One of the more fortuitous encounters of late-20th-century popular culture — almost up there with Lennon meets McCartney and Taylor meets Burton — took place on Labor Day 1965, at Jane Fonda’s Malibu beach house. The actress was hosting a daylong bash at which her father, Henry’s, generation mingled uneasily with her Hollywood hippie friends. The Byrds played in the backyard. A young comedian-turned-film director named Mike Nichols was approached by an improv comic-turned-itinerant writer named Buck Henry, who asked how he was doing. Nichols dourly looked around at all the proto-Summer of Love vibes and said, “Here, under the shadow of the great tree, I have found peace.”
Henry immediately recognized a sardonic East Coast kindred spirit trapped in Lotusland, and the two got to talking. Nichols suggested they work together; maybe Henry could take a crack at a novel he was having trouble adapting? About an alienated college graduate who sleeps with the older woman next door?
From that meeting came “Plastics,” “Elaine!,” fame for Dustin Hoffman, and a movie in which a disaffected young generation finally recognized their own. At least, that’s how Nichols always told the story. Henry, who died Wednesday at 89 of a heart attack, remembered it slightly differently: That the Labor Day encounter happened but that the two had already met when Henry tagged along with his improv pal George Segal to the set of Nichols’s first movie, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). Success has many fathers and many origin stories. “The Graduate” (1967) has two of each.
If that movie — which Henry wrote and acted in (as the hotel clerk discreetly asking Hoffman “Are you here for an affair?”) — was all he had done, he’d still be remembered. But Henry had one of the most singular careers of his era, putting his bone-dry wit and unexpected sympathies to use behind and in front of the camera in ways you may not even know. He co-created and wrote most of “Get Smart!,” Mel Brooks’s beloved sitcom spy spoof of the mid-1960s. He hosted a tatty post-prime-time show called “Saturday Night Live” 10 times in its first five years. He was a valued screenwriter and script doctor on “Catch-22” (1970), the Segal-Barbra Streisand comedy “The Owl and The Pussycat” (1970), the great “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), and the prescient fame-kills comedy-drama “To Die For" (1995).
For a while, Henry was everywhere, and he never really went away. He acted, and very well, in films like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) and in TV shows like “30 Rock,” where he played Liz Lemon’s adultery-minded dad. As a talk-show guest, he was absolutely reliable. Upon hearing the news of Henry’s death, actor-comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted this memorable exchange.
David Letterman: “Do you have any hobbies?”
Henry: “I have hobbies.”
Letterman: “Do you have any pets?”
Henry: “I’m not allowed to have pets.”
Henry: “Because of my hobbies.”
He was born Henry Zuckerman and was nicknamed “Buck” after a storied grandfather who ”bucked” the stock market. His mother was retired silent film star Ruth Taylor, his father a World War I general and stockbroker to New York society. When I had the great good fortune to interview Henry in 2013, we spoke at length about his life pre-“Graduate” (the article was for the alumni magazine of Dartmouth College, which we shared) and he painted a marvelous and slightly sad portrait of a smart, observant, pampered only child — a male Eloise. Henry sang duets with Ethel Merman at his parents’ parties. His dad was close friends with Ernest Hemingway. He played tennis with Hollywood stars like Peter Lorre. (“They could all beat me easily, but they let me win.”)
In fact, to look closely at Buck Henry’s life is to see invisible connections to a dizzying array of known cultural quantities. Plastics? He said it came from a storied Dartmouth professor, a European émigré who used to rail against the false, “plastic” existence of Americans. One of his best college friends was Bob Rafelson, who would move out west, co-create “The Monkees” TV series, direct “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), and who wooed Henry from his Greenwich Village improv comedy circle to Hollywood, where his first writing gigs were for Steve Allen and the groundbreaking satirical news show “That Was the Week That Was” — a key forerunner of “SNL.”
Some favorite Henry anecdotes: The time on “SNL” that John Belushi, doing his samurai bit, clocked the host so hard with his sword that Henry’s head started to bleed; by the show’s end, the entire cast was wearing tourniquet-bandannas in solidarity. The time in college that upperclassman Henry talked down a sensitive freshman named Stan Brakhage — who would go on to become a legendary experimental filmmaker — from a nervous breakdown over hot chocolate and Fig Newtons. (Brakhage told me the story, with immense gratitude toward Henry, in the 1980s; 35 years later, Henry confirmed it with the caveat, “It might have been Oreos.”)
In the early 1960s, before he became famous, Henry also served as “G. Clifford Prout,” a mealy-mouthed spokesman for the completely spurious Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. The Society — dedicated to putting clothes on horses, elephants, dogs, and other animals to spare humans the embarrassment of seeing them nude — was a hoax cooked up by media prankster Alan Abel, and it got Henry into untold newspapers and onto TV news and talk shows to press the cause with a perfect deadpan. Walter Cronkite, for one, never forgave him.
Henry directed only one movie, and it was a disaster: The 1980 White House spoof “First Family.” He also codirected “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) with Warren Beatty. As a loner and a wit — a natural non-joiner — he had exactly the wrong temperament for directing. “I don’t enjoy it,” Henry told me. “I don’t enjoy getting up that early in the morning, I don’t enjoy making decisions all day long.”
He only starred in one movie, too, and it is a lost treasure. (His beanie-wearing teenage appearance in a short called “My First Week at Dartmouth,” for years shown to incoming freshmen, doesn’t count.) “Taking Off” (1971) was the first Hollywood film of a Czech wunderkind named Milos Forman, who’d go on to direct “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" (1975), “Amadeus” (1984), and more. It’s a lovely, humane comedy in which Henry plays the father of a teen runaway; trying to find her and bridge the generational gap, he somehow ends up naked atop a coffee table at a suburban pot party.
The movie’s hilarious, touching, and impossible to find; bootleg prints show up occasionally on YouTube, but it’s a movie that deserves resurrection and the full Criterion treatment. And Henry is wonderful in it — subtle and funny, with a bass note of melancholy down there in the mix. “Taking Off” is a hint of a Buck Henry acting career that might have been. What we got in its place was more than enough.