The Legendary Buck Henry Was a Subversive Comic Genius

Buck Henry, who created classic comedy for big and small screens, dies at 89.

Buck Henry in Heaven Can Wait

Genius comedy writer and actor Buck Henry died of a heart attack at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Health Center at the age of 89, according to Variety. Henry was a frequent host on Saturday Night Live, wrote the screenplays for such comedy classics as The Graduate and What’s Up, Doc? and co-created Get Smart with Mel Brooks.

Buck Henry, who was born Henry Zuckerman on Dec. 9, 1930, was the son of silent film actress Ruth Taylor, who was also the star of the original Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. His stockbroker father was a retired Air Force brigadier general named Paul Steinberg Zuckerman. Given Henry’s penchant for comic corruption, this may have informed the educational subterfuge he mined to adapt, along with collaborator Calder Willingham, Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate for Mike Nichols’ 1967 classic generational comedy. “I just want to say one word to you, just one word,” Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin is told after being cornered by an older businessman. “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” We are sure Benjamin doesn’t give it a second thought. Buck attended The Choate School and Dartmouth College, and may have been given that exact advice before he put on full scuba gear to jump in a backyard pool.

Henry’s talent for skewering cultural mores dates back to the early days of his career, when he unhinged the perennially reliable newscaster Walter Cronkite. In a comic conspiracy concocted with comedian Alan Abel, Henry played a character named G. Clifford Prout from 1959 to 1962. Prout would appear on talk shows as the morally outraged president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. He pushed the idea that animals, who are shamelessly permitted to run around in public naked, should be clothed. People, believing this moral satire to be real, sent in money, which Henry and Abel gave back so their hoax didn’t become criminal. Cronkite, like many broadcasters who had the character on their shows, didn’t know it was a joke, and never forgave Henry.

Buck began his television career as an actor as part of the casts of The New Steve Allen Show (1961) and That Was The Week That Was (1964–65). But it was as a writer where he truly flourished. Get Smart, which Henry created with Mel Brooks, is one of the funniest TV series ever produced. So much of it doesn’t age because of the twists the comic duo made of that generation’s intelligence department. England had Agent 007 James Bond, suave, sophisticated, masterful. America had Control Agent 86 Maxwell Smart, played by Don Adams, who occasionally wrote and directed episodes himself, a klutzy buffoon who could make Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clouseau look graceful on occasion. ABC network executives called the series “un-American.”

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Henry and Brooks basically hated everything they saw on TV and created the perfect antidote. They ignored network demands like giving Smart a dog or a mother. They tried to get away with designating Barbara Feldon’s spy name as Agent 69 before the networks caught on and made them change it to the more reasonable sounding Agent 99. Everything about the series, which ultimately ran on NBC before it defected to CBS, was counter to the times, the military industrial complex, and political presentation. KAOS agents, the bad guys, had better benefits than the ones working for our government. And they were allowed to cheat at softball. Sexy agent provocateurs turned out to be masculine espionage professionals undercover, a robot was the most emotional character on the show, and the Cone of Silence only suppressed the spies who were supposed to hear what was going on.

Get Smart ran from 1965 to 1970 and picked up all sorts of awards for its cold war satire, including a 1967 Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy Emmy Award for Buck Henry and Leonard Stern. After raiding governmental gadget departments to skewer the world of international espionage, Henry rummaged through the Batcave to take on campy comic book do-gooders. He went up against Batman with a short lived comedy Captain Nice (1967) which starred William Daniels as a chemically enhanced mama’s boy superhero.

Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player, opens with a scene where Henry is playing himself pitching The Graduate, Part Two as a Goth film to a movie executive. In real life he did his best to kill a proposed remake. That could be called a Catch-22, the 1970 film Henry adapted from Joseph Heller’s World War II novel. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film epitomizes the counter-intuitive nature of the pair’s frequent collaborations. Alan Arkin is a genius comic actor, and everything around him is so stupidly methodical he winds up eating cotton in a tree because it’s good for the country. 

