway (who chose Bonnie and Clyde, like her fired “father,” Gene Hackman).Patty Duke, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine (at 33… !!), Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Jean Seberg.
Nichols was deaf to the pleas from Joan Collins and Raquel Welch. He had his own ideas. Some were quite stupid. Such as testing the 1955 Baby Doll, Carroll Baker (from Joe Levine’s The Carpetbaggers) for the same part as such youngsters as Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Hayley Mills, Pamela Tiffin, Tuesday Weld! At 36, Carroll was better suited to Mrs Robinson – so were Lee Remick and Natalie Wood. Mike never forgot Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen (a close friend), which is why they’re in his Carnal Knowledge, 1970
Scenarist Buck Henry told TCM how “some guy brought in Katharine Ross and immediately all our hearts started beating really fast… I didn’t care if she could act. I just wanted to look at that face and that hair for an hour and a half. And, um, that was that.”
Mike Nichols’cheekiest notion for Elaine was Elizabeth Ashley…
after short-listing her husband, George Peppard, to play… her father!
Mr Robinson . Dustin Hoffman suggested his room-mate Gene Hackman, for the role. “Three weeks into rehearsal,” recalled Hoffman, “Gene said to me while he was taking a leak in the men’s room: I think I’m getting fired’ And he was and I thought I was next. I was on pins and needles, terrified that Mike Nichols didn’t like what I was doing.”
“A painful experience,” declared Hackman. “My fault, I guess I didn’t understand Mr Robinson because I couldn’t make him funny. [Nichols orders were: “It’s a comedy, but please don’t try to be funny.”] That’s why I believe it takes ten years to become an actor. Luckily, Bonnie and Clyde was just gonna be released. If I hadn’t had a really good performance under me, that would have really done me great damage.” Thirty years on, Gene finally worked with Nichols in both Postcards From The Edge, 1990, and The Birdcage, 1996.
Turman and Nichols sent the Charles Webb book to Brian Keith. “He came into our office,” said Mike. “He said: I think it’s the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever read. I said: ‘Well, then we won’t do it. You agree, Larry?’ Turman said: ‘Absolutely.’ I said: ‘Thank you, Mr Keith. You’ve saved us a lot of trouble.’ Turman and I both stood up and Keith had to get up and leave. It was fun.”
Other potential husbands for a predatory Anne Bancroft included eternal rivals Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra… solid character players Howard Duff, Brian Keith, Walter Matthau, Jack Palance.. The youngest suggestion at 39 and looking younger was George Peppard… five years younger than the winning Murray Hamilton, future Mayor Vaughn in Jaws and Jaws 2. “Helluva script,” said Duff. “Everyone who saw it wanted in. They don’t come along like that very often.” Duff’s next film, had him playing Hoffman’s lawyer in Kramer v Kramer, 1979.
Mr Braddock . Even gettjng a father for the titular was tough. Apparently, many seniors were put off by Hoffman’s “weird” looks; The New York Times had called him a cross between Ringo Starr and Buster Keaton. ”I never felt as unattractive as I did while making The Graduate.”
“Larry Turman thought I was too young for the part,” said Williams Daniels. “But Mike was just interested in having the people he wanted – so, they aged me up.”
Nichols had various surprise choices. Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Karl Malden, Robert Mitchum, Christopher Plummer… even (in sheer desperation?) Ronald Reagan. But Ronnie had other things on his plate. With his eyes on the White House, Ronnie was too busy running for Governor of California.
[This essay would be far less fun fun without the testimonies of many in Ash Carter and Sam Kashner’s wondrous compilation:
Mike Nichols, as remembered by 150 of his closest friends, Henry Holt and Company, 2019].