The Graduate: From Secrets to the Real Mrs. Robinson

On December 20th of 1967, audiences in New York City got their first glimpse at a film that would go down in history as one of the greatest and most successful movies ever made. The film had its full US release a day later, wowing audiences across the country and becoming an international success.

Simon and Garfunkel / Dustin Hoffman and Kathrine Ross / Dustin Hoffman / Dustin Hoffman and Murray Hamilton

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That film was none other than The Graduate. Starring Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, and Katharine Ross and directed by Mike Nichols, the film was a smash hit, based on a 1963 novel written by Charles Webb. Here’s the story of how it was made.

The Story Starts with a Book

Like many great films throughout history, The Graduate is based on a novel. The original story was a novella, published in 1963 and written by American novelist Charles Richard Webb. Born in San Francisco and raised in Pasadena, Webb attended local schools growing up.

Charles Richard Webb is sitting in a coffee shop.

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He then headed across the country to pursue his college education at Williams College in Massachusetts. Webb wrote The Graduate not long after his graduation, taking inspiration from his own life while writing it. It was his first novel and would go on to become his most famous work as well.

A Highly Influential Piece of Work

The original novella, The Graduate, was very successful upon release, being well-received both by expert literary critics and the general public at large as well. It also proved to be a highly proactive book, foreshadowing various social issues and tensions that would define the 60s as a decade.

Anne Bancroft is in bed with Dustin Hoffman in the film 'The Graduate.'

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The novel also introduced the literary archetype of a “seductive older woman.” Her name was Mrs. Robinson, and she would become a significant figure in American literature and influence many other characters in books and other media.

A Self-Professed “Serious Artist”

Webb was a self-proclaimed “serious artist.” He believed in creating statements through his work and actions, and he had little interest in fame and riches. He tried to live a non-materialist lifestyle for much of his life, even declining a sizable inheritance from his father.

Webb poses with his wife in an old photo.

Source: The New York Times

Webb and his wife, Eve Rudd, gave away most of their possessions and lived out of a VW Bus, traveling between campgrounds, trailer parks, and other locations. They would take on odd jobs to earn cash and home-schooled their children together.

Webb Didn’t Care About the Movie

As we can see, Webb wasn’t interested in writing to become a star or make millions of dollars. So, when companies became interested in adapting The Graduate as a film, Webb had no interest in making a major profit out of it.

Promotional poster for the film, 'The Graduate.’

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He sold the film rights for a one-off payment of $20,000 and made no further profits from the film or any other adaptations of The Graduate. He even donated the copyright to charity, and when the story was adapted into live performances and plays, he made no profits and received no royalties.

A Producer with a Vision

So how was The Graduate film made? Well, it all started with the producer, Lawrence Turman. Turman read the story and wanted to make a movie version of The Graduate, and he had a clear vision in mind for how he wanted the project to play out.

Lawrence Turman attends an event.

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He knew that he wanted Mike Nichols, a successful Broadway director who was relatively unknown in Hollywood at the time, to direct the picture. This proved to be a problem, as studios were unwilling to provide funding for a film with such an inexperienced director at the helm.

Turman’s Persistence Paid Off

Even though he had to deal with many rejections, Turman persisted with his plan for the film. He contacted several studios to receive funding and eventually decided to get in touch with a fellow producer named Joseph E. Levine.

Behind the scenes filming on set.

Source: HBO

Levine finally gave Turman the “Yes” he’d been searching for; he agreed to finance the film because he’d already worked with Nichols on a play called The Knack and had heard good things about the director from Elizabeth Taylor. Once funding was secured, the process of writing and casting the film began.

An Inexperienced Screenwriter Was Hired

The Graduate had its inexperienced director in the form of Mike Nichols, and the project was also about to get an inexperienced screenwriter in the form of Buck Henry. It was Nichols who suggested that Henry be selected as the film’s screenwriter.

Buck Henry and Lawrence Turman are laughing together.

Source: HBO

At the time, Henry was only really known for his work in improv comedy, and he didn’t have much of a writing background to speak of, but Nichols had faith in him. He told Henry, “I think you could do it; I think you should do it.”

A Long, Drawn-Out Casting Process

Once the writer and director had both been brought onto the project, the team had to start thinking about putting a cast together and picking the perfect actors for each of the key roles, especially Mrs. Robinson, Elaine, and Benjamin.

Mike Nichols stands over Dustin Hoffman and Anna Bancroft as they read bed lines.

