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The Unlikely Casting of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate

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Director Mike Nichols had a great deal of difficulty casting the part of ‘Benjamin Braddock.’ When he and Buck Henry were working on the script, Nichols had envisioned Robert Redford in the role, but after a screen test, he realized that Redford could never convincingly play a loser in love. “So we tested and tested and tested people and read and read and read people, hundreds of people,” said Nichols. Producer Larry Turman recalled, “We were looking for someone who was sweet and goony. Sweet because he had to do some weird things, and goony because to do those weird things, he couldn’t be too self-assured.”

In the meantime, Nichols met Katharine Ross and was instantly smitten. “She came in to see me, and I said, ‘That’s it. We don’t have to look any further. She’s so beautiful, she’s beautiful in that girl-of-your-lifetime way.’ I loved her.”

Then, one month after the talent search began, Nichols found his ‘Benjamin.’ “I remembered this guy that I saw in a play called Harry, Noon and Night in which he played, believe it or not, a transvestite German fishwife,” Nichols said. “He was remarkable and very funny. So I said, ‘Let’s test him.'”

Nichols tracked down Hoffman in the midst of an acclaimed run in the British play Eh?
at New York’s Circle on the Square. When Nichols offered to buy him a
drink and then invited him to screen test in Los Angeles, Hoffman was
instantly miserable. “This is not the part for me,” Hoffman thought.
“I’m not supposed to be in movies. An ethnic actor is supposed to be in
ethnic New York in an ethnic off-Broadway show. I know my place.”

Despite
his better judgment, Hoffman flew out to Hollywood to screen test for
The Graduate. “I was doing eight shows a week, and was pretty tired to
start with,” Hoffman recalled. “When I got to the studio, after a quick
jet from New York, I was so nervous and fatigued I couldn’t
concentrate.”

When Hoffman was introduced to Katharine Ross, he
felt even worse. “The idea that the director was connecting me with
someone as beautiful as her became an even uglier joke,” he revealed.
“It was like a Jewish nightmare.” Hoffman was put into a makeup chair
and subjected to a two-hour overhaul, after which Nichols told the
makeup department to do something about his unibrow. Then Nichols
asked, “What are we going to do about his nose?” Hoffman called it “one
of the most demeaning experiences I’ve ever had.”

For the
screen test, Hoffman found himself sitting on a bed playing a love
scene with Katharine Ross. “I’d never asked a girl in acting class to
do a love scene,” he admitted. “No girl asked me, either.” He said he
was thinking, “A girl like that would never go for a guy like me in a
million years.”

Ross was also dubious at the time, thinking,
“He looks about three feet tall, so dead serious, so humorless, so
unkempt. This is going to be a disaster.” At one point in the screen
test, Hoffman felt so hopeless and desperate that he resorted to
grabbing Ross’s ass, at which point she told him to keep his hands to
himself. “I blew lines repeatedly, and did a terrible job and knew I
wouldn’t get the part,” said Hoffman.

But the next day, when
Mike Nichols viewed the test, he was surprised and elated. “We’re in
business,” he told Hoffman. “You came up with just the kind of confused
panic the character’s supposed to have.” Recalled Hoffman,
“Nichols said that when he looked at the screen test, that I was so
panicked — it was a long, hard day, because we had to do a 10 page
scene without a cut and by the time we finished, we were rags. The
panic that I had doing the screen test is what he wanted.”

Nichols
said the screen test was better than he could ever have expected. “He
was very good in making the test, but he was 25% better the next day on
film. I had experienced that but once before, with Elizabeth Taylor.
They always said that she had a deal with Technicolor — that she got
25% better in the processing bath overnight at Technicolor. And Dustin
did, too. I said, ‘Oh look, he’s a movie actor.'”

Screenwriter
Buck Henry could see the magic, too. “In Dustin’s screen test, the soul
was there,” he said. “You could see it. He just wiped everyone else
out.”

Nichols said, “I felt having Dustin in the part was
organic and it was right. I didn’t think about the movie coming out,
much less being a smash. I was just thinking, ‘How could I best serve
this story?’ And I needed somebody unusual.” Nichols, who deeply
identified with the character, felt that casting the right actor meant
more than finding the right look. “I kept looking and looking for an
actor until I found Dustin, who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into
Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, which
was very much my take on the story… I was a blond, green-eyed person,
but I could never see myself that way. I identified with the dark
outcasts.”

Decades later, Dustin Hoffman acknowleged the leap
of faith his director took in choosing him. “You have to tribute
Nichols for casting me, because he was hearing an inner voice rather
than just, you know, product,” he said. “I always felt that I had been
miscast. I expected to be fired, so the discomfort I felt was not just
being new to movies. The discomfort was feeling that they’d made a
mistake casting me.”

During filming, Life magazine
visited the set and cruelly validated Hoffman’s self-loathing. “If
Dustin Hoffman’s face were his fortune, he’d be committed to a life of
poverty,” Life said. “With a schnoz that looks like a
directional signal, skittish black-beady eyes and a raggedy hair-cap,
he stands a slight 5′ 6″, weighs a mere 134 pounds and slouches like a
puppet dangling from string. All in all, he resembles a swarthy
Pinocchio.”

Dustin Hoffman later revealed that he wasn’t the
only person on the film who wondered why someone like him was playing
the lead role in a major motion picture. “They felt ambivalent all the
way through shooting, and even into the previews,” said Hoffman.
“People would come up to the producer and say, ‘You’d have a hell of a
movie if you hadn’t miscast the lead.'”

Catch the DVD enhanced version of The Graduate on tonight, April 10 at 8PM | 7C. For a complete schedule of showtimes, click here

To read more about The Graduate and the Generation Gap, click here.
To read more about The Real Life Parallels of The Graduate, click here.

Sources:
David Zeitlin, “A Homely Non-Hero, Dustin Hoffman, Gets an Unlikely Role in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate,” Life, 11/24/67
The Graduate Press Release, Avco Embassy Pictures Corp., 1967
“Grudging Graduate,” People, 11/2/92
Jamie Diamond, “A Story His Father Might Have Told,” New York Times, 9/1/96
“Henry Worked on Many Hits,” NPR’s Fresh Air, 2/24/97
Gavin Smith, “Mike Nichols,” Film Comment, 5/1/99
“Dustin Hoffman Discusses His Acting Career,” NPR’s Talk of the Nation, 12/4/03
Mahnola Dargis, “Dustin Hoffman Stops Trying So Hard,” New York Times, 4/17/05

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