Buck Henry, a writer and actor who exerted an often overlooked but potent influence on television and movie comedy — creating the loopy prime-time spy spoof “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks, writing the script for Mike Nichols’ landmark social satire “The Graduate” and teaming up with John Belushi in the famous samurai sketches on “Saturday Night Live” — died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
A friend, Dianne V. Lawrence, said Henry’s wife, Irene Ramp, had called her to tell her of the death. Ramp told The Washington Post that the cause was a heart attack. The entertainment news site Deadline said he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, citing an unidentified family member.
As a personality and a performer, Henry had a mild and unassuming aspect that was usually in contrast with the pungently satirical or broadly slapstick material he appeared in — and often wrote. Others in the room always seemed to make more noise.
Indeed, for almost 50 years he was a Zelig-like figure in American comedy, a ubiquitous if underrecognized presence not only in grand successes but also in grand failures. He wrote the screenplays for “Catch-22” (1970), an earnest but unwieldy adaptation, directed by Nichols, of Joseph Heller’s corrosively comic anti-war novel; and for “Candy” (1968), which turned a novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg — a riotous sendup of “Candide” set during the sexual revolution — into a leaden and star-studded bomb. (Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Walter Matthau and Ringo Starr all appeared as vamping lechers.)
His working partners were among Hollywood’s brightest lights, if not when they worked together then later. They included not only Nichols, Brooks and Belushi, but also Warren Beatty, with whom he directed the plaintive drama about mortality “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; and Barbra Streisand, for whom he wrote two cockeyed romantic comedies: “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970), adapted from a stage play by Bill Manhoff, and “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), for which Robert Benton and David Newman also received screenplay credit.
He wrote “Protocol” (1984), a vehicle for Goldie Hawn; and “To Die For” (1995), a grimly satirical take on the power of celebrity, adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel (itself derived from an actual news story) and directed by Gus Van Sant, which brought out a star-making performance by Nicole Kidman as a would-be newscaster who brazenly induces three hapless teenagers to murder her husband.
He also wrote the screenplay for “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973), a science fiction thriller based on a novel by Robert Merle, also directed by Nichols.
“I can write in anybody’s voice,” Henry said in 2009 in an interview for the Archive of American Television, “which is why I am most successful making screenplays from books and plays.”
His most enduring work, “The Graduate,” although also an adaptation (of a novel by Charles Webb), was his most personal.
Like “To Die For,” which predated the era of reality shows but addressed the potentially poisonous allure of fame as only television can confer, “The Graduate” (1967) captured a moment of unease in the American zeitgeist. Set amid the affluence and sunshine of mid-1960s suburban Los Angeles, where drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll and the specter of the Vietnam War had yet to rend the fabric of an older generation’s social expectations, the film caught the alienation of the American young who sensed, long before their parents did, that the world they were entering was a whole new place.
The film introduced a young actor named Dustin Hoffman as the title character, Benjamin Braddock, whose anxiety and paralysis are dramatized when he has an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson, then falls in love with her daughter, Elaine.
Henry’s screenplay, which was nominated for an Oscar, appropriated much of Webb’s dialogue but softened the smug, unpleasant edge evinced by Benjamin in the novel. And it was marked by a number of awkwardly comic exchanges that pointedly illustrated what was then becoming known as the generation gap:
“I just want to say one word to you, just one word,” a friend of Benjamin’s father says to Benjamin, corralling him at his graduation party.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
Bringing in record-breaking young audiences, “The Graduate” was the No. 1 movie in America for months in 1968 — it became the third-highest-grossing movie in history up to that time, behind only “Gone With the Wind” and “The Sound of Music” — and helped usher in an era in which Hollywood focused on making movies for people in their teens and 20s.
“I think it was a film made by and for a generation that hadn’t had films made for it,” Henry said in an interview with the journal Cinéaste in 2001. “We were just trying to make a film about something we understood. By we, I mean Mike Nichols; Larry Turman, the producer; and me.”
Calder Willingham, who wrote an early version of the script, also received screenplay credit, but it was Henry’s that was the basis of the film, though the two shared an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.
“When Nichols asked me to read the book, they’d already thrown away four scripts,” Henry recalled. “Nichols, Turman and I all thought we were Benjamin. That’s how the book affected us. Nichols and Turman saw the behavior and events in the film as reflecting what they felt at Benjamin’s age. So did I.”
Heir of Stockbrokers
Buck Henry was born Henry Zuckerman in New York City on Dec. 9, 1930, to Paul and Ruth (Taylor) Zuckerman. His father was a stockbroker and an Army Air Corps pilot; his mother was a Ziegfeld Follies performer and an actress in silent films. He was named for his grandfather, also a stockbroker, acquiring his nickname, Buck, in the process. (In the 2009 archive interview, he said he did not legally change his name to Buck Henry until the 1970s.)
