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Charles Webb, who inspired a Hollywood classic with ‘The Graduate,’ dies at 81

Charles Webb, pictured in 2005, was the author of "The Graduate."
Charles Webb gave away the copyright to his novel “The Graduate,” the basis for the hit 1967 film with Dustin Hoffman. It went to the Anti-Defamation League, whose work he admired.
(Andrew Hasson / Photoshot)

The first $20,000 went quickly. Charles Webb simply just gave it all away, along with the VIP passes for the premiere of “The Graduate,” the soon-to-be Hollywood classic based on his book.

Though Webb kept on writing — sometimes to acclaim, sometimes not — he lived in poverty, a life choice he made by giving away his earnings, his inheritance and the occasional house he bought. After giving away the $20,000 he received for the film rights to “The Graduate,” he gave the copyright for the novel to the Anti-Defamation League, only because he admired the group’s work.

For the record:

4:36 PM, Jun. 29, 2020This story incorrectly states that Webb’s novel “New Cardiff” was adapted into the 2012 movie “Hope Springs” with Meryl Streep. In fact it was adapted into the 2003 film “Hope Springs” with Colin Firth.

“When you run out of money, it’s a purifying experience,” he told the Times of London after he abruptly left Los Angeles and moved to Brighton, England, with his wife, Eve.

Rather than conform to the expectations of the publishing world — book signings, speaking engagements, talk shows — he worked stocking shelves at a Kmart, cleaned hotel rooms, cooked late-night meals at a diner and managed a nudist colony. He lived in campgrounds and shelters and once spent three years at a Motel 6 in Carpinteria.

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An enigma to the end, Webb died June 16 in Eastbourne, a seaside town in southeast England. He was 81. The Times of London first reported his death. Jack Malvern, a friend and journalist, told the Washington Post that Webb’s death was related to complications from a blood disorder.

Translated to film, “The Graduate” was an immediate box office success when it was released in 1967, with Dustin Hoffman — then an emerging star — cast as Benjamin Braddock, a newly minted college graduate who returns home filled with disillusionment and uncertainty. Already hollowed out by his family’s expectations, he embarks on an affair with the wife of his father’s law partner. Anne Bancroft was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the seductive wife — Mrs. Robinson.

Buck Henry, who helped write the screenplay, told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 that the dialogue in Webb’s novel was so crispy and spot-on that 85% of the script was lifted straight from the book. And the laconic, world-weary protagonist in Webb’s story was a perfect fit for Hoffman. Henry, however, said he did add the now-famous piece of advice from a family friend as Braddock is being pumped about his future: “I just want to say one word to you: plastics.”

Morris Dickstein, an English professor at City University of New York, told The Times in 2002 that Benjamin Braddock became “part of a long line of naive, confused, innocent heroes in the coming-of-age tradition of Holden Caulfield,” the angst-filled teen in “The Catcher in the Rye.”

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While the film earned more than $100 million at the box office, Webb walked away penniless. He wrote six more novels then took an unexplained 26-year hiatus before publishing “New Cardiff” in 2002. The book, praised by critics, was adapted into the 2012 film “Hope Springs” with Meryl Streep and, again, Webb gave away his earnings. His final novel, “Home School,” was a sequel to “The Graduate.” Critics largely wished he hadn’t bothered to revisit his original work.

Charles Richard Webb was born June 9, 1939, in San Francisco and raised in Pasadena. His family was wealthy, and he soon came to abhor the family’s blue-blood status and excesses. He was sent to boarding school in Santa Barbara before going off to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he earned an English degree. Much like Benjamin, he returned home dispirited.

Living off a writing grant, he spend the next two years in the gloom of a Colorado Street bowling alley writing “The Graduate.” It was largely a mirror of his own life.

Over the years he moved continually. He bought a bungalow in West Hollywood but found owning the place “unexplainably oppressive” and asked the Realtor to give it to someone else. He bought a three-story house in Massachusetts but tired of it after a few weeks and gave it to the Audubon Society. He bought another in upstate New York and promptly gave it away, he thinks to Friends of the Earth.

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Webb and his wife lived an unconventional life, sometimes traveling around the country in a VW bus or sheltering in a campground. At one point they moved to a nudist colony in the south of France. The two divorced, but only to protest the conventions of marriage, and then remarried to smooth the emigration process to Britain in 1998. At some point Eve changed her name to Fred in solidarity with a support group of men named Fred who claimed to suffer low self-esteem. The couple remained together until her death several years ago. He is survived by his two son, David and John, and a brother.

In a 2008 article for The Times, journalist William Georgiades found Webb to be a remarkable sunny, upbeat soul.

“Webb has such an easygoing charm about him, such a friendly and sincere presence, that he renders his circumstances as logical and reasonable,” he wrote.

Asked about his curious life, Webb just shrugged.

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“People in the arts are not allowed to lead normal lives,” he said. “They either have to be super rich, thinking about their mansions, or penniless like me. But they’re not allowed to lead lives like everyone else.”


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