Tuesday, January 14, 2020

In Memoriam: Buck Henry 1930-2020









































































 I guess because it doesn't quite gibe with his irreverent comedy style or, as Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield put it, his status as a "1970s New Hollywood renegade", I was surprised to learn Buck Henry had come from a show biz background. At least one half of a show biz background. His mother was silent film actress Ruth Taylor, who married a stockbroker when talkies became popular and moved to New York City. Still, she must have retained some ties to her old profession, as her son got to meet Humphrey Bogart on the set of The Maltese Falcon when he was about ten years old. Henry's own show biz debut was right after World War II in a New York City-area touring production of Life With Father, playing one of the sons (don't know which one, as there were four) when he was 15. After high school, Henry went to Dartmouth College. Though he wrote for the campus humor magazine Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, upon graduation he went back into acting, but not for long, as he was drafted. An Army aptitude test decided he could best serve his country as a helicopter mechanic in West Germany, but after a year of that, he managed to get a transfer to Special Services, the entertainment arm of the military branch. There he wrote, directed, and starred in a musical titled Beyond the Moon, about a couple of servicemen who are accidentally rocketed to a planet full of beautiful women (the movies Cat-Women of the Moon, Abbot and Costello Go to Mars, The Queen of Outer Space, and Fire Maidens of Outer Space all have similar plots. Obviously there was a whole generation of horny heterosexual young men who saw the rocket ship as a phallic symbol.)

Despite having written his own musical, upon release from the Army Henry went back to acting, taking whatever small part he could get in stage productions and early television dramas. This all changed when he joined the The Premise, one of the many improvisational comedy groups that popped up in the wake of Second City, performing in a small theater in Greenwich Village, his castmates included George Segal and Theodore J. Flicker (best known as the writer and director of  the 1967 movie The President's Analyst, a satire of the national security state, and co-creator of the 1970's police sitcom Barney Miller.) Now to understand just how important this was to Henry's career, know that one of the defining feature's of improv theater is a segment of the show where the performers take suggestions from the audience, and then act upon those suggestions then and there. In In essence, they're writing, and many a improv actor, including the aforementioned Flicker, Elaine May, and, a decade later, Harold Ramis, did go on to become the more traditional type of writer, the once hunched over a typewriter or computer. And so to did Buck Henry once talent scouts for Steve Allen showed up in the audience. Henry was invited to join Allen's new variety show (or simply an ongoing variety show that had simply been shunted from one network to another) as a writer-performer. Among his castmates were Tim Conway, Jim Nabors, and the Smother Brothers, as well as Allen mainstays Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington, Gabriel Dell, and wife Jayme Meadows. Unfortunately, the show only lasted 13 weeks, but Henry now known as both a writer and an actor and would bounce back and forth between the two, sometimes on the same project, for the rest of his life.

While all this was going on, Henry became involved in a bit of tomfoolery dreamed up by his friend Alan Abel, a humor writer best known for staging elaborate hoaxes that were taken quite seriously by a gullible media. One of his earliest pranks had Henry--this was before he became a recognizable show biz personality--pose as G. Clifford Prout, Jr, president of The Society for the Indecency of Naked Animals, which advocated putting clothes on animals as way to avoid accidentally being exposed to dogs, cats, and elephant's genitals. Always eager for the odd story, the print and electronic media of the day lapped the story up with without doing the necessary fact-checking. Henry-as-Prout appeared on The Today Show where then-co-host Barbara Walters tried to talk reason into him by pointing out that fur and feathers were natural clothing. Amazingly, the hoax lasted from 1959 until 1962. Abel and Henry actually had to give back money donated to the cause, as they were only interested in playing mind games and not cheating people out of their earnings (plus, they didn't want to be charged with mail fraud.) It all fell apart when the staff of the CBS Evening News recognized Henry, but only AFTER he had been interviewed on the air by Walter Cronkite, who was furious when he found out that's the way it isn't.

Back to Henry's career in show biz. After Steve Allen's show ended, he got a job as a writer on Garry Moore's variety show (on which a young Carol Burnett was a regular). After that he was again an writer-performer on That Was the Week That Was. Based on a British show of the same name, it was hosted by David Frost (who also emceed the original UK version), and featured radio comedian Henry Morgan, a young Alan Alda, and on occasion song satirist Tom Lehrer and the comedy team of Nichols and May. I've never seen this show, but it's been described as a combination of topical comedy sketches, the songs of Tom Lehrer (performed byNancy Ames) and interviews, it's seen by some as a precursor to The Daily Show. According to Buck Henry, the Left-skewing show went off the air after two years because the Republican Party, in the interest of equal time, kept looking for ways to preempt it.