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Some films are cast smoothly, with directors and writers having clear targets for each role and filling out the cast with relative ease. However, the casting process for The Graduate was a very long and drawn-out affair, with lots of different actors auditioning for many of the main roles.

Casting Mrs. Robinson

Nichols knew that the part of Mrs. Robinson would be one of the most important in the film and had to be cast correctly. Originally, he hoped to bring in French actress Jeanne Moreau for the role. This was because of a stereotypical belief that older women were more promiscuous in France and in the habit of “training” younger men in sexual ways.

Jeanne Moreau in 'Lift to the Scaffold.'

Photo by Les Nouvelles Editions de Films/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

But Moreau didn’t want the role. And she wasn’t the only one. Many other famous female actors turned down the part. For example, Doris Day rejected it after she learned that the role involved nudity, and Patricia Neal turned it down due to her poor health at the time.

Many Famous Stars Were Considered

Both Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn allegedly wanted the part of Mrs. Robinson but didn’t succeed in their attempts. Geraldine Page, who was famous for her Broadway work, also rejected the role after being approached.

A headshot of Anne Bancroft.

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Many other actors were considered, such as Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Anouk Aimée, Jennifer Jones, Claire Bloom, Anne Baxter, and even Angela Lansbury. Ava Gardner was also desperate for the role and arranged a meeting with Nichols, but he didn’t seriously consider her. In the end, Anne Bancroft was awarded the part.

Casting Elaine Also Caused Problems

The casting process for Elaine also took a long time and caused some issues for the film’s production team. Patty Duke was initially approached for the role but turned it down as she wasn’t interested in working at the time. Faye Dunaway, a big Broadway star, also turned it down as she had been offered a part in Bonnie and Clyde.

Dustin Hoffman is talking with Katharine Ross in a scene from the film 'The Graduate.'

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Other actresses who turned down the part included Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine. Some stars wanted the role, such as Joan Collins, but they weren’t viewed as a good fit. The likes of Goldie Hawn and Jane Fonda also had screen tests before Katharine Ross was eventually cast.

Heroic Stars Were Considered for Benjamin

In casting Benjamin, the director and producers had a few names in mind. They were originally considering a heroic, leading man, with names like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford at the top of their list.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft publicity portrait for the film 'The Graduate.'

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In the end, Beatty turned down the part due to other commitments, and Redford didn’t fit as well as expected in a screen test. Other big stars like Harrison Ford auditioned for the role but didn’t get it, and various other celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen, and Anthony Perkins were all considered.

Hoffman Had Doubts About the Part

Dustin Hoffman was mostly unknown at the time of his audition. One of the film’s producers, Joseph Levine, first confused him for “one of the messenger boys,” and Katharine Ross remembers thinking that Hoffman was “so unkempt” and feeling that the film would be a disaster.

Katherine Ross covers herself with a sheet while Dustin Hoffman looks away awkwardly.

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Hoffman agreed. When asked to film a love scene with Ross, he said that a girl like her would never be attracted to someone like him. However, Hoffman’s awkward demeanor enticed Mike Nichols enough to get him the part.

Hoffman Suffered Anti-Semitic Criticism After Being Cast

Hoffman truly felt that he wasn’t right for the part and commended Mike Nichols for doing “a very courageous thing casting me in a part that I was not right for.” As a Jewish man, Hoffman added that he felt that he didn’t fit the typical lead role in the way some critics and audiences would have expected.

Dustin Hoffman stares at his fish tank in a scene from the film.

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He also became a victim of “veiled anti-Semitism” in various reviews of the film, being called “big-nosed” and suffering criticisms based on his “nasal voice” as well. The actor had the last laugh as he was widely praised for his performance in The Graduate and went on to enjoy a stellar Hollywood career.

Hoffman Was Living on Unemployment Benefits at the Time

Dustin Hoffman was paid $20,000 for his role as Benjamin Braddock in the film but only saved $4,000 due to taxes and living costs. As a result, his money ran out following the production, and he had to apply for New York State unemployment benefits.

A portrait of Dustin Hoffman.

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He lived in a small apartment in Manhattan and received $55 per week from the state. Fortunately for the actor, subsequent successful roles in movies like Midnight Cowboy and Rain Man helped him earn far more money than he could have imagined in those early days. He now has a net worth of approximately $50 million.

Filming The Graduate

Mike Nichols selected Robert Surtees to be the cinematographer of The Graduate. Surtees was a veteran of the industry, having filmed major motion pictures as far back as the 1920s. But even he was surprised by the scale of the task of filming The Graduate. He said that “It took everything I had learned over 30 years to be able to do the job.”

