Buck Henry: 1930-2020

Buck Henry made writing cool. The image of the screenwriter as a man locked to his typewriter, a slave to the notes of producers and whims of directors, was deconstructed by a man who could host “Saturday Night Live” as easily as he could write some of the best scripts of his era. And Henry was effortlessly cool, turning his deadpan wit and deep intelligence into weapons of humor in film and television. He helped define not just a style of writing but what it meant to be a comedian. If he had only written “The Graduate” and co-created “Get Smart,” that would be enough to make him a major influence on comedy, but there was much more to Henry’s career, one that weaved its way through so many writers and actors that followed. On Wednesday, Buck Henry died of a heart attack at age 89.

Born Henry Zuckerman in New York—and he was an NYC writer through and through, not just for his eventual regular involvement with “SNL”—Buck Henry came from an acting lineage. His mother Ruth Taylor was a silent film star who appeared in the original version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1928, and one wonders if Henry didn't inherit a gift for making an impact as a deadpan actor without dialogue from his mom. Like a lot of writers of his generation, he worked on college humor magazines before graduating from Dartmouth and getting his start in television. He was an actor first on shows like “The New Steve Allen Show,” but it was when he created “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks that everything really changed. People often presume that spoofs of genre shows are easy because the worst ones just exaggerate clichés and already-existing concepts but “Get Smart” was blindingly smart, proving that great parody needs to be not just broader, it needs to be wittier than what it’s parodying to work.

While “Get Smart” was on the air, Buck Henry wrote the screenplay that would change his life and become a touchstone for a generation, “The Graduate.” The massive hit earned Henry his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and give him the creative freedom to make his own choices for the rest of his career. Buck Henry clearly worked only on projects that interested him, not just to keep working. For example, he would host “Saturday Night Live” ten times in the early years, knowing that his deadpan style was a perfect foil for the broad humor of someone like John Belushi, who worked with Henry regularly in the “samurai” sketches. Years later, he would be perfectly cast in a show inspired by “SNL” when he played Liz Lemon’s father on “30 Rock.”

In the ‘70s, Buck Henry wrote for Peter Bogdanovich (“What’s Up, Doc?”), adapted Joseph Heller (“Catch-22”), reunited with Mike Nichols again (“The Day of the Dolphin”), gave Barbra Streisand a hit role (“The Owl and the Pussycat”), and directed Warren Beatty in the wonderful “Heaven Can Wait,” which landed Henry his second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Director. He often appeared in his works, memorably in “The Graduate,” “Catch-22,” and “Heaven Can Wait,” popping up just long enough to remind you who wrote the movie and that he could work on either side of the camera.

Buck Henry never quite reached the peak of his fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s again but there were notable works in the later part of his career too. For one, he adapted Joyce Maynard’s book into the excellent Gus Van Sant film “To Die For” and unforgettably played himself in “The Player” (he would also appear in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”). A personal favorite is his supporting role in Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life.”

It’s not a ton of credits for a career. But it is a career filled with what would be peaks for other writers and actors. He worked with Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks, Robert Altman, and the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.” And he never felt like a writer in actor’s clothing. He was just effortlessly brilliant behind or in front of the camera. When he passed, Matt Zoller Seitz texted me a perfect summary of Buck Henry in its brevity: “What a terrific career he had.” 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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