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.