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Anne Bancroft, at 73; from stage to television to screen, a spirited force

Anne Bancroft, the fiery, funny, larger-than-life actress who turned the role of a bored adulteress into a household name, died of cancer yesterday at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York at the age of 73.

She will be remembered as many things: an eternal Manhattanite, the wife and co-conspirator of comic madman Mel Brooks, one of the few winners of acting's triple crown, a performer whose theatrical gifts could shade into subtlety or blossom into outright ham.

More than anything, two roles burned Ms. Bancroft into the popular consciousness. As Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, in ''The Miracle Worker," the actress won a 1959 Tony (her second) and a 1962 best actress Oscar (her first and only win out of five nominations).

And as the coldhearted suburban seductress in ''The Graduate" (1967), she won something more lasting: entry into the pop culture encyclopedia we all carry in our heads.

You only have to utter the words ''Mrs. Robinson," and there Ms. Bancroft is, wrapped in leopard prints, clutching a martini, and barking at Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin to get into bed while Simon and Garfunkel ''doot-doot" in the background. She turned the character into everything the counterculture feared and pitied about their parents; it's telling that we never learn her first name.

''Her combination of brains, humor, frankness, and sense were unlike any other artist," Mike Nichols, the movie's director, said in a statement yesterday. ''Her beauty was constantly shifting with her roles, and because she was a consummate actress, she changed radically for every part."

Ms. Bancroft wasn't the first choice for Mrs. Robinson -- bizarrely, Doris Day was a candidate -- and she sometimes chafed at the way it typecast her in life.

''I didn't appreciate it at first," she told The New York Times in 2002. ''As the years went on, I began to have fun and take pleasure in it. To this day, when men meet me, there's always that movie in the back of their minds."

That's a measure of how much enjoyment Ms. Bancroft took in life, a full-bodied delight that extended to her performances and to life with Brooks. They co-starred in only one film together, but it's a pip: the underrated 1983 comedy remake ''To Be or Not To Be," in which the couple play a married pair of stage actors more in love with themselves than each other.

Ms. Bancroft also was influential in getting her husband to sit down and write that musical version of his 1968 film ''The Producers" he'd been talking about. The rest is Broadway history.

Pretty good for a nice Italian girl from the Bronx. Born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in 1931, she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan and found work in the fertile fields of early live TV. She called herself Anne Marno at that point, but when she headed west to sign a contract at 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck pulled ''Bancroft" out of thin air.

Fifteen movies in five years followed -- from co-starring with Marilyn Monroe in ''Don't Bother To Knock" (1952) to the less lofty ''Gorilla at Large" and ''Demetrius and the Gladiators" (both 1954) -- and when Ms. Bancroft returned to New York at the end of her contract, she also left behind former husband Martin May, whom she had married in 1952.

A Hollywood acquaintance, director Arthur Penn, cast her on Broadway opposite Henry Fonda in ''Two for the Seesaw." She won a Tony, and her career was off and running. Penn also directed her in ''Miracle Worker" (both play and film) and, in general, taught her to aspire toward something more than being a movie star.

''I hadn't yet really tasted acting at its most complex," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. ''Once I did taste it, which is when I started working for Arthur Penn, I was flabbergasted. I began thinking about the parts, the plays, the films and was just thrilled about what could happen. It changed my whole outlook."

Ms. Bancroft made three films between ''Miracle Worker" and ''Graduate," all underappreciated. ''7 Women" (1966) was John Ford's last feature film, a strange, intermittently powerful movie about women missionary doctors in China. ''The Slender Thread" (1965) is an acting showdown between a suicidal Ms. Bancroft and Sidney Poitier as a college student working a crisis hotline. And ''The Pumpkin Eater" (1964), written by Harold Pinter, is a masterpiece that contains what may be Ms. Bancroft's finest screen performance, as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to Peter Finch.

After ''The Graduate," Ms. Bancroft relaxed a little. Married to Brooks in 1964, she took time off to bring up their son, Maximilian, who was born in 1972. She leaves her son, now an actor and TV writer, and Brooks.

By the time she returned to the screen, it was in headstrong instructor roles, such as 1980's ''The Turning Point," in which she famously dukes it out with Shirley MacLaine, or as aggravating mothers (''Garbo Talks" 1984; '''Night, Mother," 1986). Her turn as a mother superior in ''Agnes of God" (1985) resulted in her final Oscar nomination; besides ''Miracle Worker," the others were for ''The Graduate," ''The Pumpkin Eater," and ''The Turning Point."

In the 1990s, as meaty film roles dried up, Ms. Bancroft turned increasingly to television. She had already won a 1970 Emmy for the variety special ''Annie, the Women in the Life of a Man," and she picked up another for 1999's ''Deep in My Heart," playing the mother of a woman (Gloria Reuben) who discovers she's a child of rape.

Ms. Bancroft's role was based on Dorchester's Gerry Cummins, who was thrilled with the actress's performance. ''She did a wonderful job," Cummins said yesterday. ''I know she had trouble with the Boston accent, but she's excellent." Cummins recalled that the two kept in touch with Christmas and birthday cards over the years, a mark of Ms. Bancroft's no-nonsense sincerity.

The actress peered into the souls of many different women over the years, but the girl from the Bronx remained the constant beneath.

Material from wire services and Globe staff writer Mark Shanahan was used in this report.

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