50 Years Later: Dustin Hoffman Recalls Mike Nichols’ Vision for ‘The Graduate’

Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” an adaptation of Charles Webb’s “novel of today’s youth unlike any you have read” (so boasted first-edition copies) hit theaters on Dec. 22, 1967. It received seven Oscar nominations and became an instant classic, helping to launch a new wave of American cinema that would be the story of the next decade. Nichols, meanwhile — hot off a theater career and a film debut in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that set the industry ablaze — walked away with the Academy’s best director prize.

The film also launched the screen career of actor Dustin Hoffman, who can’t quite believe it’s been 50 years since this landmark entered the canon.

“It is stunning, because I’m only 47,” the 80-year-old legend quipped on a recent episode of Variety‘s “Playback” podcast while promoting his new film “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).”

Hoffman recalled that few expected much of the film. “If my memory is correct it was a slow build in terms of people going to see it,” he said. “The first time I saw it — Mike didn’t allow any of us to see rushes — I was in New York on unemployment and they said they were going to have a sneak of it on 86th Street and I went to see it. I couldn’t tell if the audience was liking it or not. By the time we got to the church [scene], something happened to the audience and the next thing I knew they were all standing up and cheering and I thought, ‘Oh my God.'”

Hoffman, accustomed to the near-anonymous existence of being a struggling stage actor in 1960s New York, suddenly found himself nervous about being recognized as he waited for the audience to file out of the theater. “I was the waiter for most of these people’s tables the year before,” he joked.

He noticed one woman with a limp and a cane on the way out. She stopped him and asked if he was the actor in the film. “I said yes and she pointed the cane at me and said, ‘Life will never be the same for you,'” Hoffman recalled. “I found out she was famous: Radie Harris. She was a columnist.”

The film was such a lightning bolt in large part due to its visual storytelling sensibilities. Nichols was pushing boundaries theretofore untested. Hoffman remembered bumping into editor Sam O’Steen early in the post-production process, and O’Steen was slightly concerned that Nichols was cutting the film too fast, that certain elements would not land. But it was all part of the late filmmaker’s vision, which also included extensive rehearsals that featured key crew members rather than just the director and cast, an unusual practice.

“Mike was about as important and respected as any director could be today, and he got anything he asked for,” Hoffman said. “Under normal circumstances with a regular studio film, you’ll have 50-odd days [for something like ‘The Graduate’]. It wasn’t difficult; it was actors and four walls and a couple of things outside. But [we shot for] 100 days. And he also was able to hire crew [for rehearsals] — sound men, the cinematographer, a few people like that. We rehearsed this like it was a play. Before we started shooting, we could have gone on stage, because it was all memorized. He was constantly working on the set with Sam O’Steen and Bob Surtees, the cinematographer. It’s never done. Studios say, ‘No, no, we’re not going to hire a crew if they’re not actually shooting. We’re not going to pay them.’ But there’s something to be said for paying them before they start shooting.”

Listen to the rest of the podcast here.

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