Hoffman and Ross are flighting while filming a scene for the film.

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Even though a lot of the film is set at the University of California, Berkeley, many of the scenes were shot at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The church used for the final scene was situated in La Verne, Los Angeles County.

The Music of The Graduate

One of the most successful outcomes of The Graduate is, without a doubt, the film’s soundtrack. Simon & Garfunkel were brought on to provide the music, and originally, Nichols planned to simply use the duo’s existing songs, like The Sound of Silence, to help the film move along.

Portrait of American folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel.

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As time went by, however, Nichols realized that original music was needed to make the film more compelling. He asked Lawrence Turman, the producer, to make a deal with Simon for some new songs. Simon agreed and got to work, but he was quite busy with his tours and struggled to meet the original demands of the deal.

Mrs. Robinson: The Song

Originally, Simon agreed to write three new songs, but he’d only managed one by the time The Graduate was nearly finished. His other attempts hadn’t been to Nichols’ taste, and the production ran out of time. That was when Simon mentioned another track he’d been working on, entitled Mrs. Roosevelt.

Arthur Garfunkel and Paul Simon hold their Grammy Awards.

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Since the film had a character called Mrs. Robinson, it seemed like a perfect fit, and upon hearing the song, Nichols fell in love with it. He told Simon, “It’s now about Mrs. Robinson, not Mrs. Roosevelt.” The song won two Grammy Awards and became one of Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest hits ever.

The Film’s Release

The Graduate premiered in New York City on December 20th of 1967. It was shown at both the Coronet Theatre and the Lincoln Art Theatre before being released the next day publicly. Immediately, most critics gave the film great reviews, with Roger Ebert and A.D. Murphy praising it.

Dustin Hoffman and Ann Byrne at the Coronet Theatre for the premiere of

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Some critics were less kind to the film, but it earned higher than average ratings on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes. It was also a major box office success, earning close to $105 million domestically on a $3 million budget.

Many Awards and Honors

The Graduate was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, Best Actress for Anne Bancroft, and Best Supporting Actress for Katharine Ross. Nichols won the Best Director award.

Lovely Leslie Caron presents Mike Nichols with an Oscar.

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The film was also nominated for many other awards from various bodies across the world. It won five Bafta awards, as well as five Golden Globes. It also won a Grammy. In later years, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and consistently appeared in lists mentioning the best films ever made.

An Incredible Legacy

The Graduate has gone down in history as an iconic piece of cinema. A stage adaptation of the film was made and ran on both Broadway and the West End in London. Meanwhile, films like Wayne’s World 2, Kingpin, and Rumor Have It have all been inspired by and influenced by The Graduate in one way or another.

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman in the final scene from

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The film has also been referenced and parodied in shows like ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy.’ Certain lines from the film, like “Plastics” and “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me… Aren’t you?” have also become very memorable and iconic references in pop culture. The film’s success helped to shape the careers of many of its cast and crew.

Mike Nichols Before The Graduate

Mike Nichols was born Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky in 1931 in Germany. He had Russian, German, and Jewish heritage and was present in Berlin at seven years old when the Nazis began making arrests of Jewish people. Therefore, he was sent to the US, along with his younger brother, to start a new life.

A portrait of Mike Nichols.

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After completing his education, Nichols started his career in radio and comedy, moving into theater direction in the 60s and enjoying success with shows like ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and ‘Luv.’ He was known as “the most in-demand director in American theater” at the time and moved onto movies starting with films such as, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, a film that won five Oscars.

Mike Nichols After The Graduate

The Graduate was a huge success for Mike Nichols. Critics and audiences praised his wise casting decisions, smart musical selections, and high-quality cinematographic influences. He continued to direct successful movies in the years that followed, like Catch-22, Silkwood, and Closer.

Mike Nichols speaks onstage during the 38th AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony.

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Nichols also enjoyed continued success with plays like Death of a Salesman, Social Security, and Waiting for Godot. He won many awards, being one of the only people to win an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony. He passed away from a heart attack in 2014.

Anne Bancroft Before The Graduate

Anne Bancroft was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in September of 1931. She was raised in New York in a family of Italian immigrants and attended various acting and dancing schools as she grew up, including the Actors Studio. She then moved to television, appearing in live dramas like ‘Studio One’ and ‘The Goldbergs’ before her film debut alongside Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock.

Anne Bancroft and Richard Widmark in a scene from ‘Don’t Bother to Knock.’

