The Lost Roles of ‘The Graduate’

“Lost Roles” is a weekly column looking at “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy, exploring alternate casting possibilities that almost happened but didn’t, for one reason or another. This week, we turn our attention to The Graduate, director Mike Nichols’s revered comedy-drama, which celebrates its 45th anniversary tomorrow.

As with any movie, casting was the key to The Graduate‘s success. Obviously, Mike Nichols’s superb direction, and the tight, well-executed screenplay by Buck Henry, were a big part of that too, but with another cast, Nichols and Henry’s vision wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective. Nichols and his team went through an arduous casting process to find the right people for the roles, considering tons of actors or actresses for each part. Read on for the stories of how some big names almost ended up in The Graduate, including Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, and a certain U.S. President.

Robert Redford
The role: Benjamin Braddock
Who got it: Dustin Hoffman

Director Mike Nichols’s friend, Robert Redford, was very interested in playing the lead role in The Graduate. Nichols tells Vanity Fair he “interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of men” for the part and recalls the conversation he had with Redford after he screen-tested for the role: “I said, ‘You can’t play it. You can never play a loser.’ And Redford said, ‘What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.’ And I said, ‘O.K., have you ever struck out with a girl?’ and he said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he wasn’t joking.”

Gene Hackman
The role: Mr. Robinson
Who got it: Murray Hamilton

Gene Hackman, who was Dustin Hoffman’s roommate at the time, was originally cast in the role of cuckold Mr. Robinson, but he was fired by Mike Nichols three weeks into rehearsal for being too young for the part. Hackman was just six years older than Dustin Hoffman at the time, despite having to play someone a generation older than him. Anne Bancroft, who won the role of Mrs. Robinson, was only five years old than Hoffman, but Nichols didn’t seem to mind. Hoffman recalls, “Gene said to me while he was taking a leak in the men’s room, ‘I think I’m getting fired.’ And he was, and I thought I was next. So by the time we started shooting I was on pins and needles, terrified that Mike didn’t like what I was doing.”

Charles Grodin
The role: Benjamin Braddock
Who got it: Dustin Hoffman

A young Charles Grodin was almost cast in the lead role. Here he is telling how things didn’t work out in a 2008 interview:

I was the first choice for The Graduate so people assume I turned it down. I was the first choice, but they still want to see you on film, and before they’ll put you on film you have to commit to the contract.

They offered me a seven-year contract with options all on their end, and to star in “The Graduate,” if they choose to use me, it was going to be $500 a week. I was always more governed by a sense of right and wrong than I was by money, I just didn’t focus on it, but I just thought $500 a week to star in this huge movie was an inappropriate amount of money. It wasn’t about the money; I just thought it was not appropriate.

I think we settled at $1,000 a week, but then they delivered me 10 pages of dialogue to do a screen test the next morning. I phoned Mike Nichols and said I can’t do this overnight. He said it was just a photographic test, but I knew I couldn’t be very good. If they had given me three days to prepare, I think I would have gotten the role.

Doris Day
The role: Mrs. Robinson
Who got it: Anne Bancroft

Producer Larry Turman wanted Doris Day for the part. He sent a copy of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate, upon which the movie was based, to Martin Melcher, her husband and manager. “I sent him the book, but he hated it—he thought it was dirty—and wouldn’t even pass it along to her.”

Warren Beatty
The role: Benjamin Braddock
Who got it: Dustin Hoffman

Dustin Hoffman’s Ishtar costar Warren Beatty was on producer Larry Turman’s shortlist to play Ben, but like Robert Redford, it’s hard to imagine Beatty playing a loser.

Ronald Reagan
The role: Mr. Braddock
Who got it: William Daniels

Future U.S. President Ronald Reagan was Mike Nichols’s top choice to play Ben’s father Mr. Braddock, according to The Chicago Tribune. He began running for Governor of California in 1966, around the time the movie was going into production, and politics ended up working out pretty well for the guy.

Jack Nicholson
The role: Benjamin Braddock
Who got it: Dustin Hoffman

A young Jack Nicholson, looking for his big break, was considered for the part of Ben, according to IMDb, but he lost out to Dustin Hoffman. Nicholson seems like an odd fit for the part. Too confident and intense to play a mixed-up, nervous guy like Ben. He ended up having a longstanding working relationship with director Mike Nichols, acting in movies like Heartburn, Wolf, and Carnal Knowledge for him in the years that followed.

Ava Gardner
The role: Mrs. Robinson
Who got it: Anne Bancroft

Mike Nichols met with actress Ava Gardner to discuss playing the role of Mrs. Robinson with her. Here’s Nichols recalling the meeting to Vanity Fair:

Mike Nichols went to see Ava Gardner at her suite in the Regency Hotel, in New York, a memory he now treasures, though “it was scary at the time.” When he arrived at two p.m., he was a bit taken aback to find hanging around the suite “a group of men who could only be called lounge lizards: pin-striped suits, smoking in the European way—underhand—with greased-back hair. To my complete horror, Ava Gardner said, ‘Everybody out! I want to talk to my director. Out, out, out!’ ” She then asked for the phone, saying, “I’ve been trying to call Papa all day!”

Nichols thought to himself, I can’t do this. I don’t think I can do this whole thing, especially since Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, with whom Gardner had worked and been friendly, had died in 1961.

The 44-year-old actress then told Nichols, “The first thing you must know is I don’t take my clothes off for anybody.”

“Well, I don’t think that would be required,” replied Nichols.

She then confided, “The truth is, you know, I can’t act. I just can’t act! The best have tried.”

Nichols answered, “Oh, Miss Gardner, that’s simply not true! I think you’re a great movie actress”…

Nonetheless, Nichols quickly recognized the impossibility of working with her and an offer was never made.

Burt Ward
The role: Benjamin Braddock
Who got it: Dustin Hoffman

Best known for playing Robin on the goofy ’60s TV version of Batman, Burt Ward was offered the part of Ben Braddock during a hiatus in between Batman seasons, but he was forced to turn it down by the studio that produced Batman because they didn’t want to dilute the Batman brand.


Other actors considered to play Ben: Steve McQueen, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Tony Perkins, Keir Dullea, Brandon De Wilde, and Michael Parks.

Other actresses considered to play Mrs. Robinson: Jeanne Moreau, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Shelley Winters, Eva Marie Saint, and Ingrid Bergman.

Other actresses considered to play Elaine: Candice Bergen, Sally Field, Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Carroll Baker, Sue Lyon, Lee Remick, Suzanne Pleshette, Carol Lynley, Elizabeth Ashley, Yvette Mimieux, Pamela Tiffin, Patty Duke, and Hayley Mills.

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