Friday, October 12, 2018

The Old Man & The Graduate

Robert  Redford turns on the charm full blast in his latest (and possibly his last) film, The Old Man & The Gun. Though he’s now a weather-beaten eighty-two years old, he capers nimbly through a picaresque movie in which he robs banks, romances a glowing Sissy Spacek, and makes a great case for Senior Citizen Power. In the Hollywood spotlight for fifty years, Redford has proved himself as an actor, a producer, and an Oscar-winning director (for 1980’s Ordinary People). He’s also been active in political and environmental causes, and founded the Sundance Institute (along with the famous Sundance Film Festival) to give independent films and filmmakers a leg up. The Old Man & The Gun features at one point vintage photos of the young Redford, including an actual still of him on the lam in Arthur Penn’s 1966 thriller, The Chase.  Those photos remind us—as though we needed reminding—of how astoundingly handsome he once was.

Yes, Redford has done a lot. But he did not get a chance to star for Mike Nichols as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Even though he came close. Here, based on the research I did for my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson, is the full story:

In 1963, a young producer named Lawrence Turman read a novel by a recent college graduate named Charles Webb. Turman learned about Webb’s not-very-successful novel in the New York Times. The Times reviewer had some complaints about the novel, but also said that Webb had, in Benjamin Braddock, “created a character whose blunders and follies just might become as widely discussed as those of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.” These were magic words: everyone in Hollywood longed to film something on the order of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Having bought the movie rights to Webb’s The Graduate, Turman approached Mike Nichols, well known for his sketch comedy act with Elaine May. Nichols had never directed a movie, but he’d just had a major Broadway hit directing an early Neil Simon laughfest, Barefoot in the Park, about a pair of newlyweds adjusting to life in New York City. The young husband was played by Robert Redford.

In 1967, as Mike Nichols was preparing to film The Graduate, he naturally thought of the handsome, intelligent stage actor. By this point, Redford was making his mark on Hollywood, with featured roles in films like The Chase and Inside Daisy Clover. He wanted to play the hapless Benjamin Braddock, and Mike Nichols wanted to hire him. The legendary story, which has circulated for fifty years, is that Nichols, finally concluding that Redford wasn’t right for the role, asked the actor, “What was the last time you struck out with a girl?” Responded Redford, totally nonplussed, “What do you mean?”  

Larry Turman told me the reality was just a bit different. He’d always felt that Benjamin Braddock wouldn’t be funny unless he was a lovable bumbler, age twenty-one going on sixteen. Turman had a hunch that Redford, talented though he was, would project a screen image that was too suave and sophisticated for the character. Nonetheless, Redford was one of six actors who screen-tested for the role, along with Tony Bill, Charles Grodin, and a nervous young man named Dustin Hoffman. Both Turman and Nichols were rooting for Redford, but both finally agreed he was just not their idea of what Benjamin should be. Redford’s day, though, would soon come. Two years later, he starred with Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, perfecting his portrayal of a gunslinging rogue. And a star was born.

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