This all brings us to the mid-1960s. The success of the first few James Bond movies had led to a secret agent craze in popular entertainment. Dean Martin's Matt Helm and James Coburn's Derek Flint were mildly successful knockoffs of the Bond formula, and on TV you had The Man from U.N.C.L.E, I Spy, and even a secret agent western The Wild, Wild, West. it was all ripe for parody (though by Goldfinger, the third in the series, the Bond films were pretty much parodying themselves.) There's different stories on how it began--Henry tells one of those stories in the video section at bottom--but it seems a producer asked Borscht Belt comic-turned-TV writer Mel Brooks to write a pilot film for a spy comedy. But Brooks didn't of being hunched over a typewriter--he was used to the crowded writers rooms of Your Show of Show's and Caesar's Hour, where people just threw out ideas. Well, nobody was going to give Brooks a crowded room, but Henry was enlisted to help with the pilot, and the result was Get Smart, starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with Edward Platt as the head of an intelligence agency called CONTROL, which did battle with the mischievous organization KAOS. After the pilot was sold, Brooks left to do other things (such as the write and direct the first film version of The Producers.) Henry, however, stayed on for two more years as story editor. This meant that final teleplay draft, or what's sometimes called the shooting script, went through Henry's typewriter, no matter who got the on-screen credit (it's a Writers Guild thing.) A master of the comic non-sequitur, Henry was able to establish the TV series overall tone, which other story editors had to hew to once he left. Even though Mel Brooks is asked about Get Smart to this very day, it was really Buck Henry's comic sensibility that prevailed (but, hey, you don't have to believe me, just see what Barbara Feldon has to say in the video section.)


After he left Get Smart, Buck Henry created the superhero parody Captain Nice, but it fared poorly as as it was scheduled against another superhero parody Mr. Terrific, the potential audience for each show canceling each other out (plus, people were starting to get tired of Batman, which had inspired these parodies.) But it didn't hurt Henry any as he was about to get the biggest break of his career. A comedian-turned-stage director-turned-filmmaker named Mike Nichols, whom had been a childhood friend, enlisted Henry to write a film adaptation of a novella by Charles Webb  about a recent college graduate who has an affair with the wife of his father's law partner. Since Webb's novel was almost entirely dialogue, Henry's screenplay followed it pretty closely, though he did add the famous "one word: plastics", a suggestion to young Benjamen Braddock as to how he should spend the rest of his life. The Graduate (also the name of Webb's novel) was a huge hit at the box office, ushered in a whole new style of Hollywood filmmaking (though not a whole new style of filmmaking, period. All of Nichol's cinematic tricks--long takes, fragmented editing, point-of-view visuals, use of zoom lenses, hand-held camera work--had earlier been used by the Italians and the French.) But Henry's screenplay, especially the first half, was funny enough that it could have been filmed in a more conventional manner and still been a box office hit. However, that doesn't necessarily make Henry the unsung hero of The Graduate. As I said, there was the original source material, as well as a first draft of the script by Calder Willingham. Henry claimed never to have read Willingham's version, and Nichols backed him up on that, but Willingham nevertheless brought a complaint before the Writers Guild of America-West Arbitration Committee. That committee did indeed see similarities between the two scripts, which Henry argued was simply because each was based on the same novel. Unswayed, one of the arbitrators told Henry he should have changed the names of the characters. Here's to you, Mrs. Peterson. And the onscreen credit ended up reading "Screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry" (Henry once mused that it may have been a good thing that the screenplay lost out at the Oscars as it saved him the awkwardness of having to go onstage and accept the award alongside Willingham.) I read Charles Webb's original novel years ago but can no longer remember what was what. The know the general consensus is that if there's something in the film that's not in the book, then either Buck Henry or Mike Nichols put it there. Shared credit notwithstanding, The Graduate became the cornerstone of Henry's writing career. From 1968 until the end of the century, he would be a highly sought-after, and highly-paid screenwriter. Along with two more films for Nichols, Catch-22 (1970) and The Day of the Dolphin (1972), Henry also wrote Candy (1968), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), Heaven Can Wait (1978; he also co-directed with Warren Beatty), First Family (1980, also directed), To Die For (1995), and Town & Country (2001; one of many writers on a troubled production that took two years to film, but, according to some accounts, Henry walked away with a cool $3 million.)

