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Obituaries

Buck Henry, comedy icon beloved for ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Get Smart,’ dies at 89

Buck Henry
Buck Henry at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles.
(Getty Images)

Comedy writer Buck Henry, the legendary scribe who co-wrote “The Graduate,” “Catch-22" and “To Die For” and co-created the TV series “Get Smart,” has died. He was 89.

Henry died in a Los Angeles hospital Wednesday after a heart attack, his wife, Irene Ramp, told the Washington Post.

A polymath of directing, acting and writing, the humorist most notably adapted Mike Nichols’ seminal 1967 film “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman, and earned an Oscar nomination for the screenplay he co-wrote with Calder Willingham. He was nominated again for co-directing the 1978 afterlife comedy “Heaven Can Wait” with the film’s star, Warren Beatty.

Henry co-created TV’s spy spoof “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks and the sci-fi comedy “Quark” in the 1970s, winning a Primetime Emmy Award for writing the “Ship of Spies” episodes of “Get Smart.” He was later credited on the 2008 film adaptation of the comedy series starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. His other screenplays include “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “What’s Up, Doc?”

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The writer memorably hosted “Saturday Night Live” a then-record 10 times, famously playing Bill Murray’s “Nerd” dad, creepy babysitter Uncle Roy and John Belushi’s foil in the show’s samurai skits.

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

“I’m eclectic,” he told The Times in 1988. “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?”

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“Dolemite Is My Name” and “Ed Wood” writer Larry Karaszewski described his fellow scribe as “our most fearless screenwriter” in a tribute he posted on Twitter, applauding Henry’s big personality and performing abilities.

“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,” he wrote Wednesday.

Though likely best known as a writer, Henry amassed a bevy of acting credits during his decades-long career. He made a brief appearance in “The Graduate” as a hotel clerk, appeared in “Catch-22,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Town & Country,” which he also co-wrote, and guest-starred on “30 Rock,” “Will & Grace,” “Franklin & Bash” and “Hot in Cleveland.”

“You can think of me however you want to,” Henry told The Times’ Patt Morrison in 2014 in a sprawling interview about his thoughts on show business and the writing process. “No part in acting distresses me except when I can’t learn lines. No part of it depresses me. I don’t worry about it, I don’t have bad dreams about it, and when I’m on a [theatrical] run I’m deliriously happy.”

Henry was born Henry Zuckerman in New York on Dec. 9, 1930, to a former Air Force general and silent film star Ruth Taylor. He arguably entered showbiz at age 2 when his mother took him to the Paramount Pictures lot to show him off.

It’s obvious Buck Henry has a lot of opinions. He’s smart. He thinks about things.
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He began his Hollywood career with a brief stint in stand-up comedy but didn’t like working in places “where people drank and yelled at me.” He then trained in improvisational theater and began writing for television and performing in variety programs such as “The Steve Allen Show” and “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,” he told The Times in that 1988 interview.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Henry is survived by his wife.

After word of his death spread, comics, actors and writers took to social media to commemorate Henry’s legacy with anecdotes about the screenwriter and his influence.

“Buck Henry was hilarious and brilliant and made us laugh more times than we even know,” filmmaker Judd Apatow wrote on Instagram. “I was lucky enough to be on a panel with him at SXSW and he was so funny. He said, ‘I don’t like to write with people because if they aren’t as funny as me I hate them and if they are funnier than me I hate them.’ ... One of the greats.”

Here’s a sampling of what others had to say:

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