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She then appeared in many other films like ‘Treasure of the Golden Condor’ and ‘Nightfall’ and enjoyed success on stage in shows like The Miracle Worker. Before The Graduate, she received an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Pumpkin Eater.

Anne Bancroft After The Graduate

The Graduate would prove to be one of Anne Bancroft’s most iconic roles, and she later grew frustrated at how the role overshadowed much of her other work. Still, she appeared in various films and shows after The Graduate, including Young Winston, The Elephant Man, To Be or Not to Be, and 84 Charing Cross Road.

Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks during Opening Night of

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She received many awards and nominations, including a Bafta for Best Actress in 1984’s Charing Cross Road, as well as an Emmy for Deep in My Heart. She also married fellow actor and director Mel Brooks and enjoyed a long and happy relationship with him before passing away of cancer in 2005 at 73.

Dustin Hoffman Before The Graduate

Dustin Hoffman was born in Los Angeles in 1937. He knew from an early age that he wanted to study the arts and sought initially to become a musician, enrolling at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. However, he later changed his mind and moved away from music to acting, training at LA’s Pasadena Playhouse.

Dustin Hoffman plays his piano at home.

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He made his theatrical debut in 1961 in A Cook for Mr. General and appeared in various guest roles on TV in the early 60s. In 1966, he became more widely known after appearing off-Broadway in Eh? and winning awards for his performance.

Dustin Hoffman After The Graduate

The Graduate was seen as Dustin Hoffman’s breakout performance. He received an Oscar nomination for his work in the film and followed that up with another big success as “Ratso” in Midnight Cowboy, for which he received a second Oscar nomination.

Dustin Hoffman was on stage during the Cesar Film Awards.

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Hoffman grew as an actor throughout the 70s and 80s with movies like Little Big Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, and Rain Man. He won two Oscars in that period and also enjoyed success on stage. In recent decades, he has continued to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable and impressive actors, appearing in all kinds of films, like Hook, Kung Fu Panda, and The Meyerowitz Stories.

Katharine Ross Before The Graduate

Katharine Ross was born in 1940 in Hollywood, Los Angeles. She was first introduced to acting in college, where she appeared in a production of The King and I. She decided to drop out of college and moved to San Francisco to study acting at The Actors Workshop. She began to get her first theater and TV roles in the early 60s.

Ross poses in nature.

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With the help of her agent, Wally Hiller, she appeared in shows like Kraft Suspense Theater, The Lieutenant, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke. She made her film debut in 1965’s Shenandoah and was encouraged to appear in supporting roles in other films, leading to her casting in The Graduate.

Katharine Ross After The Graduate

Just like for Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate was a real career-defining moment for Katharine Ross. She earned an Oscar nomination for the film and won a Golden Globe. She then appeared in other successful movies like Hellifghters and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott attend the Golden Globe Awards.

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However, she was critical of the film industry in general and decided to semi-retire in the 70s. She made a brief comeback later in the same decade and moved to TV in the 80s, appearing in many made-for-TV films. She also had a prominent role in the cult hit Donnie Darko in 2001 but has been in a state of semi-retirement since the 90s.

William Daniels Before The Graduate

William Daniels was born in March of 1927 in New York. He was drafted into the Army in 1945 and worked as a disc jockey at an army radio station. Upon returning home, he studied at Northwestern University and pursued a career in entertainment.

William Daniels on the set of the movie

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He made his first TV appearance in 1952 and his film debut in 1963 with the anti-war film Ladybug Ladybug. He also appeared on stage in Broadway shows like 1776, A Thousand Clowns, and A Little Night Music, building up a profile as a talented, versatile, and hard-working performer.

William Daniels After The Graduate

After The Graduate, William Daniels continued to enjoy a successful career in entertainment, appearing in movies, plays, and TV shows. He became well-known for the role of Dr. Mark Craig in St. Elsewhere in the 80s.

William Daniels attends the 37th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards.

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He was also a big part of 80s culture as the voice of KITT in Knight Rider from 1982 to 1986. In the 90s, he played George Feeny in Boy Meets World for several years and became a reliable actor, guest-starring in shows like ‘The Rockford Files’ and ‘Quincy, M.E.’ He was also President of the Screen Actors Guild from 1999 to 2001.

Murray Hamilton Before The Graduate

Murray Hamilton was born in March of 1923 in Washington, North Carolina. He showed an interest in acting from an early age, taking part in high school plays and eventually moving to New York as a 19-year-old. In NYC, he made his stage debut.