For all his success as a screenwriter, Buck Henry still acted. In fact, his acting credits outnumber his writing credits. They were usually small roles, sometimes in films in which he worked on the script, such as The Graduate, where he played the hotel desk clerk trying to make sense of Benjamin Braddock's nervous request for a room. Among his notable roles in films he did not write, there was outer space alien David Bowie's bifocaled business partner in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), a doomed mob accountant in Gloria (1980), a sex-crazed bank manager in Eating Raoul (1982), one of three fisherman who just as soon not have their vacation interrupted in Short Cuts (1993), and a heavily layered IRS agent in Grumpy Old Men (1993) He even played himself in The Player (1992), pitching a Graduate sequel to studio executive Tim Robbins. Yet some of Henry's most memorable roles weren't in the movies but on the medium he thought he'd left behind: television.

After Johnny Carson had demanded that Tonight Show reruns that aired at 11:30 on Saturday nights get yanked from the schedule, a  former Laugh-In writer and a producer of an Emmy award-winning Lily Tomlin special named Lorne Michaels was given the opportunity by NBC to create a new program in that time slot. What he came up with was a 90-minute live variety show that was heavy on sketch comedy aptly called Saturday Night (Live was added to the title a year later.) The show was geared to an under-30 audience, and Michaels wanted guest host that would appeal to that age group. You wouldn't think that would be Buck Henry, who was 45 by then, but there was a certain hip cachet to having been the writer of The Graduate, and that was good enough for Michaels. NBC might have found it curious when trying to promote the show. Though very well-known in the entertainment industry, Henry was hardly a household name in 1975. In fact, during his first few time hosting the show, the comedy revolved around him being a nobody. Once, during the opening monologue, as Henry talked, the names of big stars who had turned down requests to host were scrolled upward on the screen. But Henry didn't remain a nobody for long. Despite the age difference between him and what at the time was called The Not Ready For Prime Time Players, Henry fit right in with the 20-somthing actors. After all, like most of them, he had got his start in improv comedy, albeit about a decade-and-a-half earlier. Henry hosted SNL ten times between 1976 and 1980, and by the time of his final appearance he had indeed become a household name, providing the household had members in their teens or twenties. One of the reasons for his popularity among the cast and crew was his willingness to appear in sketches that other guest hosts had turned. Sometimes with good reason. During its first five years SNL was known for its shock comedy, and Henry appeared in of its most shocking bits, the notorious Uncle Roy sketch (written by two women, Rosie Shuster and Ann Beats), in which a pedophile babysitter persuades his two prepubescent nieces (played by Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman, both in real-life well past the age of puberty) to pose for him in sexually suggestive positions. The innocuous little girls didn't know these were sexual positions and found the whole thing fun (years later in an interview for the Television Academy, Henry apologized to anybody who may have had a real-life Uncle Roy as a child.) Surprisingly, this wasn't the Henry sketch that generated the most angry mail. That instead was skit where played a stunt coordinator involved in a movie about child, in fact infant, abuse. Right before the moment of violence is to be filmed, the "star" baby is taken away and replaced by a stunt double, who is then thrown against the walls and furniture. No real infant was actually harmed while performing the sketch. Both the star baby and the stunt baby were obviously dolls, but it was still a bit too much for some people watching at home. A sketch that wasn't controversial but may have caused Henry a bit of grief anyway involved John Belushi's Samurai character. These were a series of skits where combined Japanese martial techniques with mundane jobs such as being a motel desk clerk or operating a delicatessen. In a sketch titled "Samurai Stockbroker", Henry, as Mr. Dantley, leans a bit too closely to hear some stock tips and gets hit by a sword. This wasn't in the script. I'd like to think Belushi's sword was nothing more than a prop, but can't actually confirm this. Real or not, Henry did get a cut on the head, and had to spend the rest of show wearing a bandage. Though it wasn't meant to happen and this was live TV, Chevy Chase made it one of his news items on Weekend Update. Furthermore, for the rest of the night, various cast members began popping up in sketches wearing bandages. As Henry said goodbye at the end, all the Not Ready for Prime Time Players stood behind him swathed up in a show of first aid solidarity. How's that for improv theater?

