'Laugh-In' original Henry Gibson dies

Also appeared in 'Boston Legal,' four Robert Altman films

Henry Gibson, a wry comic character actor whose career included "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," "Nashville" and "Boston Legal," died Monday at his home in Malibu after a brief battle with cancer. He was 73.

Gibson's breakthrough came in 1968 when he was cast as a member of the original ensemble of NBC's top-rated "Laugh-In," on which he performed for three seasons. Each week, a giant flower in his hand, he recited a signature poem, introducing them with the catchphrase that became his signature: "A Poem, by Henry Gibson."

The poems proved so popular that they led to the release of two comedy albums, "The Alligator" and "The Grass Menagerie," as well as a book, "A Flower Child's Garden of Verses."

After "Laugh-In," he played the evil Dr. Verringer in "The Long Goodbye" (1973), the first of four films in which he appeared for director Robert Altman. Their second collaboration came in "Nashville" (1975), in which Gibson earned a Golden Globe nomination and a National Society of Film Critics supporting-actor award for his performance as unctuous country singer Haven Hamilton. He also wrote his character's songs.

In television, Gibson's recent work included a five-season stint as cantankerous Judge Clarence Brown on ABC's "Boston Legal" and providing the voice for sardonic, eye-patched newspaperman Bob Jenkins on Fox's animated series "King of the Hill."

Born James Bateman in Germantown, Pa., on Sept. 21, 1935, Gibson began acting professionally at age 8. After graduating from Catholic University, he served in France from 1957-60 as an intelligence officer with the Air Force, then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

Back in New York, the actor developed the comic persona of "Henry Gibson" (a pun on the name of playwright Henrik Ibsen), a humble, wide-eyed poet laureate from Fairhope, Ala. Appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "The Joey Bishop Show" led to him being flown out to Hollywood by Jerry Lewis to be cast in "The Nutty Professor" (1963).


Photo by Edward K. Hudson
 
Also that year, Gibson appeared in his Broadway debut opposite Walter Matthau and Ruth Gordon in Lillian Hellman's "My Mother, My Father and Me."

Other memorable film roles for Gibson included a turn as the voice of Wilbur the Pig in the animated "Charlotte's Web" (1973); as an Illinois Nazi pursuing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in "The Blues Brothers" (1980); as a menacing neighbor opposite Tom Hanks in "The 'Burbs" (1989); as flamboyant barfly Thurston Howell in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (1999); and as a befuddled priest in "Wedding Crashers" (2005).

In 2001, he returned to Broadway in the Encores! New York City Center production of Rogers & Hart's "A Connecticut Yankee."

Offscreen, Gibson was active as an environmentalist; he contributed opinion pieces and poetry to publications such as the Washington Post and donated proceeds from the sale of posters featuring his poetry to the then-fledgling Environmental Defense Fund.

Gibson is survived by three sons -- Jon, a business affairs executive at Universal Pictures; Charles, a director and two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor; and James, a screenwriter -- and grandchildren Matthew and Miranda.

Memorial services are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Screen Actors Guild Foundation and Friends of the Malibu Public Library.
comments powered by Disqus