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Buck Henry: A Cosmic Comic Searches for True Meaning

It’s obvious Buck Henry has a lot of opinions. He’s smart. He thinks about things. So why is it so hard to get him to talk about his role in Marlane Meyer’s “Kingfish” (opening Sept. 9 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center)?

In an interview at LATC, the New York-born Henry (ne Zuckerman) appears not unlike the persona he established in his “Saturday Night Live” stints: low-key, dryly funny, unfailingly polite.

Yet when it comes to Meyer’s play, the actor-writer maintains: “I cannot paraphrase. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Auden, what’s that poem really about? Could you put it into other words?’ It’s all in the being, not the meaning.”

When pressed, Henry allowed that the work is “about masks and lies, people who are hidden from each other and from themselves. It’s a series of arguments, very dramatic arguments about how people survive. Heavily textured, lots of layers. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s so complex that audiences are going to get lost. It’s not arcane. It’s just very jazzy.”

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And meaningful in the larger scheme of things? “Not important,” Henry said flatly. “The work is about the work. Archibald MacLeish had a poem that says, ‘A poem should not mean, but be.’ ”

(For the record, a Theatre Center press release describes the play as follows: “In ‘Kingfish,’ an aging homosexual, Wiley (Henry), adopts a young hustler, much to the dismay of his ‘dog’ Kingfish, a barking black box. Complicating the situation are Hal’s friend, Finney; Wanda, Wiley’s nurse, and Edward, Kingfish’s trainer.”)

Henry comes to the stage (he was in “House of Blue Leaves” at the Pasadena Playhouse last year) from a shared background of acting and writing, having joined Actors’ Equity as an 18-year-old in 1948. (Ever-protective about his age, Henry makes a point to add that he “really wasn’t alive in 1948. But I did join the union, and I traveled as a performing fetus.”)

After a brief stab at stand-up comedy (“I never liked working in places where people drank and yelled at me”), Henry trained in improvisational theater and began writing for television.

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“When I started making a living writing, I didn’t do theater for a while,” he noted. “But now and then, I’d do something I would write and perform--mostly the variety shows (“The Steve Allen Show,” “The Garry Moore Show”). Then it got to be more and more writing--and the need to act fell away. Losing that desire was a very good thing, because it really is a desperate kind of emotion.

“Ultimately, it has to do with the audience, because that’s the way you get approval. But there’s a much deeper approval in getting there, playing with words (acting) with other people, finding a structure for behavior. It’s sort of like therapy. Even when I was an actor, I always thought it wasn’t enough. You know, traditionally, acting has been thought of as a dark art: extra-social, outside the range of what real people are supposed to do. Actors used to be just a cut above pirates. So writing always seemed to be the respectable art.”

The respectability is compounded by his credits: the TV series “Get Smart” (which Henry created and for which he won a 1967 writing Emmy); the screenplays for “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “What’s Up, Doc?,” “The Graduate,” “Catch-22"; and the co-direction, with Warren Beatty, of “Heaven Can Wait.” (He also acted in the last three films.)

And lately? “I finish the scripts I owe people. Sure, it’s hard. It’s very frustrating. You want it to be perfect; you want it to be like nothing else. And if you carry that baggage (of self-expectation), it gets heavier as you get older. People are always saying--or you think they’re saying--'Boy, he’s really lost it,’ or ‘He’s stealing from himself again’ or ‘This isn’t up to anybody’s standard.’ But that’s not new. A writer faces it all the time.”

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Although he likes writing in his own voice (“because then it’s really my own”), Henry is equally proud of an ability to write for other people.

“I’m eclectic,” he said. “I can take on other people’s voices, which is why I’m good at adaptation--I think. That’s a gift. But part of it is due to the years I wrote for television variety; I wrote for hundreds of different comedians and actors. That was always fun to do: What’s a joke for the Smothers Brothers as opposed to a joke for Jonathan Winters as opposed to a joke for Alan King?”

Henry sees little that’s amusing in today’s entertainment standard: “Over the last 25 years, the general taste has been completely debased. The rise of television has eroded the taste base.”

He’s also felt the pressure to conform. “It can be as unsubtle as ‘This stuff won’t play in Peoria’ or as subtle as ‘We have to bring the audience along on the narration here.’ It means you have to lose things, inevitably the things you love most. Yeah, it’s a fight.

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“What seems odd to me,” he shrugged, “is that the level of narrative writing in this country is so high. There are so many talented practicing novelists and short-story writers and playwrights and journalists--as opposed to the fact that schools and universities are not concerned with the literacy of their students. Look at the political climate. We’re bowled over with George Bush’s (nomination acceptance) speech--not because it was original or exciting or moving but because it was literate.”

As for the social ill of celebrity, Henry says he’s exempt. “There’s not a street I can’t walk down and not worry about people looking at me. I’m very anonymous.”

Sometimes less so. He recalls the young reporter who approached him for an interview at the recent Democratic convention: “It would really make me happy, Mr. Lemmon . . . " Henry smiled at the prospect. “A long time ago, I did want to be a movie star, but I was cured. Anyway, as Freud said, ‘anatomy is destiny,’ and you come to terms, fairly early, with yourself and the world, who you really are.”

And that is? “I’m not Gary Cooper,” he said demurely. Then who? “Just a lovable kind of guy.”

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