Buck Henry - Writer

Writer and Actor. Nationality: American. Born: Buck Henry Zuckerman in New York City, 9 December 1930; son of the actress Ruth Taylor. Education: Attended Harvard Military Academy; Choate School; Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, graduated. Military Service: U.S. Army (in 7th Army Repertory Company), 1952–54. Career: Stage and TV actor in New York; writer for Steve Allen and Garry Moore TV shows, Hollywood; 1963—first film as writer, The Troublemaker ; 1964–65—writer and performer, That

Buck Henry
Buck Henry
Was the Week that Was ; 1965–70—writer, TV series Get Smart ; 1970s—appeared regularly on Saturday Night Live . Awards: British Academy Award and Writers Guild Award, for The Graduate , 1968. Agent: William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Writer:


The Troublemaker (Flicker) (+ ro)


The Graduate (Nichols) (+ ro); Candy (Marquand)


Catch-22 (Nichols) (+ ro); The Owl and the Pussycat (Ross)


What's Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich)


The Day of the Dolphin (Nichols)


First Family (+ d, ro)


Protocol (Ross)


To Die For (Van Sant) (+ ro)


Town and Country (Chelsom) (co)

Films as Actor:


Taking Off (Forman) (as Larry Tyne); Is There Sex after Death (J. & A. Abel)


The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg) (as Oliver Farnsworth)


Old Boyfriends (Tewkesbury) (as Art Kopple); Heaven Can Wait (Beatty) (as the Escort, + co-d)


The Absent-Minded Waiter (Gottlieb—short)


Gloria (Cassavetes) (as Jack Dawn)


Eating Raoul (Bartel) (as Mr. Leech)


Aria (Temple) (as Mr. Preston)


Rude Awakening (Russo) (as Lloyd)


Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter ( Tune in Tomorrow ) (Amiel)(as Fr. Serafim)


Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks) (as Dick Stanley)


The Player (Altman); The Linguini Incident (R. Shepard)(as Cecil)


Short Cuts (Altman) (as Gordon Johnson); Grumpy Old Men (Petrie) (as Elliott Snyder); Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant)


The Real Blonde (DiCillo) (as Dr. Leuter)


The Story of X (doc for Video) (as Host); 1999 (Davis) (as Mr.Goldman); I'm Losing You (Wagner) (as Philip Dragom)


Curtain Call (Yates) (as Charles Van Allsburg); Breakfast of Champions (Rudolph) (as Fred T. Barry)


Famous (as himself)


By HENRY: articles—

Films Illustrated (London), May 1976.

Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1976.

Film Comment , September 1993.

Fade In (Beverly Hills), vol. 1, no. 2, 1995.

Scenario (Rockville), vol. 2, no. 2, Summer 1996.

On HENRY: articles—

Focus on Film (London), Summer 1972.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1980.

Film Comment (New York), September-October 1993.

* * *

Buck Henry is probably better known as an actor and comedian than as a screenwriter. In his screenplays, Henry shows an intellectual and often biting satirical wit. He takes on the contemporary human condition and allows the viewer to see and often laugh at the incongruities of life. His characters, however silly they act at times, are vulnerable and therefore human.

Henry began his career writing for television, including The Steve Allen Show , That Was the Week that Was , and numerous television comedians. He and Mel Brooks created the popular comedy spy spoof Get Smart , which ran on television for five years. Henry was story editor and won an Emmy Award for the series. The hero, Maxwell Smart, was a bumbling spy who, although seemingly naive and unaware of the forces at work around him, battled the evil organization K.A.O.S. and triumphed. The idea of an innocent person gaining wisdom and triumphing over chaos—"getting smart"—is a frame of reference that can be applied to Buck Henry's wildly satiric and often bittersweet screenplays. Many major film characters learn from their experiences, but in a Henry script the characters are often so unaware and confused that the gaining of insight is truly monumental.

His first film script, The Troublemaker , which he wrote with director Theodore Flicker, is about an honest country fellow who comes to New York to open a coffeehouse but first must pay off officials for licenses. The film stars actors from the improvisational group The Premise, which Henry joined in 1960. Although the satire is funny, the film lacks a tight structure due to the many improvisations.

Henry's next script, based on the novel by Charles Webb, was The Graduate , which he wrote with Calder Willingham. This film was the first of three Henry would write for director Mike Nichols, who undoubtedly did the finest interpretations of Henry's material. The Graduate is the story of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) who, although a whiz at college in both studies and athletics, appears zombielike to his parents and their friends, who have different values. Wonderfully satiric lines carry the innocent Benjamin through his affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) until he gains real knowledge and decides on his own set of values. Having fallen in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), he overcomes all odds and rescues her at the church just before she weds a medical student. In the bittersweet ending, Benjamin and Elaine, finally together on a bus, say nothing to each other while Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" is heard on the soundtrack. The implied question is whether Benjamin and Elaine can really escape becoming like their parents. Few American films have enjoyed the immediate financial and critical success of The Graduate . It was a watershed film for those young people who were concerned about the values of a materialistic, plastic society.

Henry's next script was Candy , directed by Christian Marquand. Again, loss of innocence is a theme. The heroine (Ewa Aulin) is a teenager who encounters various odd characters in her search for wisdom. The novel was a parody of pornographic novels, which sadly did not translate well to the screen.