Henry co-wrote, with David Newman and Robert Benton, the screenplay for Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?. The film starred Barbra Streisand as Judy Maxwell, a Bugs Bunny-inspired character chasing a carrot named Dr. Howard Bannister, played by Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal was a bona fide box office sex symbol who had just won hearts across the world in the premier purposeful tearjerker Love Story. The doomed lovers in that romantic classic keep themselves together by reminding each other “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The What’s Up Doc? writers thought “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” and made Ryan sorry for ever saying it.

Long before Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, and John Goodman made it a “thing” to hold the record for hosting SNL, Henry quietly held that title. He hosted the skit series 10 times between 1976 and 1980. During his Oct. 30, 1976, appearance as Mr. Dantley in the skit “Samurai Delicatessen,” he mined a head wound for subversive comedy gold  when John Belushi hit Henry’s forehead with his katana in a miscalculated swing. The still-bleeding but game-to-entertain Henry was bandaged and continued performing. By the end of the show, all the other cast members wore bandages in comic solidarity. But they did this after the audience was shown the incident via the taped footage,which Jane Curtin told the audience was the result of Belushi’s “drug crazed” performance. This is about as literal as you come to subversively turning live comedy on its head.

Henry even subverted perversion with a character called “Uncle Roy,” an overt pedophile babysitter who lasciviously enjoyed the innocent games Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner played as the children he was watching. When the skit is about to end, you can’t help but think about the boundaries of bad taste. Then Henry ruefully adds “I think there’s an Uncle Roy in every family,” and the segment becomes a public service announcement. 

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Henry was nominated for an Oscar for co-directing Heaven Can Wait (1978) with Warren Beatty. In the film, Beatty is an all-star quarterback who is mistaken for dead by the people upstairs who have to find him a couple of substitute bodies on his way back to the big game. The film plays as a straight comedy, not quite romantic, though there are elements. It is about death but it is not a dark comedy. It is shot brightly, with many scenes captured in the sunlight. It is hopeful and frustrating and ultimately one of the most beautifully effective cinematic statements in motion picture history.

Henry attempted to clean up TV again with the short-lived 1978 science fiction comedy Quark, which saw Richard Benjamin commanding a garbage scow in outer space. Throughout his career, Henry made TV acting appearances on Murphy Brown, Will and Grace, 30 Rock and Hot in Cleveland. But he brought his most brilliant brand of late-period subversive comedy to The Daily Show as the show’s “Senior Senior Correspondent,” in 2007. 

Buck’s premiere segment was called “The Henry Stops Here,” immediately establishing his personal flair for undermining expectations. Jon Stewart introduced Henry as a “reporter’s reporter,” a respected voice in the news business for decades. Rupert Murdoch had just put in his bid to buy The Wall Street Journal, forging a media conglomeration bordering on monopoly. Henry explains there were 17 daily newspapers in the city when he started out, all owned by different people. Henry defends Murdoch as a nice guy while calling him “power-hungry, domineering, greedy, sociopathic, stink-fingered,” and “even a cannibal.” But he explains he would never have gotten away with saying that about the revered Joseph Pulitzer, who “personally presented” the prize that bore his name with a solid “kick in the nuts” to the recipient. When Stewart suggests Murdoch pushed America into war, Henry says he gives him too much credit. Media baron William Randolph Hearst “was a quarterback of war,” he explains with historic anecdotes, while Murdoch is merely a “cheerleader offering the occasional panty flash.”

Henry proved he could damn a target with faint praise just as easily as he could sum up the contradictions of the human condition. As Oliver Farnsworth in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 science fiction environment parable The Man Who Fell to Earth, Henry tells his boyfriend Trevor “My father used to say ‘Oliver, when you get a gift horse, walk up to it, pat it, quiet the animal down and then using both hands force open its jaws and have a damn good look in its mouth.'” This sounds like good advice until he adds “But my father was always wrong,” with a look so tormented by the puzzle it encapsulates the enigma of his cinematic boss, the alien Thomas Jerome Newton played by David Bowie. Henry could pull the rug from anything. His subversive humor played to both humanity and alien nature.

Henry’s influence on comedy is incalculable. This writer will spend a minute in the Cone of Silence in his memory in hopes the Buck never stops.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

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