If you judge show biz success solely in terms of name recognition (and you really shouldn't) then those 10 Saturday Night Live appearances (11 if you count a Mardi Gras special that aired on a Sunday night) would have marked a high point in Buck Henry's career. His association with that show ended once the original cast left (some sooner than others.) And not just the actors. Lorne Michaels left for a few years, too. One of Michael's projects during his absence from SNL was another prime-time sketch comedy show titled The New Show that perhaps should have been called Friday Night Videotaped. With an ensemble cast of just four people, one of whom was Henry and another of whom was Dave Thomas of SCTV fame. Since the main cast was so puny, there were several guest stars rather than just one, including Steve Martin, John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Gilda Radner, and Laraine Newman. The show is best remembered for Martin's Michael Jackson "Billie Jean" video parody, in which he had to stomp on the sidewalk in order to get it to light up. I recall The New Show as being funny enough, though there was certain listlessness to the way the whole thing was paced, as if after all those years of producing a live show, Michaels forgot that one of the advantages of tape is that it can be edited. The show never found an audience, and was canceled after just nine weeks. Michaels went back to SNL, but for some reason, Henry didn't follow. But their association didn't end completley as Henry guest-starred a few times as Liz Lemon's goofy father on the Micheals-produced 30 Rock. Aside from all things Lorne Micheal, what used to be a high point in an American actor's career before movies and TV came along, and still has a certain amount of prestige attached to it, Henry, along with George Segal and Wayne Knight (Newman on Seinfeld) appeared in a hit Broadway play. OK, the play I'm talking about, Art, was already a Tony-award-winning hit before these three actors signed on to play roles originally created (in the Broadway version of the Yasmina Reza's French comedy) by Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina, but audiences still turned out to see Henry, Segal and Knight anyway. Henry, by this time in his 70s, again appeared on Broadway as part of a large ensemble in the Paul Osborne drama Morning's at Seven, which ran for about four months. About ten years ago he appeared in Lisa Ebersole's Off-Broadway comedy Mother, opposite Holland Taylor (of Two and a Half Men fame.) The play itself got mixed reviews, but the critics all agreed Henry and Taylor were very good in it.

In preparing this post, I read and watched four or five different interviews with Buck Henry. In about three of those interviews, he referred to himself as "lazy". Given all he accomplished, my jaw almost hit the keyboard when I first came across that self-description. What, so he was just in the right place at the right time over and over and over again? It could have been false modesty, I suppose, but I watched and listened, rather than read, one of these interviews, and he said it so matter-of-factly I have to think he meant it. But why? I wonder if by lazy he means some of higher aspirations of a life in the arts. Henry was by and large a hired gun, writing and acting in projects initiated by others. That's just the way it goes in popular entertainment, popular culture. Certainly not everybody, but most involved in mass media write, direct, draw, paint, sing, dance, and otherwise perform whatever someone pays them to write, direct, draw, paint, sing, dance, and otherwise perform. That doesn't leave much opportunity for a personal statement, or a artistic vision. But one reason I spend so much time writing about pop culture on this blog is I want to see if I find that statement or vision anyway, no matter what the odds. And Henry was really too smart not to have at least a little bit of his psyche sneak into his work-for-hire. But what was his artistic vision, his personal statement? To answer that question to my favorite part of his career, the time he spent on Get Smart. Asked once if the secret agent sitcom was realistic, Henry said no, that instead, reality was "extrapolated" into the television make-believe. What did he mean by that?

Here's my guess. In one episode that Henry is credited with writing, a grizzled, one-legged sea captain reminisces about the time he did battle with the Great White Whale.

Pointing to the wooden leg, Maxwell Smart asks, "Did the Great White Whale do that?"

"No," the sea captain replies. "That was done by a Small Blue Convertible."

Reality bites. Maybe that was Buck Henry's personal statement

 































20 comments:

  1. Although the underwear prank was a bit early for me to remember, I must have read about it somewhere and also have a feeling that a similar comedy sketch was tried on tv here in the 70s or 80s. Henry was quite a high achiever, for a lazy person.

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    1. Andrew, the more I think about, the more I'm struck by the fact that most animals have evolved to the point where you can't immediately see their genitals. Not just animals with fur and feathers but even when it comes to reptiles and amphibians, a non-biologist would really have to examine one before you could tell the if it was male or female. Plainly obvious sex organs seem to be unique to the human race. I'm going to have to borrow a copy of Origin of Species from the library and see what Darwin has to say about all this.

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  2. Who was Buck Henry again? I need more information.

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    1. You'll have to wait for the sequel, Mike.

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  3. His physical appearance was so incongruous with his wit, depth, and intelligence. I always loved that.

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    1. Mitchell, I watched a four-hour interview with Buck Henry in preparation for this post, and while I certainly expected him to be witty and intelligent, I also thought that after so many years in the entertainment industry, a certain show biz shallowness might have rubbed off onto him. It didn't. Or if it did it wasn't present in that interview. As you said, he had depth, which makes me think, for all his accomplishments, he only scratched the surface career-wise.

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  4. Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

    Benjamin: Yes, sir.

    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

    Benjamin: Yes, I am.

    Mr. McGuire: Impeach.

    Hi, Kirk!

    I saw a nekked French Poodle the other day, and I swear it's gonna take the jaws of life to pry her out of my head.