Henry attended private schools in New York and attended Dartmouth, where he joined the theater crowd in campus productions. He recalled in an interview with the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2013 that three drama professors were the only ones “I really cared about.”
After graduating, he was drafted and spent the Korean War years touring Army bases in Germany with an acting company, performing in a musical revue he wrote and directed. When he returned, he lived mostly in New York City, auditioning for acting jobs and sending off writing samples, to little avail.
Then, in 1959, he joined forces with a friend, Alan Abel, who had created a hoax organization, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which was dedicated to putting pants — or at least undershorts — on dogs, horses and cows as a response to society’s evident moral decline.
Henry became the public face of SINA, as the organization was known, playing the role of its president, G. Clifford Prout, giving interviews to newspapers and magazines and appearing on television, where he would argue that zoos should be closed down until the animals could be properly attired.
The hoax wasn’t entirely unmasked until 1965, but until then, many people — millions, perhaps — had been hoodwinked. Among them was Walter Cronkite, who featured a segment on SINA in August 1962 on the “CBS Evening News.” He never forgave Henry after learning that it had been a joke.
In the early 1960s Henry performed with the Premise, an off-Broadway improvisational troupe. With Theodore Flicker, a fellow troupe member, he wrote his first movie, “The Troublemaker” (1964), a lampoon of city bureaucracy about a man trying to open a coffee house. He also landed a handful of television jobs, writing for Steve Allen and Garry Moore and for the satirical news program “That Was the Week That Was,” on which he also appeared.
Producer Daniel Melnick put Henry together with Brooks to create the spoof of spy movies that became “Get Smart.” It was an idea born out of commerce, a high-concept melding of big hits — “Goldfinger” meets “The Pink Panther.”
“I go to his office one day, and he says ‘I want to give you guys an idea,’” Henry recalled of Melnick. “‘Here’s the thing. What are the two biggest movies in the world today? James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. Get my point?’”
The show, both a parody and a satire, starred Don Adams as the spectacularly inept secret agent Maxwell Smart, aka Agent 86, and became a landmark television comedy. Introducing the shoe phone, the cone of silence and other cockamamie spy gadgetry, and contributing to the popular lexicon several of Max’s signature locutions — “Sorry about that, Chief!”; “Would you believe …?”; “Missed it by that much!” — the show ran from 1965 to 1970, its outlandish silliness serving as the prototype mood for innumerable sitcoms and sketches to follow.
A Samurai’s Foil
Henry, who won an Emmy Award with Leonard Stern for outstanding comedy writing on the series, tried to repeat his “Get Smart” triumph, creating two other spoofy sitcoms: “Captain Nice” (1967), starring William Daniels (who played Benjamin Braddock’s father in “The Graduate”) as a mild-mannered reluctant superhero, and “Quark” (1977), a “Star Trek” sendup with Richard Benjamin as the Kirkish captain of an intergalactic garbage scow. Neither lasted beyond its first season, but Henry more successfully plumbed the television veins of satire and slapstick on “Saturday Night Live,” on which he was a guest host 10 times during the show’s early years, from 1976 to 1980.
Henry was an eager participant in “Saturday Night Live” sketches. He appeared as a member of the Frightened family, each of whose members had a hairpiece that flipped up in horror at the most mundane occurrence. He created the character of Uncle Roy, a comically creepy, lascivious babysitter. And with his preternaturally mild manner, he was the perfect foil for Belushi’s various incarnations as a samurai — a samurai deli man, a samurai tailor, a samurai optometrist. In one famous incident during a “samurai stockbroker” sketch, Belushi accidentally struck Henry with his sword, taking a chunk out of his forehead.
As an actor, Henry appeared in small, crucial and often exquisitely comic roles in virtually all the films he wrote — he was the hotel clerk who provided the room key to Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate” — and many others besides. His movie credits include “Taking Off” (1971), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), “Eating Raoul” (1982), “Defending Your Life” (1991) and “The Player” (1992), a Hollywood satire in which he played himself, pitching a movie idea to a studio executive: “The Graduate: Part 2.”
Later, Henry appeared in several television shows, including “30 Rock,” in which he played Dick Lemon, the father of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, and “Hot in Cleveland.”
His most recent screenwriting credit was for “The Humbling” (2014), which he and Michal Zebede adapted from a novel by Philip Roth.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
An especially unusual aspect of Henry’s career was that as a screenwriter he would spend time on the set. Even so, he recalled in 2001, the screenwriter’s lot is ultimately one of helplessness.
“When you are part of the process, what is done all along the way becomes what your concept of the film is,” he said. “If it is wildly successful, you are sure it was carried out exactly as you intended. I have no idea now what I thought ‘The Graduate’ would look like. I’m not sure I had a strong vision of it to begin with, and if I did it wasn’t anything like what is on the screen. But if you ask me today, I think, ‘Yes, that is how I saw it.’”