Dustin Hoffman as 'Ben Braddock' and Murray Hamilton as 'Mr. Robinson' in the film 'The Graduate.'

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He appeared alongside Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts and again in Critic’s Choice. He also began to make many TV appearances throughout the 50s, appearing in shows like Justice, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, and The Twilight Zone, building up an excellent performer.

Murray Hamilton After The Graduate

After The Graduate, Hamilton continued to appear on both stage and screen. He worked with Robert Redford on movies like ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘Brubaker’ and became well-known to wider audiences as Larry Vaughn, the mayor of Amity in the classic Steven Spielberg shark movie Jaws.

Murray Hamilton, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss on the set of Jaws

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He appeared in Jaws 2 as well and was set to appear in Jaws: The Revenge, but passed away at the age of 63 in 1986 in Washington, North Carolina, the same place in which he was born. He was survived by his wife, Terri DeMarco Hamilton, and son, David.

Elizabeth Wilson Before The Graduate

Elizabeth Wilson was born in April 1921 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was born to a wealthy family and spent her childhood living a life of luxury in a large Michigan mansion. She took an interest in acting from an early age and studied acting at Barter Theatre and The Neighborhood Playhouse School in New York.

Elizabeth Wilson, William Daniels, and Dustin Hoffman are having a conversation in the kitchen in a scene from the film 'The Graduate.'

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She made her Broadway debut in Picnic in 1953 and starred in various other stage productions. She also moved into movies and TV, appearing in the 1955 adaptation of Picnic and other movies like ‘The Birds’ and ‘The Goddess.’

Elizabeth Wilson After The Graduate

After The Graduate, Elizabeth Wilson’s career continued to grow as she became known as one of the most versatile actresses of her time, appearing in dozens of movies and many Broadway plays as well.

Elizabeth Wilson is having a drink in her library.

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She appeared in films like Catch-22, The Day of the Dolphin, The Addams Family, Quiz Show, and TV shows such as Kraft Television Theatre, Doc, Dark Shadows, Murder, She Wrote, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. She passed away at her New Haven, Connecticut home in 2015 at the age of 94.

Walter Brooke Before The Graduate

Walter Brooke was born in October of 1914 in New York City. He took an interest in acting early on and started to make film appearances in the 1940s. He appeared in various uncredited background roles to begin within movies like ‘They Died with Their Boots On and ‘Captains of the Clouds.’

Walter Brooke and Eric Fleming in a scene from ‘The Conquest of Space.’

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As time went by, Walter Brooke began to appear in more prominent film roles in the 1950s movies such as Conquest of Space, The Party Crashers, and Bloodlust! This all built up to his appearance as Mr. McGuire in The Graduate.

Walter Brooke After The Graduate

The Graduate was arguably Walter Brooke’s most memorable film performance, but he appeared in many other movies, plays, and shows in the years that followed. He was well-known for his time on shows like The Waltons, Paradise Bay, and Judge Howe in The Lawyers.

Walter Brooke appears in a scene.

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In cinema, he made appearances in movies like The Landlord, The Andromeda Strain, The Astronaut, Framed, The Other Side of the Mountain, and Fun with Dick and Jane. He passed away in 1986 at the age of 71 from emphysema, survived by his wife, Yvonne, and two children.

Norman Fell Before The Graduate

Norman Fell was born in March of 1924 in Philadelphia. During World War II, he was a young man and served in the US Army Air Forces as a B-25 tail gunner. Upon returning home to the United States, he attended the Actors Studio and studied acting with the Black Hills Players.

The cast of Ocean’s 11 stands around a pool table.

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His early work was mostly in character roles on various TV shows and movies such as Ocean’s 11; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and PT 109. Fell could be seen on the small screen in shows like ‘Joe and Mabel’ and ‘Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct.’

Norman Fell After The Graduate

After the Graduate, Norman Fell appeared in other high-profile movies, such as the 1968 Steve McQueen classic, Bullitt, and the 1970s black comedy, Catch-22. He also appeared alongside Ronald Reagan in The Killers and amused audiences in the 1992 comedy, Hexed.

Norman Fell and Bob Newhart in a scene from the film 'Catch-22.'

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He also received television roles in shows like Dan August, Executive Suite, Richie Brockleman, Private Eye, and Teachers Only. Moreover, he starred in ‘Three’s Company,’ its spin-off, and The Ropers, winning a Golden Globe for the former show. He passed away in 1998 of bone marrow cancer.

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