Patt Morrison Asks: Inside guy, Buck Henry

Buck Henry arguably made his showbiz debut at the age of 2, when his mother, the silent film star Ruth Taylor, took him to the Paramount lot to show him off. She denied then that she wanted him to go into movies. Sorry, Mom. Henry has become a polymath of directing, acting, and for my money, especially writing -- “The Graduate”; “Catch-22"; that fine dark comedy of manners, “To Die For”; TV’s “Get Smart,” with Mel Brooks; and a generation later, the seminal “Saturday Night Live” -- which he hosted for a then-record-setting 10 times. He beavers away on screenplays, plays and sundry prose; I pestered him into a lunch interview in West Hollywood. It was engagingly packed, with talk of the pleasures of “Hamlet” in German and a Hollywood/not Hollywood commentary on passing paraders, delivered with spare humor as dry as the natron used to stuff mummies. Hey -- isn’t there a script in there somewhere?

Credits: In some editions of The Times, the list of Buck Henry’s screen and TV writing credits in Patt Morrison’s Aug. 6 interview of Henry included “The Player.” Henry appeared in “The Player” but did not write it. —

You’ve spent years making films -- and looking for one in particular, the original, silent “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” from 1928, starring your mother as Lorelei Lee.

It’s been lost all my life. My mother and father came out here — it must have been in the ’60s. They went to Paramount and my mother got them to bring the master print out of the vault, and when they opened it, it was ashes.

Once upon a time you derided showbiz autobiographies, yet now you’re writing yours.

I did and I do. Many, many trees are gone, particularly because of show business stuff, although actually I’ve never read one. There’s that show in New York where they read excerpts from movie people’s books. It’s hilarious. And now I am compelled to put [mine] down on paper because a publisher has been leaning on me.


I hate to ask the inevitable question about being writer versus director versus actor — I think of you as a writer rather than as an actor.

Well, you can think of me however you want to. 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. [I think] I’ll write during the day and then, of course, I don’t. I’m very lazy and use every excuse. I’ll go through and see what all the headlines in all the major European papers are. Why? I don’t know. Like a moron I look at a lot of newspapers, many of which I can’t read, to see what the pathetic Greeks are saying about themselves. What else do I do? I could make a run to Target just to see if they’ve got that section, “As Seen On TV.”

What’s your assessment of film writing today?

The good films are still pretty damn good. But in some cases the really good films are just too remote from the big audiences. The films have plunged ahead, but the audiences have dropped behind.

Then there’s the pop culture echo chamber in film and TV; everything is a reference to something else, as if it’s embarrassing to be authentic.

That’s the horror of it. The great films were generic to themselves. I see it as the Conan O’Brien effect. He’s like the senior in your college class who always knows how to make a joke about whatever it is you say or read, until it becomes an end in itself. College kids 50 or more years ago wanted to become Hemingway. Thirty years ago they wanted to come here and write a series that would make them incredibly rich. [Now] the highest possibility is to work for a late-night talk show and maybe even become [a host] themselves. All these Harvard guys who just want to make late-night jokes about the culture.

And it seems as if there are films built entirely around fart jokes.

Sitting in “Horrible Bosses,” I was admiring the actors and laughing at the jokes and thinking, “I couldn’t have written this.” I was 20 or 30 years in before I got to [curse]. In “Catch-22,” I have [Alan] Arkin yelling at Jon Voight, “Milo, you prick!” And I thought, “I’m curious to see whether it will stay in.”

We also regard film as commerce more than art.

When the business end of it changes that radically, the other end has to change too. The miracle is, we still get good, even great, films.

I hate that the New York Times does a piece on the grosses virtually every day, in the arts section. They’re doing it for theater now too, and it makes me sad. It makes it more difficult for difficult things to get done. And filmmakers and playmakers have to keep an eye out for the people online who consider themselves critics. Mostly they’re illiterate -- and I’m awfully sorry about this -- everyone who writes for the Huffington Post and particularly the stuff on AOL, it is totally illiterate. They cannot write a complete sentence.

Computers and websites make it easier to track box-office numbers almost moment by moment, but you said the director Stanley Kubrick did it decades ago, all in his head, and 10,000 miles from Hollywood.

