Bancroft received several other Oscar nominations and continued in lead roles until the late 1980s. She played a ballet dancer in The Turning Point (1977), and in Agnes of God (1985), she played the mother superior of a convent who clashes with a psychiatrist played by Jane Fonda over dealings with a troubled young novice nun played by Meg Tilly. In 1987, she starred with Anthony Hopkins in 84 Charing Cross Road. She appeared in several movies directed or produced by her second husband, comedian Mel Brooks, including the award-winning drama The Elephant Man as well as comedies To Be or Not to Be and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
In the 1990s she returned to supporting roles in films, but continued to play lead roles in television films. She received Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (2003), as well as an Emmy nomination for 2001's Haven.
Bancroft was born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano in the Bronx, New York, the middle of three daughters of Mildred (née DiNapoli; 1908–2010), a telephone operator, and Michael G. Italiano (1905–2001), a dress pattern maker.
Bancroft's parents were both children of Italian immigrants. In an interview, she stated her family was originally from Muro Lucano, in the province of Potenza. She was brought up Roman Catholic. She was raised in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, later moving to 1580 Zerega Ave. and graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in 1948. She later attended HB Studio, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Actors Studio and the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. After appearing in a number of live television dramas under the name Anne Marno, she was told to change her surname for her film debut in Don't Bother to Knock.
In 1958, Bancroft made her Broadway debut as lovelorn, Bronx-accented Gittel Mosca opposite Henry Fonda (as the married man Gittel loves) in William Gibson's two-character play Two for the Seesaw, directed by Arthur Penn. For Gittel, she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play. (Though her role was quite equal to Fonda's, he, an established film actor, was the star, and so she was eligible in the featured category.)
She subsequently won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play in 1960, again with playwright Gibson and director Penn, when she played Annie Sullivan, the young woman who teaches the child Helen Keller to communicate in The Miracle Worker. She took the latter role to Hollywood, and won the Academy Award for Best Actress, with Patty Duke repeating her own success as Keller alongside Bancroft in the 1962 film version of the play. She had returned to Broadway to star in Mother Courage and Her Children, so Joan Crawford accepted Bancroft's Oscar on her behalf, and later presented the award to her in New York. Bancroft is one of the few actors to have won an Academy Award and a Tony Award for the same role. Bancroft co-starred as a medieval nun obsessed with a priest (Jason Robards) in the 1965 Broadway production of John Whiting's play The Devils. Produced by Alexander H. Cohen and directed by Michael Cacoyannis, it ran for 63 performances.
Bancroft received a second Academy Award nomination in 1965 for her performance in The Pumpkin Eater. Her best-known role during this period was Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967), for which she received a third Academy Award nomination. In the film, she played an unhappily married woman who seduces a family friend, the much younger recent college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman. In the movie, Hoffman's character later dates and falls in love with her daughter. Bancroft was ambivalent about her appearance in The Graduate; she stated in several interviews that the role overshadowed all of her other work. Despite her character becoming an archetype of the "older woman" role, Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman.
A CBS television special, Annie: the Women in the Life of a Man (1970), won Bancroft an Emmy Award for her singing and acting. Bancroft is one of very few entertainers to win an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony award. She followed that success with a second television special, Annie and The Hoods (1974), which was telecast on ABC and featured her husband Mel Brooks as a guest star. She made an uncredited cameo in the film Blazing Saddles (1974), directed by Brooks. She received a fourth Academy Award nomination for her performance in The Turning Point (1977) opposite Shirley MacLaine, and a fifth nomination for her performance in Agnes of God (1985) opposite Jane Fonda.
Bancroft made her debut as a screenwriter and director in Fatso (1980), in which she starred with Dom DeLuise. Bancroft was also the original choice to play Joan Crawford in the film Mommie Dearest (1981), but backed out at the eleventh hour, and was replaced by Faye Dunaway. She was also a front-runner for the role of Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (1983), but declined so she could act in the remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983), with her husband Mel Brooks.
In the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, Bancroft took supporting roles in a number of films in which she co-starred with major film stars—including Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) with Nicolas Cage, Love Potion No. 9 (1992) with Sandra Bullock, Malice (1993) with Nicole Kidman, Point of No Return (1993) with Bridget Fonda, Home for the Holidays (1995) with Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Jodie Foster, How to Make an American Quilt (1995) with Winona Ryder, G.I. Jane (1997) with Demi Moore, Great Expectations (1998) with Gwyneth Paltrow, Keeping the Faith (2000) with Ben Stiller, and Heartbreakers (2001) with Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sigourney Weaver and Gene Hackman. She also lent her voice to the animated film Antz (1998), which also featured performances from Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone, and Woody Allen.
Bancroft also starred in several television movies and miniseries, receiving six Emmy Award nominations (winning twice), eight Golden Globe nominations (winning twice), and two Screen Actors Guild Awards. Her final appearance was as herself in a 2004 episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Her last project was the animated feature Delgo, released posthumously in 2008. The film was dedicated to her.
She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6368 Hollywood Boulevard, for her work in television. At the time of her star's installation (1960), she had recently appeared in several TV series. Bancroft is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1992.
Bancroft's first husband was lawyer Martin May; they married in 1953, separated in 1955, and divorced in 1957.
In 1961, Bancroft met Mel Brooks at a rehearsal for the Perry Como variety show (Kraft Music Hall). Bancroft and Brooks married on August 5, 1964, at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau near New York City Hall, and remained married until her death. Their son, Maximillian "Max" Brooks, was born on May 22, 1972.
Bancroft and Mel Brooks were seen three times on the screen together: once dancing a tango in Brooks's Silent Movie (1976); in his remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983); and in the episode entitled "Opening Night" (2004) of the HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. They were also in Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), but never appeared together. Brooks produced the film The Elephant Man (1980), in which Bancroft acted. He also was executive-producer for the film 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) in which she starred. Both Brooks and Bancroft appeared in season six of The Simpsons. According to the DVD commentary, when Bancroft came to record her lines for the episode "Fear of Flying", the Simpsons writers asked if Brooks had come with her (which he had); she joked, "I can't get rid of him!"
In a 2010 interview, Brooks credited Bancroft as being the guiding force behind his involvement in developing The Producers and Young Frankenstein for the musical theatre. In the same interview, he said of their first meeting in 1961, "From that day, until her death on June 5, 2005, we were glued together."
In April 2005, two months before her death, Bancroft became a grandmother when her daughter-in-law Michelle gave birth to a boy, Henry Michael Brooks.
Anne Bancroft died of uterine cancer at age 73 on June 6, 2005, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Her death surprised many, even some of her friends. She was intensely private and had not released details of her illness. She was survived by her mother, sisters, husband Mel Brooks, and son Max Brooks. She is interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, near her parents, Mildred (who died in April 2010, five years after Anne) and Michael Italiano. A white marble monument with a weeping angel adorns her grave. Her last film, Delgo, was dedicated to her memory.