After Henry died, the media was flooded with his obit and remembrances. He was one of a kind. I waited awhile to post anything about him, then saw him the other night on a rerun of Saturday Night Live. It was his first hosting role on the show.
Henry hadn’t been in the limelight for awhile. Unless you were of an older generation, the name might have rung a bell, but couldn’t name anything in particular. Buck Henry might have laughed a little at that.
Buck Henry was unassuming. He played some irritating supporting characters in television and film, designed to nag at the main players. Usually, not a lot of screen time, but always memorable.
In January 1976, he hosted show number 10 in the Saturday Night Live’s first season. He opened the show wondering why he had been selected to host, since he wasn’t a big movie star, and there were other choices. The rolling subtitles across the screen listed many other hosting options.
He hosted 10 in the first five seasons. He was perfect for SNL, a bit smarmy and cool, Bill Murray before Bill Murray.
There was something inherently hip about Henry, we just weren’t sure what. He wrote for Steve Allen in the early 1960s when his show was known for off the wall skits. Creating Get Smart! and writing the final script for The Graduate established his Hollywood demand. He could writing socially funny and biting material. If his characters or his writing came across as pointed or a bit askew, it was probably by design. He wasn’t for slick, easy to digest situations. Life, and comedy weren’t smooth as glass. There was character in the roughness.
Henry looked like many of the supporting characters he played, generally square and definitely not hip.
Between The Graduate and Catch-22, he adapted the Terry Southern novel, Candy. A trippy novel, free love and the search for meaning sort of thing, it starred such “hip” older men like Marlon Brando, Richard Burton and John Huston. Although it performed moderately well, it is forgotten today and not representative of Henry’s better work.
For the 1970 film, Catch-22, Henry adapted the classic novel and played the part of Lt. Col. Korn, usually a thorn in the side of Yossarian. Turning Joseph Heller’s book into a film was a valiant effort.
Henry next adapted The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), a Barbra Streisand-George Segal film about two very opposite people who share an apartment. Streisand was a prostitute and Segal a writer.
Henry next co-wrote Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy story, What’s Up, Doc? (1972). The film was a huge hit and became a classic in the style of 1930s whip-smart comedies.
Henry would team up with director Mike Nichols again for The Day of the Dolphin, a high-concept idea, but not a very good film.
Working with Warren Beatty seemed an interesting match. Heaven Can Wait (1978) was written by Beatty and Elaine May, and co-directed by Beatty and Henry. A very successful film, but probably a difficult experience, given Beatty’s high control personality. Henry played an anxious angel that over-reacted, causing the story to unfold.
Henry finally got his chance to write and direct a film, First Family (1980), starring Bob Newhart, Madeline Kahn, Gilda Radner, Richard Benjamin and Harvey Korman. With this much talent, how could it fail? It did. Very unfunny.
Henry went back to writing scripts and playing supporting roles. The late 1960s and 1970s had been very good for his career, particularly the notoriety from his SNL appearances.
His two best scripts, Protocol, for Goldie Hawn was a huge hit, and To Die For, with Nicole Kidman, reestablished Henry as a top screenwriter. When he wasn’t writing scripts, he was fixing other writer’s scripts. His scripting projects were sporadic after that, though he kept working, usually as an actor.
Henry was from that cool generation, of Get Smart!, Mrs. Robinson and the samurai delicatessen, though he had moved on to play older, offbeat characters, usually dads.
Most of the obits mentioned that he came up with the “plastics” line in The Graduate. It was funny and there was a deeper social meaning in that scene. If you look at his work, there is usually a rough edge somewhere, just to get your attention and put an invisible question mark over your head. Somewhere, he has that sly smile as you ponder that.