His next screenplay, his second for director Mike Nichols, was an adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 . The innocent in this film is Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a bombardier in World War II, who perceives war and his military life as insane. The film becomes Yossarian's dream (actually a series of dream sequences) during which, as in psychoanalysis, more and more is revealed. Yossarian eventually gains insight and is able to make a decision about what to do. The lines are wonderfully funny, yet behind the humor is also the revelation of the horror of war itself. The circular construction of the script is brilliant.

Henry's next script, The Owl and the Pussycat , was adapted from a play by Bill Manhoff and directed by Herbert Ross. The film is about trying to get in touch with reality. An innocent aspiring writer-book salesman, Felix Sherman (George Segal) meets aspiring actress-hooker (Barbra Streisand) and through a series of comic situations, both learn that it is important to be themselves, to be real. A similar structure can be found in Henry's next work for director Peter Bogdanovich, What's Up, Doc? Henry did the final rewrite on Robert Benton and David Newman's screenplay, developed from a story by Bogdanovich. In this tribute to screwball comedies of the 1930s, unconventional student Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand) liberates conventional professor Dr. Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal) from a closed, boring life. The innocent professor, through a series of comic situations, comes to an understanding of both love and freedom.

In his third script for Mike Nichols, The Day of the Dolphin , Henry turns from comedy to drama. This time the innocents are two dolphins, Alpha and Beta, who are taught to speak English by marine biologist Dr. Jake Terrell (George C. Scott). Terrell himself is innocent too, as he does not consider all the implications of his work until the dolphins are stolen by men who plan to use them to blow up the yacht of the president of the United States. The dolphins escape and the attempted assassination is foiled. But the tremendously sad and difficult ending, where Terrell tells the dolphins to return to the sea and speak to no one again, and where he waits, wiser yet doomed, for the assassins to return to destroy him and all the evidence, made this film difficult for audiences who may have wanted a happy "Lassie"-type animal picture.

In 1978, Henry and Warren Beatty directed Heaven Can Wait , a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Although Henry is not given writing credit, he probably contributed to the script by Beatty and Elaine May, which is about a football player, prematurely killed, who returns in a murdered millionaire's body. The innocent football player, Joe Pendleton (Beatty), gains wisdom quickly enough, and in hilarious scenes runs the millionaire's company ethically, harasses the murderers relentlessly, and finds true love.

Henry then wrote and directed First Family , about wacky U.S. President Manfred Link (Bob Newhart), his alcoholic wife (Madeline Kahn), nymphomaniac daughter (Gilda Radner), and various nutty staff members. President Link is trying to establish diplomatic relations (a link?) with the emerging African nation Upper Gorm, and this provides a showcase for many wild verbal and visual gags. In First Family , Henry satirizes high government officials of the United States and the mythical African country, but offers no solutions to their antics.

Henry does offer a solution in his next film, the second for director Herbert Ross, Protocol . Basing his script on a story by Charles Shyer, Nancy Meyers, and Harvey Miller, Henry makes the point that the people are responsible if their leaders are bunglers and that the people need to get involved in every phase of political life, from voting to holding elective office. The film satirizes not only politics but also contemporary media. It continues Henry's theme of an innocent gaining wisdom. An uncorrupted Washington cocktail waitress, Sunny Davis (Goldie Hawn), saves an emir from assassination. Immediately she becomes the darling of the media and also of the emir, who wants her as his bride. Seeing the opportunity to exchange her for a military base in the emir's mythical Middle Eastern country, members of the government make her a protocol officer to cover up their real motivation. Davis becomes aware of the plan, and through some very funny situations not only sets matters right but also finally runs for political office herself. She will now help make the system better. The film contains a positive message as well as being very funny. After Protocol , Henry continued to be very versatile. He acted in films and on the stage, wrote articles, and did other related work.

In 1995, he wrote the script for To Die For , based on the book by Joyce Maynard (a work of fiction suggested by a real murder) and directed by Gus Van Sant. In this complex, important, and satiric look at celebrity status, television, and contemporary society, there are many humorous moments, but underlying theme is true horror. The main character, Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), like a "stone," has no feelings for others. She is captivated by television and will do anything to promote her rising career as a television news star, including manipulating a high school student and his friends to murder her husband, Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon), whom she sees as standing in her way. The form of the film is appropriate for the content. The narrative is fused with television techniques and imagery, and scenes are often fragmented and not necessarily in order. For example, there are television-like interviews, including one with Larry's sister Janice (Illeana Douglas) talking directly into the camera, with cuts to scenes illustrating her comments. And when Suzanne makes a videotape of her students, there are cuts from this to images on the tape itself. Continuing Henry's theme of people losing innocence and gaining wisdom, most people around Suzanne do "wise up" to her. But for some, including, ironically, Suzanne herself, wisdom comes too late, or not at all.

Buck Henry remains one of America's leading satirical screenwriters. Through his wit and insight, the viewer gains wisdom. He is an example of an "auteur" screenwriter, as his scripts all seem to be variations on a theme—his characters "get smart."

—H. Wayne Schuth

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