[Warner Bros. executive and producer] John Calley could never get Kubrick to come over [from Britain]. He hated to travel. He didn’t leave his house. But he was tracking all of it -- what the grosses were everywhere. He would plot what street corner the theater was on in Detroit, and he knew exactly what was playing there and he would say, “Take it out of that theater and put it in there.” Now you can hire people to do it. Stanley did it by himself. He would call on the third day a film was in release and say, “You know why we’re not doing well in Cleveland is because you’ve got it in that [expletive] theater that’s next to the parking lot” -- he knew it. It was easier to do in those days when a movie opened in 25 major theaters and stayed there for a month, as opposed to 11,000 theaters and gone in three weeks.

And then there’s the sequel, running an idea into the ground.

It’s not even about that. It’s about executives figuring what they can do cheaply and without too much trouble. [The studio heads of the 1930s and ’40s] would do versions of previous films, but I don’t think they’d do sequels.

So no “The Barretts of Wimpole Street: The Revenge.”

They were marketers, but those guys also considered themselves filmmakers, and indeed they were, in the sense that they signed the talent, supervised the making of films, even though they may never have looked through a lens. And part of it is now about who owns what. Of course you’re going to do some [property] over again that they don’t have to pay any money for.

You’ve put the kibosh on a sequel to “The Graduate.”

I did my best to kill it. They would be hard put to make it without Mike [Nichols] and Dustin [Hoffman]. All things you love have an excuse to be of and by themselves.

There’s no such thing as a formal TV season anymore, but shows are launching their new seasons now. What do you watch?

I watch series like “Damages.” I watch “30 Rock” and “Hot in Cleveland” because I’ve been on [them], so it’s like watching friends. And reality TV, I’m ashamed to say. I’m interested in the behavior, because it’s all manipulated. It’s nothing about life, it’s all about art. Is this behavior interesting or isn’t it?

There’s something going on between people and the screen. We’re all compelled to watch something that speaks to some part of us that we probably wish weren’t there. Guilty pleasures. “Big Brother” I loathed, but I watched religiously. I hated the people in it so much, and their language is so debased. It’s very difficult to listen to them saying things like “Well, Harry and I’s version of it....” I’s? I‘s? No one taught them my or mine? I’s? Ay ay ay.

I read your observation that actions do not have consequences in comedy these days.

They don’t. The great thing about classical comedy, you found consequences, much more so than today. Moliere is a consequence guy. [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan, and Shakespeare.

Vaudeville made it possible for us to do things without consequences, but all to the good. It was the beginning of surrealism in daily life. I was very young but inspired by the mirror routine in [the Marx Brothers’] “Duck Soup.” Unbelievable piece of work.

There are two or three things that are always running through my head, all the time. [Orson Welles’] “The Third Man” -- I see it before I go to work on something, just to remind myself that it is possible to produce a perfect three-act work. And the mirror routine is always playing as something I know I can’t possibly reach. It’s perfect.

Writers sometimes turn to genres to get deep and difficult points across without hectoring viewers -- humor, for one.

Westerns too. And surely with science fiction, which I love and wish I could do.

You don’t read “Dune” thinking, “That happened to me, just a little different. I didn’t have those big worms coming at me, but I did have a mother-in-law....” Sometimes all of that speaks to an inner person that we’re not even aware exists.

Hollywood is considered a political force; where does it show up in film?

There are a number of writers and directors and actors on the same level that the Warner Bros. actors and directors [were] in the ’30s. They’re working for the light every time. They know they have to entertain [too].

George Clooney, a major share of his work is politically engaged. I was at a SAG screening, two people outside. One said: “I don’t expect to like it, because Clooney’s the same in every movie. He’s just playing himself. He’s not really an actor.” If I were free to carry a loaded weapon, they’d both be dead. It’s so irritating that one’s own peers don’t get it.

And an intensely political film isn’t boffo box office.

Couldn’t ever be boffo. It’s harder because you’ve got to sell it to all layers. You don’t have to sell “Horrible Bosses” to very many layers of people, but I imagine [a film such as] “Syriana” had to be a tough sell on every level. It doesn’t have an ending where someone turns and says, “Let’s go home.”

Here’s my guilty pleasure. I want to see your scar, where John Belushi’s samurai character whacked you with his sword on “Saturday Night Live.”

[He takes off his baseball cap.] There isn’t a scar. I was begging for one. I wasted all that energy and blood. The stage was covered with blood — I also tore my leg on the way out the window, so it was bleeding too. Fortunately it was followed by a commercial, so it gave us three or four minutes. John Belushi’s doctor just happened to be sitting in the audience. I said, “Can you give me a good scar?” He said, “Not without sewing it up, and I can’t do that here. I’ll just put a clamp on.” Ten days later it was almost gone. A month later — nothing. I consider it a disastrous failing.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: