His working partners were among Hollywood’s brightest lights, if not when they worked together then later. They included not only Nichols, Brooks and Belushi, but also Warren Beatty, with whom he directed the plaintive drama about mortality Heaven Can Wait (1978), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; and Barbra Streisand, for whom he wrote two cockeyed romantic comedies: The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), adapted from a stage play by Bill Manhoff, and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), for which Robert Benton and David Newman also received screenplay credit.
He wrote Protocol (1984), a vehicle for Goldie Hawn; and To Die For (1995), a grimly satirical take on the power of celebrity, adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel (itself derived from an actual news story) and directed by Gus Van Sant, which brought out a star-making performance by Nicole Kidman as a would-be newscaster who brazenly induces three hapless teenagers to murder her husband.
He also wrote, anomalously, the screenplay for The Day of the Dolphin (1973), a science fiction thriller based on a novel by Robert Merle, also directed by Nichols.
“I can write in anybody’s voice,” Henry said in 2009 in an interview for the Archive of American Television, “which is why I am most successful making screenplays from books and plays.”
His most enduring work, The Graduate, though also an adaptation (of a novel by Charles Webb), was his most personal.
Like To Die For, which predated the era of reality shows but addressed the potentially poisonous allure of fame as only television can confer, The Graduate (1967) captured a moment of unease in the American zeitgeist. Set amid the affluence and sunshine of mid-1960s suburban Los Angeles, where drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll and the spectre of the Vietnam War had yet to rend the fabric of an older generation’s social expectations, the film caught the alienation of the American young who sensed, long before their parents did, that the world they were entering was a whole new place.
The film introduced a young actor named Dustin Hoffman as the title character, Benjamin Braddock, whose anxiety and paralysis are dramatised when he has an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs Robinson, then falls in love with her daughter, Elaine.
Henry’s screenplay, which was nominated for an Oscar, appropriated much of Webb’s dialogue but softened the smug, unpleasant edge evinced by Benjamin in the novel. And it was marked by a number of awkwardly comic exchanges that pointedly illustrated what was then becoming known as the generation gap:
“I just want to say one word to you, just one word,” a friend of Benjamin’s father says to Benjamin, corralling him at his graduation party.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, I am.”
Bringing in record-breaking young audiences, The Graduate was the No. 1 movie in America for months in 1968 – it became the third-highest-grossing movie in history up to that time, behind only Gone With the Wind and The Sound of Music – and helped usher in an era in which Hollywood focused on making movies for people in their teens and 20s.
“I think it was a film made by and for a generation that hadn’t had films made for it,” Henry said in an interview with the journal Cineaste in 2001. “We were just trying to make a film about something we understood. By we, I mean Mike Nichols; Larry Turman, the producer; and me.”
Buck Henry was born Henry Zuckerman in New York City on December 9, 1930, to Paul and Ruth (Taylor) Zuckerman. His father was a stockbroker and an Army Air Corps pilot; his mother was a Ziegfeld Follies performer and an actress in silent films. He was named for his grandfather, also a stockbroker, acquiring his nickname, Buck, in the process. (In the 2009 archive interview, he said he did not legally change his name to Buck Henry until the 1970s.)
Henry attended private schools in New York and attended Dartmouth, where he joined the theatre crowd in campus productions. He recalled in an interview with the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2013 that three drama professors were the only ones “I really cared about.”
After graduating, he was drafted and spent the Korean War years touring army bases in Germany with an acting company, performing in a musical revue he wrote and directed. When he returned, he lived mostly in New York City, auditioning for acting jobs and sending off writing samples, to little avail.
In the early 1960s Henry performed with the Premise, an off-Broadway improvisational troupe. With Theodore Flicker, a fellow troupe member, he wrote his first movie, The Troublemaker (1964), a lampoon of city bureaucracy about a man trying to open a coffee house. He also landed a handful of television jobs, writing for Steve Allen and Garry Moore and for the satirical news program That Was the Week That Was, on which he also appeared.
Producer Daniel Melnick put Henry together with Brooks to create the spoof of spy movies that became Get Smart. It was an idea born out of commerce, a high-concept melding of big hits – Goldfinger meets The Pink Panther.
“I go to his office one day, and he says ‘I want to give you guys an idea,'” Henry recalled of Melnick. “‘Here’s the thing. What are the two biggest movies in the world today? James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. Get my point?'”
The show, both a parody and a satire, starred Don Adams as the spectacularly inept secret agent Maxwell Smart, aka Agent 86, and became a landmark television comedy. Introducing the shoe phone, the cone of silence and other cockamamie spy gadgetry, and contributing to the popular lexicon several of Max’s signature locutions – “Sorry about that, Chief!”; “Would you believe …?”; “Missed it by that much!” – the show ran from 1965 to 1970, its outlandish silliness serving as the prototype mood for innumerable sitcoms and sketches to follow.
Henry, who won an Emmy Award with Leonard Stern for outstanding comedy writing on the series, tried to repeat his Get Smart triumph, creating two other spoofy sitcoms: Captain Nice (1967), starring William Daniels (who played Benjamin Braddock’s father in The Graduate) as a mild-mannered reluctant superhero, and Quark (1977), a Star Trek send-up with Richard Benjamin as the Kirkish captain of an intergalactic garbage scow. Neither lasted beyond its first season, but Henry more successfully plumbed the television veins of satire and slapstick on Saturday Night Live, on which he was a guest host 10 times during the show’s early years, from 1976 to 1980.
As an actor, Henry appeared in small, crucial and often exquisitely comic roles in virtually all the films he wrote – he was the hotel clerk who provided the room key to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson in The Graduate – and many others besides. His movie credits include Taking Off (1971), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Eating Raoul (1982), Defending Your Life (1991) and The Player (1992), a Hollywood satire in which he played himself, pitching a movie idea to a studio executive: The Graduate: Part 2.
Later, Henry appeared in several television shows, including 30 Rock, in which he played Dick Lemon, the father of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, and Hot in Cleveland.
His most recent screenwriting credit was for The Humbling (2014), which he and Michal Zebede adapted from a novel by Philip Roth.
In addition to his wife, Henry’s survivors include a daughter from another relationship. His wife said she did not know the daughter’s name.
The New York Times