She was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, but she’d make her unforgettable mark on the world as Anne Bancroft.
And now a new Blu-ray box set celebrates the life of the Oscar-winning actress, singer and director, who died in 2005 at age 73.
In the opinion of one “expert,” it’s a long-overdue homage.
“Not only was she truly gifted but she was smart in every way,” said Bancroft’s husband of 45 years, the legendary filmmaker/comedian Mel Brooks. “And these films are GREAT!”
“The Anne Bancroft Collection” box set (Shout! Factory) spans the actress’ six-decade career via eight films familiar and obscure. It’s those lesser-known “marvelous films,” Brooks said, that he wants people to experience.
Those lesser-known vehicles include films such as the 1962 thriller “Don’t Bother to Knock,” her first feature film — opposite Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark — in which the 20-year-old Bancroft plays a hotel lounge singer.
“The Pumpkin Eater” (1964) is a British film about a dissatisfied housewife in the 1950s dealing with a philandering husband (played by Peter Finch) and her own depression (something no one dare speak of in those days). “Nobody has seen the film!,” the 93-year-old Brooks said emphatically. “Nobody knows how good it is. And it’s a masterpiece!”
The set also includes some of her best-known films including “The Graduate” (1967, perhaps her most iconic film work this side of 1962’s “The Miracle Worker,” also included in the set), in which Bancroft portrayed the married “older” woman seducing the young college grad played by Dustin Hoffman (who was in real life only six years younger than Bancroft at the time); the backstage musical/wartime romance “To Be or Not To Be” (1983, which co-starred Brooks); the controversial “Agnes of God” (1985); the 1980 comedy “Fatso,” and “84 Charing Cross Road” (1987) a post-WWII British drama opposite Anthony Hopkins, which earned Bancroft her third BAFTA for best actress in a leading role.
The Bronx-born Bancroft was bitten by the acting bug as a child, performing in her living room and then for the neighbors, and anyone else who’d stop to hear her sing. She enrolled in the Academy of Dramatic Arts and by the early 1950s was already on Hollywood’s radar.
Her early films were B-list at best, including “Gorilla at Large” and “Demetrius and the Gladiators,” which afforded the actress — who had honed her craft at the legendary Actors Studio in New York — little in which to sink her acting teeth.
Bancroft returned to New York to pursue more fulfilling acting opportunities. “Annie was fed up,” Brooks said. “She wanted to act. There was no acting in [the films she was making].”
Broadway vehicles such as “Two for the Seesaw” and “The Miracle Worker,” both from playwright William Gibson, would afford her the formidable work she sought. The latter would lead Bancroft to a Tony Award for her portrayal of Annie Sullivan, the spunky, determined teacher to Helen Keller, played by a teenage Patty Duke. She would win a best actress Oscar a year later, reprising her role for the film version. (Bancroft’s Tony and Oscar win for the same role is a rare show business achievement.)
Bancroft and Brooks met in 1961 when she was making a guest singing appearance on “The Perry Como Show.” “She was from the Bronx and I was from Brooklyn — two totally different countries,” Brooks quipped. He went to check out the rehearsals with a friend, fully intending to meet the actress he’d heard so much about.
“This VISION comes out,” Brooks said excitedly, “and I fell in love. I said to myself, ‘Holy s—-, this is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my life. She finishes singing “Married I Can Always Get’ and I yell out, ‘Anne Bancroft I love you!’ And she yells back, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And I said, ‘Mel Brooks.’ And she said, ‘I’ve got your record! [“The 2000 Year Old Man”]. You’re a genius!’”
He “courted” Bancroft by showing up everywhere she happened to be (thanks to savvy reconnaissance by her friends, Brooks said). They married three year later.
Brooks, the dynamo behind such irreverent comedy classics as “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “History of the World Part I,” said he never gave his wife any advice about filmmaking, except one brief note, when she directed her first feature film “Fatso” (which she also wrote) in 1980, starring Dom DeLuise.
“She’d give me the script and the only thing I said was you’re a little long on character and a little short on story,” Brooks said, chuckling. “She fixed that in one night.”
Brooks’ career will be feted Dec. 13 in the HBO special “Mel Brooks Unwrapped” (it airs locally at 9 p.m.).
“One of my best friends in the world is [BBC television interviewer] Alan Yentob,” Brooks said. “Over 30 years he’s been coming to America or I’ve gone to England and he interviews me. We talk about things. Sometimes I curse him. Sometimes we fight. But he took some 20 interviews we’ve done over the 30 years and took some interesting anecdotes and the best of my movie appearances and made a show. It played on BBC and got fantastic reviews and he said I think it would work in America.
“I’m unwrapped,” he continued, noting the title of the special. “Some of the things I do are so terrible! I’m so bad. I do things that are just silly. But I’m me. But it’s just bad taste all the way. It should be called ‘Mel Brooks: Bad Taste.’”
Still, he said, it’s a great way to get to know him and his love of filmmaking — and his music. After all, he’s crafted such tuneful classics as “Springtime for Hitler and Germany,” (from the 1967 film “The Producers”) and “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” (from the 1970 film “The Twelve Chairs”).
“Some of my lyrics are brilliant,” Brooks said, singing: ‘Hope for the best, expect the worst/You could be Tolstoy or Fannie Hurst.’”
Brooks added that a songbook of his music and lyrics to all his movie tunes is being compiled and is due out next year.
“All these songs I’ve done, like ‘High Anxiety’ and ‘The Inquisition’ – you know the songs, but you can’t find them anywhere [outside the films].’ ”