Pro­ducer Larry Tur­man re­mem­bers a clas­sic on its 50th an­niver­sary. Top of the class!


FIFTY YEARS OLD this year, The Graduate changed the face of mod­ern cinema. The story of Ben­jamin Brad­dock (Dustin Hoff­man), a dis­il­lu­sioned col­lege graduate who is se­duced by older woman Mrs Robin­son (Anne Ban­croft), then falls for her daugh­ter Elaine (Katharine Ross), its in­flu­ence ran from re­defin­ing the no­tion of the Hol­ly­wood lead­ing man to push­ing back the bound­aries of on-screen moral­ity and crys­tallis­ing the youth­ful cyn­i­cism of the ’60s. It also so­lid­i­fied a raft of new tal­ent, from Hoff­man to the al­ready Os­car-nom­i­nated di­rec­tor Mike Ni­chols. Yet only one man was there from be­gin­ning to end. The Graduate was pro­ducer Lawrence Tur­man’s stylish, slightly ironic baby. Now 91, Tur­man talks Em­pire through the de­ci­sions that de­fined a mas­ter­piece… THE DEAL On 30 Oc­to­ber 1963, Tur­man, then 36, read a New York Times re­view of Charles Webb’s novel

The Graduate. He im­me­di­ately bought the book and “re­sponded to it vis­cer­ally”. Such was his pas­sion, Tur­man op­tioned the book with his own money for $1,000 (“At that time in my life it was a sub­stan­tial amount for me, it grabbed me by the throat”) and shopped it around the ma­jor stu­dios. “No­body liked the book, no­body thought it was funny,” he re­calls. On a “hunch” Tur­man sent the book to Mike Ni­chols, who was then about to shoot Who’s Afraid Of Vir­ginia Woolf ?, and made him a unique of­fer. “I told him, ‘I have no fi­nanc­ing but let’s do this,’” re­calls Tur­man. “‘You and I will be part­ners: what­ever money comes in we will split it down the mid­dle. And we will share cre­ative con­trol and de­ci­sions.’” Sens­ing a kin­dred spirit, Ni­chols signed on. Some five years later, the de­ci­sion would bring Ni­chols an Academy Award for Best Di­rec­tor.

The money even­tu­ally ar­rived from an un­likely source. Pro­ducer Joseph E. Levine was, in Tur­man’s words “a schlock­meis­ter” who bought Ital­ian films such as Her­cules Un­chained, plas­tered his name over the ads and made a quick buck. Want­ing the ca­chet the fast-ris­ing Ni­chols would bring, Levine of­fered Tur­man a bud­get capped at $1 mil­lion (al­though it even­tu­ally cost $3 mil­lion). “I teach this to stu­dents — any­body’s money is good money,” says Tur­man. THE SCRIPT If you look at the cred­its of The Graduate it says “Screen­play By Calder Willing­ham And Buck Henry”. The re­al­ity is that not of a word of Willing­ham’s hand­i­work is in the fin­ished film (he only re­ceived a credit after WGA ar­bi­tra­tion). “I did 100 per cent of the script work with Calder,” says Tur­man. “When we fin­ished, the script re­sem­bled the book but it was vul­gar. He added in all kinds of overt in­nu­endo to a book that was al­ready strongly sex­ual for the 1960s. So I gave the script to Mike and said, ‘Here is the fin­ished script, but I don’t like it. I’ll be sur­prised if you do.’ Mike said, ‘Larry, if you don’t like it, I don’t want to read it.’”

It was sub­se­quently Ni­chols’ idea to hire Buck Henry, a com­edy ac­tor and story edi­tor,

to take a pass. For Henry, The Graduate was the “best pitch I ever heard” and he ripped much of the di­a­logue di­rectly from the novel, al­though the clas­sic ad­vice dis­pensed to Ben­jamin by Mr Robin­son (Mur­ray Hamil­ton) — “One word: plas­tics!” — is all Henry. “Buck has a wry sense of hu­mour and The Graduate’s com­edy is sort of off-cen­tre,” adds Tur­man. “It’s like Pin­ter: it’s funny but it makes you ner­vous at the same time.” But nail­ing the screen­play was easy com­pared to find­ing the cast.