    I was sad to log onto the news the other day and learn that Buck Henry had died. Buck influenced my style of dry humor. I never missed an episode of Get Smart and The Graduate is one of my favorite films. I also saw and enjoyed The Owl and the Pussycat, Heaven Can Wait and To Die For. My earliest exposure to Buck Henry was seeing him as a regular on The New Steve Allen Show and "TW3" - That Was The Week That Was - a series I watched regularly. Buck was excellent in his guest appearances on SNL in The Nerds sketch, in Belushi's Samurai sketch and as the pervy pedophile Uncle Roy. I also saw Buck's guest shots on Murphy Brown, Hot in Cleveland and 30 Rock. My favorite Buck Henry role was that of the deadpan desk clerk in The Graduate.

    Buck was an innovator who shook up the establishment. Living as he did until the ripe old age of 89, he outlived many of his contemporaries as we realize when we see him in these group pictures and videos.

    Thanks for doing such a thorough job of paying tribute to Buck Henry, one of the most brilliant writers and comedy minds of the 20th century. Enjoy the rest of your week, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. Shady, I wish I had better SNL skits to show just how good Buck Henry was as a comic actor. Unfortunately, NBC yanked the best examples, including the Uncle Roy sketches, off of YouTube. What I have is just what's gone under the radar, and who knows how long before those gets yanked. But even as a secondary character in the hamburger and nerd sketches, Henry does well.

      I've done enough of these obituaries by now that I shouldn't be surprised by how old these people are when they die, but 89? He was born before my parents! Most of the surviving members of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players are now in their 60s or early 70s (except for Garrett Morris, who's now topped 80.)In his 40s when they were in their 20s, Henry's acting style didn't at all clash with theirs.

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  5. Hello Kirk, What a shame that another icon of entertainment is gone. His "pipsqueak" acting style is reminiscent of Wally Cox and Frank DeVol (from Canton, Ohio), both likewise quite intelligent. Although I had enjoyed Henry's work here and there, I never connected all the dots until seeing the great retrospective you present here.
    --Jim

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  6. Jim, I recently was thumbing through a biography of Marlon Brando, and there was some stuff in there about Wally Cox, who was a childhood friend, then later a roommate when both lived in Hollywood. Cox was originally going to be a jewelry salesman and had put a lot of jokes into his sales pitch. He rehearsed this pitch in front of Brando, who told him to forget jewelry and go become a stand-up comedian, which he did.

    I know it's not the most sophisticated movie in the world, but Frank DeVol was great as the on-screen narrator in the Jerry Lewis movie The Big Mouth (1967). DeVol's sober style is contrasted with Lewis's silliness right until the end when DeVol suddenly becomes pretty damn silly himself.

    And of course, DeVol was Doc Severinsen to Martin Mull's Johnny Carson on Fernwood 2night, though dressed much more conservatively.

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    1. Hi again, While we are reminiscing, Wally Cox also starred as a teacher in the early television show Mr. Peepers, which was notable for featuring the lovable actress Marion Lorne, whose recorded appearances were all too few.

      DeVol was famous mostly for his music, which included the scores to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte; and Cat Ballou. Imagine being the one who sat down and wrote "I've Written a Letter to Daddy." Pure genius, writing a waltz in a minor key, an odd effect which creates a frightening mood during the song's reprise. --Jim

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    2. Jim, I've read about Mr. Peepers and know it as the cornerstone of Wally Cox's career (though I remember him fondly as the voice of Underdog and as one of celebrities on Hollywood Squares) I've never seen a single episode. I don't that the reruns were ever in widespread syndication. Certainly not as much as I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, or Leave It to Beaver. I do know Mr. Peepers was costar's Tony Randall's springboard to fame.

      I don't know that they necessarily knew each other, but Marion Lorne and Buck Henry were connected through The Graduate. When Benjamin Braddock goes to that hotel to meet Mrs. Robinson for their first tryst, he somehow ends up in a room where a wedding reception is being held. Marion Lorne is in the greeting line. Standing next to her is Alice Ghostley. Lorne and Ghostley themselves shared a connection through Bewitched. Lorne played Samantha Steven's bumbling Aunt Clara, whose magic never worked the way it was supposed to. When Lorne died (just a few months after The Graduate was filmed) she was replaced by Ghostley, who played the Stephens nervous witch housekeeper, whose magic also never worked the way it was supposed to.

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    1. If you knew him at all, Adam, that would be great.

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  8. A long and illustrious career. Rest in peace.

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  9. Debra, that's why this post took me something like six days to put together. Illustriousness takes time.

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  11. A fantastic tribute! I enjoyed the videos. I remember watching the SNL nerd's prom skit when it aired. Those were the days.

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In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.