Buck Henry, Fun-Loving Screenwriter and Actor, Dies at 89

Buck Henry - H 2014

Buck Henry - H 2014

The comic genius penned 'The Graduate,' 'What’s Up, Doc?' and 'To Die For,' co-created 'Get Smart' and was a legend of 'Saturday Night Live.'

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.

“He wasn’t a screenwriter when I asked him to write the screenplay. He improvised comedy,” Nichols recalled in a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair. "He had not, to my knowledge, written anything. And I said, ‘I think you could do it; I think you should do it.’ And he could, and he did.”

At the time, Henry was working in his second season as story editor for Get Smart, the sidesplitting spy spoof he created with Mel Brooks.

"Turman, Nichols and I related to The Graduate in exactly the same way," Henry told Vanity Fair. "We all thought we were [the book’s protagonist] Benjamin Braddock. Plus, it’s an absolutely first-class novel, with great characters, great dialogue, a terrific theme. Who could resist it? I read it and I said, 'Yes, let’s go.'"

Henry landed 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.

“[SINA was invented] for a host of reasons, most of them having to do with indecency and immorality,” Henry explained with a straight face during a 2009 interview for the Archive of American Television.

“Practical reasons, too: The high incidents of young people who became traumatized by their contact with naked animals and grew up twisted. And the high incidents of automobile accidents on the road near farms and ranches where people got glimpses of naked animals and swerved into trees. And we had charts proving this stuff.”

He tried to close down the San Francisco Zoo, that “burlesque house of the animal world,” and got front-page coverage in the Examiner newspaper. Henry even appeared as Prout on the Today show and in a segment taped in Los Angeles for the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.

The hoax unraveled when CBS employees recognized him, and he said that Cronkite never forgave him.

In 1962, Henry joined The Premise, an off-Broadway improvisational group whose members included George Segal and Theodore J. Flicker (who went on to create ABC’s Barney Miller). He did a stint as a stand-up comic, but that didn’t last long. “I never liked working in places where people drank and yelled at me,” he said.

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.

“I’m going to tell you what I told Mel in a previous meeting,” Melnick told Henry. “What are the two big deals in show business right now? Inspector Clouseau and James Bond. Get the point?”

Brooks and Henry’s pilot was turned down by ABC, but NBC, looking for a series for comic Don Adams, jumped on it. With Adams playing bumbling CONTROL Agent 86, Get Smart ran for five seasons. (Henry left the show after the first two.)

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.

“When the film was over [after an industry screening], I walked into the lobby, and a guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hi, I’m so and so, I’m at Universal,’” Henry recalled in a 1996 interview with the Museum of the Moving Image. “ ‘It was very funny, but listen: Just between you and me, don’t you think there’s a shot that we take as a sequel to The Graduate?’ ” 

Later, he was Tina Fey’s dad on 30 Rock and made it to the altar with Betty White on Hot in Cleveland.

In the early years of Saturday Night Live, Henry was about as close to being a Not Ready for Primetime Player as one could get. He was creepily funny as Uncle Roy, a dirty old man babysitting tots Radner and Laraine Newman, and he regularly appeared in skits opposite samurai John Belushi, who worked in a deli or as a TV repairman, optometrist, etc.

In the taping for a “Samurai Stockbroker” sketch in 1976, Belushi swung his sword and accidentally took a chunk out of Henry’s forehead. Henry recoiled, then smashed through a wall (that part of the sketch was planned), suffering cuts to his leg as well.

Belushi’s doctor, who was on the scene, patched Henry up during the next commercial break. Chevy Chase had the idea to do “Weekend Update” with a bandage on his head, and by the end of the show, everyone in the cast was sporting bandages as well.

“It was very good,” Henry said.

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.