In Webb’s novel, Ben­jamin Brad­dock was the ar­che­typal blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP. Back in the early ’60s, that meant Robert Red­ford. Hav­ing worked with Ni­chols on Broad­way in

Bare­foot In The Park, Red­ford seemed a shoo-in but Tur­man had one reser­va­tion: “I loved Bob, but who in the world would be­lieve he would be in­se­cure around a girl — no­body!”

Not giv­ing up, Ni­chols in­vited Tur­man to din­ner, only to blind­side the pro­ducer by also invit­ing Red­ford to ex­plain why he wouldn’t cast the ac­tor. “I said, ‘Mike, you are so naughty but let’s test him. I want to be proved wrong.” A screen test was hastily ar­ranged op­po­site Candice Ber­gen — ‘Candy’ to Tur­man — as Elaine. “Halfway through the test, Ni­chols turns to me and says, “Tur­man, you son of a bitch, you’re right.”

Also screen tested for Ben­jamin were Charles Grodin (“A won­der­ful read­ing”), Tony Bill and Dustin Hoff­man, who au­di­tioned op­po­site the even­tual Elaine — Katharine Ross. Hoff­man was earn­ing rave re­views on Broad­way for Bri­tish farce Eh? but had never made a film be­fore. He felt out of his depth as a young Jewish ac­tor play­ing the ul­ti­mate WASP, was so in­tim­i­dated by Ross’ beauty he pinched her der­rière to lighten the mood (it didn’t) and left the hours-long au­di­tion de­flated.

“After all the tests, Mike and I sat in the screen­ing room in si­lence and I said, “You know what? I’d be okay with Dustin and Katharine,” says Tur­man. “We walked back to our of­fices in si­lence un­til Mike said, ‘I think I would be too. Let’s use them.’ I’m sure peo­ple felt we must have shouted ‘Eureka’. It was much more ca­sual than that.” How­ever lightly the de­ci­sion was taken, it be­came sig­nif­i­cant: Hoff­man was funny, nervy and sub­lime, paving the way for the De Niros, Pa­ci­nos, Stal­lones and Al­lens to be lead­ing men. “You can’t fight his­tory,” Tur­man says. “We must have done some­thing right.”


Tur­man had one name on the top of his wish list for the preda­tory Mrs Robin­son — the vir­ginal Mrs Doris Day. “I like to cast against type,” he says. “I thought her blonde, perky, all-amer­i­can Pepsi-cola qual­ity was 180 de­grees op­po­site from the dark­ness of the char­ac­ter. How­ever, she was mar­ried to her man­ager [Martin Melcher] and he hated the book. He re­fused to give it to her.” Ni­chols’ can­di­dates in­cluded Ava Gard­ner, Jeanne Moreau and Pa­tri­cia Neal, who would have got the role if she hadn’t suf­fered a se­ri­ous stroke. It was Ni­chols who then came up with Anne Ban­croft. “An­nie was very close to Pa­tri­cia Neal, they both had a darker, more ma­ture, more se­ri­ous qual­ity. I jumped on board with that and she proved to be won­der­ful.”

Com­ing from a the­atre back­ground, Ni­chols’ in­sisted on a three week re­hearsal pe­riod that paid div­i­dends in nu­mer­ous ways. It fa­mil­iarised the cast with the ma­te­rial to the point they could have taken The Graduate on the road. But it also weeded out a mis­take in cast­ing. “Gene Hack­man was cast as Mr Robin­son and at the end of the three weeks Mike fired him,” says Tur­man. “I was stunned.” The con­sen­sus of opin­ion was that Hack­man, then 36, was just too young to play Mr Robin­son but Tur­man thought dif­fer­ently. “I never un­der­stood it un­til I pro­duced a film [Full Moon

In Blue Wa­ter] with Gene,” says Tur­man. “The fa­ther in The Graduate was sort of a weak, de­feated man. Gene has a very tough, strong qual­ity.”

