Joyce Maynard lovingly recalls a warm, funny friend
Back in the summer of 1990, when I was a young single mother living in a small town in New Hampshire, I wrote a novel called To Die For, a dark comedy about a woman so intent on becoming the next Barbara Walters that she plots with her teenage lover to kill her husband. (I won’t try to explain. Just read the book, if you wonder.)
Well, Columbia Pictures optioned To Die For to be adapted as a movie. But a lot of books get optioned that don’t end up getting turned into movies. So around our house, over the course of the two years after this happened, there was a line I used to deliver to my children (all young at the time)—any time they mentioned something that might be fun to do, only we didn’t have the money for it.
“If our ship comes in,” I’d say. Meaning: If the To Die For movie gets made.
Case in point: My sons wished we could get asphalt laid down in our driveway, and a hoop put up for basketball. Wait for the ship, I told them. My daughter pointed out that driving a car with a hole in the floor got a little chilly, in wintertime. The ship, I told her. Wait for the ship.
A couple of times, it looked as if our ship might be coming in, but it kept leaving the harbor, just before reaching shore. There was this one time, when Meg Ryan looked ready to take the starring role. SHIP COMING IN! But she changed her mind. She’d recently played a villain in a movie, and it hadn’t gone well, evidently. She didn’t want to play another bad woman.
Then one day I got the call. Nicole Kidman –not yet a big star, though she would be soon—had accepted the role, in a cast that included Matt Dillon, Casey Affleck and a very young Joaquin Phoenix. Gus Van Sant had agreed to direct the film. They were actually making the movie of my book. One more thing. Buck Henry—a writer I deeply admired, from Catch-22 and The Graduate and all the way back to my childhood, watching Get Smart—was adapting my novel for the screenplay. To me, there is little more worthy of respect than a great sense of humor. Not the joke-telling, punch-line variety. I’m talking about a sense of humor rooted in a deep understanding of the way people behave and the inherent comedy in the human condition. Buck Henry had that.
So our ship came in. I paid all the bills I hadn’t been able to pay. But more than that, I got to see my book turned into not just any movie, but a really terrific one. Buck Henry was a huge part of the reason this was so.
It is well known, in the world of film, that the last thing a screenwriter wants, when adapting a novel for the screen, is to have the writer of the novel standing over his or her shoulder, offering ideas. Still, I sent a note to Buck, telling him how happy I was that he would be adapting To Die For. He called me up and invited me –a woman better acquainted with driving the carpool to school and my kids’ soccer games than I was with the freeways of Los Angeles – over to meet him at his house, high above Sunset Boulevard, the next time I was in L.A.
I was a small-town girl from New Hampshire. Buck Henry was…Buck Henry. But throughout the process of writing the screenplay to my novel, he remained deeply respectful of my work, and of me.
That was 1992, I think. We became friends that first visit and remained friends for the rest of his life. Of all the smart, funny, brilliant people I have met in my life, I consider Buck to have been maybe the smartest and funniest. But also—this is more surprising—he was unceasingly kind to me. And generous.
Sometimes a year or two went by in between our visits, but every time we got together, it was a big event for me. He said the most interesting things, of course. (Not just about movies, but about books, and music, and politics, and the world.) But he also listened. He remembered my children’s names. He knew about the difficult things going on in my life.
Of course, he was also a legendary Hollywood figure—a man who played tennis with Mel Brooks and Johnny Carson, and hosted Saturday Night Live.
One night, when I was in LA for some job or other, I called him up to get together. “Sure,” he said. “I’m having dinner with Al Goldstein. Come join us.” Al Goldstein being outsized founder and publisher of Screw Magazine. A far cry from the publications in which the articles I’d written for years, to pay the bills, more typically appeared. Ladies’ Home Journal. Good Housekeeping….
He wrote me a part in To Die For—the small role of Nicole Kidman’s lawyer. Because I had young kids at the time, I didn’t fly around doing the usual promotional stuff for the movie, as Buck did, but one day he called me up to say he was being honored at his alma mater, Dartmouth College, not far from my home. As part of the event, they were screening To Die For on campus. He invited me to join him up on the stage to talk about it.
There is a particular thing that happens, when you have a conversation with an enormously sharp, quick-witted individual—someone in possession of a brilliant sense of humor. He makes you funnier, just by being around him. No doubt this was true of Gracie Allen with George Burns, and Elaine May, in the company of Mike Nichols. That night, in Hanover, N.H.—up on the stage with Buck—I got to know what it felt like, to be part of the most wonderful comedy team. I name that night as one of the most fun times I ever had, up on a stage. Buck was the reason why.
He got cancer about ten years ago, and though he survived it, the disease took a lot out of Buck. He remained sharp, and tuned in as ever to the world of music and literature and politics. He was still funny. But he was confined to a wheelchair, in that beautiful house he lived in with his wife, Irene, overlooking all of Hollywood.
He still got out into the world though. On a book tour I took in 2016 for another novel I’d written, I was just starting to read when I looked up and there, coming into the bookstore in Hancock Park, pushed in his chair by Irene, was Buck, in the baseball cap he always wore, for as long as I knew him.
I stopped everything and went over to put my arms around my dear friend. The old Buck wouldn’t have done this, but Buck, as he was then, wept. The old Buck could be cutting in his humor—though never that way to me. But illness, and a lot of losses (Carrie Fisher, one of the hardest for Buck) had softened him.
I always went to see him when I was in LA. Most recently about six months ago. I hugged him for a long time when we greeted each other, and longer, when I left. I guess I knew –we both did, probably—that I might not be seeing him again.
I woke this morning to the news that my friend had died, and though I might have known this was coming, I took it in hard as a punch.
Buck was 89 years old. He was funny, and he was serious, and he was the most seriously funny person I ever knew. He could return a devastatingly comic line the way Roger Federer returns a serve—swift, accurate, deadly. He had the sharp eye, the quickest tongue, the most dazzling mind, and of course, because of this, people thought of him, first, for his gift at comedy. It is sometimes easy to forget, when a person is as funny as Buck was, that he may also be deeply wise, utterly sane, and in possession of the truest form of compassion, which is the capacity to find comedy—and sometimes tragedy—in human behavior.
How I will miss him.