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Written by Timothy Sexton
If you stop to a moment to take notice of the last names of the characters around whom The Graduate revolves, you will soon come to a remarkably insightful realization: Braddock, Robinson, McGuire…Smith. Not a Berg or Feld or Stein to be found. The only world that Benjamin Braddock has ever known has been overwhelmingly white, predominantly Christian (mostly Protestant) and decidedly segregated from ethnic sensibilities. For this reason, the names that got tossed around the most when the plum role of Benjamin was being cast were tall, conventionally good-looking guys who looked like they stepped right out of the Braddock’s neighborhood: Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and—the first choice—Charles Grodin. Other actors said to be considered ranged from Jack Nicholson to TV’s Robin Burt Ward. So how did a short Jewish actor finally wind up playing a role seemingly written with a Redford or Beatty in mind? Sheer acting talent combined with the fact that guys like Redford and Beatty looked like they’d never been afraid of a woman in their lives.
Mrs. Robinson is, perhaps, the most iconic “older woman” in Hollywood sex comedy history. One can fairly assert that she is also the prototypical movie “cougar” whose age, experience and sheer personality is enough to dial up Benjamin’s anxiety level to 11. If the casting of an utterly unknown short Jewish stage actor as Benjamin is the most surprising casting element associated with the movie, then the second most surprisingly thing must surely be that this scary older woman is actually not nearly old enough to be Dustin Hoffman’s mother; she could barely pass as his older sister. In reality, Anne Bancroft was a mere six years the senior of Hoffman. Even the producer’s dream choice to play Mrs. Robinson wasn’t even fifteen years older than Hoffman. Not that it would have mattered if she’d been twenty years old; Doris Day immediately rejected the offer on the grounds that the story was immoral.
Two years following the release of The Graduate, Katherine Ross actually would be cast as the love interest of Robert Redford in a film that was actually a slightly bigger commercial success when she took on the role of the Sundance Kid’s mistress. Like Hoffman, Ross was also not nearly young enough to be the offspring of Anne Bancroft as a mere eight years separate their births. Also like Hoffman, Ross would go from unknown to superstar as a result of the film, although her career would not be quite as spectacular. Unlike her romantic co-star, Ross most assuredly does look as though she would be right at home within the suburban milieu of the Braddocks and Robinsons, but then so would have Candice Bergen, Tuesday Weld, Lee Remick and Susanne Pleshette.
Mr. Braddock (Benjamin’s dad)
William Daniels was a solid character routinely seen in guest starring roles on various TV shows both prior to and immediately following The Graduate. Perhaps best known to movie audience as the hilariously uptight social worker in A Thousand Clowns, his recognizable face was perfect for the part of Benjamin’s father. Fifteen years after the release of The Graduate, Daniels would finally find the part he was born to play: heart surgeon Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere for which he won two Best Actor in a Drama Emmy Awards.
Everybody instantly recognizes Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. Many people also instantly recognize the actor who plays Mr. Robinson, but not for that particular role. In a long career that includes a guest role on seemingly every crime drama to appear on television between the 1950s and the 1990s, two roles on the big screen stick out on the resume of Murray Hamilton: Mr. Robinson, of course, and the role for which he is certainly most recognized: the evil Mayor Vaughn in Jaws.
Like Hamilton and Daniels, Walter Burke was a face that regularly shows up on a single episode of many TV shows. Even if he had never acted again in his life, however, Burke would be assured film immortality as the result of one single word his character utters in The Graduate. “Plastics.” That one word is situated at number 42 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most memorable quotes from the first 100 years of American movies and Walter Burke is arguably the most obscure actor to speak any of the lines on that list.
Carl Smith is the preppie whom Elaine Robinson is in the process of marrying before the wedding ceremony is notoriously interrupted by the arrival of Benjamin. Avery looked exactly like the kind of actor who would have been cast as Benjamin if only he’d had had more personality.
Boarding House Resident
A very small uncredited role in The Graduate marked the first big screen appearance of Richard Dreyfuss after a few years of steady employment as a guest actor appearing on TV shows. Interestingly, the role that would catapult Dreyfuss to the top of the A-list shares something in common with the story of Dustin Hoffman and Benjamin Braddock. That role would be Matt Hooper in Jaws and Dreyfuss would be another short Jewish actor who would win the role of a character described in terms not far removed from Robert Redford or Warren Beatty.
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