Screenwriters, Comedians React to the Death of Buck Henry

Creator of ‘Get Smart’ and Writer of ‘The Graduate’ Dead at 89

The great Buck Henry, writer of The Graduate and To Die For and co-creator, along with Mel Brooks, of the spy comedy Get Smart, died yesterday in Hollywood of a heart attack at the age of 89. Henry also had dozens of acting credits to his name, including Catch-22 (for which he also adapted the screenplay), numerous appearances during the early days of Saturday Night Live, and, most recently, 30 Rock, where he memorably played Liz Lemon’s dad.

Writers and comedy professionals immediately took to Twitter to memorialize Buck Henry, who may no longer be a household name, but whose influence spreads across the culture. As Book And Film Globe contributor Ben Schwartz pointed out, Henry’s career stretched from Terry Southern to Tina Fey. The son of a silent-film actress, he’d been part of Hollywood for nearly a century, and kept working nearly until the end.

The Graduate is Henry’s most enduring work, Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz recalled Henry telling him, at a festival, “Mike Nichols wanted the ‘plastics’ line out of the movie. ‘An old reference,’ says Nichols, ‘young 60s kids won’t get it.’ Buck insisted he leave it in. ‘Why?’ ‘Plastics is always funny.’

 

Henry also inspired a generation of funny people through his appearances on Saturday Night Live. Larry Karaszewski, screenwriter of Dolemite Is My Name, said, “Buck Henry was also a big personality & a performer…he gave screenwriting a face. Growing up I could turn on Saturday Night Live (which Buck hosted 10 times) and point to the funniest, smartest guy and say–that’s a screenwriter.”

In an exclusive quote to Book and Film Globe, Vanity Fair staff writer Mike Sacks, who interviewed Henry numerous times, said, “Buck Henry fit right in with the SNL Not Ready for Prime Time Players when a lot of people might not have. He had very modern sensibilities. Played characters on SNL you could never get away with today but never apologized. He played Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic and jerking off to a pornographic magazine. I begged him to write a memoir but he never got around to it. I think that’s a great shame. ”

Warren Leight, the showrunner of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, said, “So sad to learn the nonpareil Buck Henry has died.  Watching him hold court, listening to his dry delivery–among the great joys in life.  He would have a great joke about this; all I can say is thanks for your writing, your spirit, your humor. The world is duller without you.”

Mark Harris, author of Pictures At A Revolution, the definitive portrait of the outlaw Hollywood screenwriting movement of which Buck Henry was a key part, wrote, “Buck Henry was on my must-get list of interviewees, but I didn’t realize just how important he was until after we spoke. He lived in many realms, observed everything, missed nothing. It was a privilege to listen to him.”

Alan Spencer, creator of the 1980s cult TV comedy Sledge Hammer! shared this anecdote: “When I was first starting out as a comedy writer, I met Buck Henry at a party and asked him for advice. He told me to ‘retire and live off the fat of the land.’ To this day, that remains sagacious wisdom.”

Buck Henry lived a long time, and his work and personality never got stale, which he attributed to living broadly and well and surrounding himself with all kinds of people. He had the rare gift of distilling reality to its hilarious essence. As he once said, “There are all sorts of topics and themes that just recur time and time again, which either means people have less imagination or that people never get bored of them… or both!”

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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