The de­ci­sion was even tougher given that the new­bie Hoff­man and Hack­man were close 

friends. “We thought it would shake Dustin emo­tion­ally too much,” ad­mits Tur­man. “But we were lucky, it didn’t.” Mur­ray Hamil­ton — Mayor Vaughn in Jaws — even­tu­ally played a more placid Mr Robin­son. And the de­ci­sion clearly didn’t af­fect Hack­man and Ni­chols too strongly — they would fi­nally work to­gether on The

Bird­cage nearly 30 years later. THE LOOK The re­hearsal pe­riod also weeded out an­other stel­lar tal­ent: cin­e­matog­ra­pher Haskell Wexler. At the end of the three weeks, Wexler de­cided he hated the book and left. Tur­man looked around and re­placed him with old-timer Robert Sur­tees, best known for Ben-hur. “I re­mem­ber telling Mike, “He’s a gen­er­a­tion older than we are” — every­body else on the movie was young, in­clud­ing me at that point,” says Tur­man. For all that The Graduate is a show­case for pre­co­cious tal­ent, the vet­eran Sur­tees is the film’s un­sung hero, em­ploy­ing a rad­i­cal (for ’60s Hol­ly­wood) use of hand­held cam­eras, a wide va­ri­ety of lenses and filters, plus an elab­o­rate use of POV shots. Tur­man re­mem­bers Sur­tees gave Ni­chols a com­pli­ment, telling the di­rec­tor, “‘You’re not ask­ing for any over-the-shoul­der shots. Nei­ther did John Ford.’ That’s quite some­thing com­ing from a guy like Sur­tees.” But it wasn’t just the vi­su­als of The Graduate that were ground-break­ing. THE SOUND­TRACK Tur­man had tried and failed to hire Paul Si­mon and Art Gar­funkel to write mu­sic for his pre­vi­ous film The Flim-flam Man. In­de­pen­dently, Ni­chols was sent the duo’s al­bum Pars­ley, Sage, Rose­mary

And Thyme by his brother and be­came ob­sessed. “Mike and I had a two-minute con­ver­sa­tion,” re­mem­bers Tur­man, “and then I made a deal for Si­mon and Gar­funkel to write three new songs. But they be­came so busy in their record­ing ca­reer they ran out of time, so we used the old songs.” The Sound Of Si­lence fa­mously ac­com­pa­nies the open­ing ti­tles with Ben­jamin on a mov­ing walk­way at LAX, while Scar­bor­ough

Fair and April She Will Come proved the per­fect sound­track to Ben­jamin’s en­nui. Yet Ni­chols was in­ter­ested in a pep­pier ditty Paul Si­mon was work­ing on. “It was called Mrs Roo­sevelt and Mike asked them to change the ti­tle to Mrs Robin­son,” says Tur­man. “I can’t take any credit for that.” Mrs Robin­son hit num­ber one on the US chart, help­ing The Graduate be­come the high­est­gross­ing film of 1968. Yet, 50 years on, Tur­man has no ex­pla­na­tion for its suc­cess. “Clearly it hit the cen­tre of the zeit­geist,” he of­fers. “But if I knew the an­swer, I would have done it again!” Charles Webb wrote a se­quel called Home School but Tur­man left wisely alone. Per­haps he knew, like Ben­jamin, you can only pop your cherry once.

Clock­wise left: Here’s to you, Mrs Robin­son (Anne Ban­croft) and Ben (Dustin Hoff­man); Film­ing the iconic wed­ding in­ter­rup­tion; Ben with Elaine (Katharine Ross)...; ... And the pair flee­ing the church.

Above: Ben takes a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate the pool while at­tempt­ing to fig­ure out life after col­lege.

Here: Let’s talk: Ben with Mrs Robin­son.

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