Buck Henry, the impish screenwriter whose wry, satirical sensibility brought comic electricity to The Graduate, What’s Up, Doc?, To Die For and TV’s Get Smart, has died. He was 89.
Henry, a two-time Oscar nominee who often appeared onscreen — perhaps most memorably as a 10-time host (all in the show’s first four years) on Saturday Night Live — died of a heart attack Wednesday at a Los Angeles hospital, his wife, Irene, told The Washington Post. He had suffered a stroke in November 2014. With his sad visage, owlish spectacles and ubiquitous baseball cap, Henry crafted the persona of a playful egghead. He was described by the late Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin as having the “operative demeanor of a kind of organized Wally Cox.”
Henry was adept at reshaping scripts, and he credited his talent for adaptation to his early years of working on TV variety shows, where he wrote for hundreds of comedians and actors and was able to channel their individual “voices.” When producer Lawrence Turman and director Mike Nichols were unhappy with Calder Willingham’s too-dark script for The Graduate (1967) — based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb about a recent college graduate who has an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner — Nichols gave the untested Henry a crack at it. Henry received his first Oscar nom for the screenplay (he came up with the word “plastics” and had a small role in the film) and received a second nom for co-directing (with Warren Beatty) the reincarnation comedy Heaven Can Wait, a remake of the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan.
Most recently, Henry and Michal Zebede adapted Philip Roth’s 2009 novel for Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, which starred Al Pacino as a fading actor and was released in 2014 after screening at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.
Henry was born Henry Zuckerman on Dec. 9, 1930, in New York City. His mother was Ruth Taylor, a silent-screen actress who played the gold-digger Lorelei Lee in a now-extinct 1928 film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; his father, Paul, was an Air Force general and Wall Street broker whose friends included Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart.
His grandfather, whom he was named after, was nicknamed Buck. Henry attended the private Dalton School in Manhattan and Harvard Military Academy in Los Angeles, made his acting debut at 16 in a road company production of Life With Father and graduated from Dartmouth (where his fellow schoolmate was future Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson) in 1952.
He served two years in the Army in Germany, first as a helicopter mechanic and then, more aptly, in special services, co-writing a musical comedy and touring military bases with it. Back in New York, Henry kept busy by masquerading as G. Clifford Prout, the president of The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, a faux organization out to convince America to clothe their pets and barnyard animals.
The whole thing was an elaborate joke — and he was amazed that thousands of people bought into it. Henry landed jobs writing for variety shows led by Steve Allen and Garry Moore, and when David Frost refashioned his British TV news satire That Was The Week That Was for American audiences, he appeared on the program and wrote for it as well. After Henry co-wrote and starred in The Troublemaker (1964), which featured several members of The Premise, Dan Melnick, a partner in the production company Talent Associates, approached Brooks and Henry about his idea for the comedy that would become Get Smart. Henry, who won an Emmy (shared with Leonard Stern) in 1967 for writing the two-part episode “Ship of Spies,” came up with the cone of silence shtick for the sitcom. (Brooks invented the shoe phone.) Henry and director Peter Bogdanovich found inspiration from the great screwball comedies of yesteryear in making What’s Up, Doc? (1972), which starred Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in a story spinning around four identical plaid overnight bags. (Henry took the original script by Bogdanovich, Robert Benton and David Newman and retooled it, adding a fourth suitcase.)
What’s Up, Doc? grossed $66 million ($374 million in today’s dollars) in the U.S. and Canada, trailing only The Godfather and The Poseidon Adventure that year. Henry adapted Joyce Maynard’s 1992 book, which was based on an actual New England murder case, for the Gus Van Sant black comedy To Die For (1995), with Nicole Kidman as an icy TV weathergirl who’ll stop at nothing to get ahead. Henry also wrote for the Nichols films Catch-22 (1970), adapted from the Joseph Heller novel, and the drama The Day of the Dolphin (1973); Candy (1968), adapted from the Terry Southern book; The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), with Streisand and his pal Segal; First Family (1980), starring Bob Newhart as the president, Madeline Kahn as the first lady and Gilda Radner as their daughter (he directed that one as well); Protocol (1984), topped by Goldie Hawn; and Town & Country (2001), starring Beatty.
For TV, Henry also created the 1967 NBC comedy Captain Nice, centered on a mild-mannered guy (William Daniels) who becomes a superhero, and the late ’70s NBC sci-fi spoof Quark, which starred Richard Benjamin. Both series were short-lived. As an actor, Henry was memorable in Milos Forman’s Taking Off (1971) as a father seeking the whereabouts of his runaway daughter; in Catch-22 as Lt. Col. Korn; and in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as David Bowie’s business partner. In Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), Henry pitched an absurd Graduate: Part II to the studio exec played by Tim Robbins (it was Henry, not the director, who came up with the idea of what the pitch would entail) during the movie’s landmark eight-minute opening sequence.
Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photographs are Courtesy: AP
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