Buck Henry, the legendary screenwriter behind The Graduate and What’s Up, Doc? who also co-created Get Smart and was a regular presence in the early years of Saturday Night Live, died tonight of a heart attack at Cedars-Sinai Health Center in Los Angeles. He was 89.
A family member confirmed the news to Deadline.
Henry scored a pair of Oscar nominations — one for his and Calder Willingham’s adapted screenplay for The Graduate and another for directing with Warren Beatty the 1978 movie Heaven Can Wait. He also won a writing Emmy in 1967 for Get Smart, the spy spoof he created with Mel Brooks, among many other accolades.
He became a familiar face to a new generation of TV viewers by hosting Saturday Night Live multiple times during its first five seasons. He might be best remembered as John Belushi’s foil in the classic “Samurai” skits.
Henry also had more than three dozen other acting credits.
“I wish I could do what writers of my generation do, which is just — open the gate and let it come out,” he said in a 2009 “The Interviews” sit-down for the TV Academy Foundation. “I envy them. It’s hard for me to do. That’s why I liked writing for television because I had to do something every day. … So the best secret is — and it’s not a secret — is just when [you] get stuck in a scene, write nonsense. But do something to keep your hand moving, doing something on the page. That’s all. There are no great insights.” Watch a clip of Henry discussing writing comedy about dark topics below.
Henry got his start writing for Steve Allen and Garry Moore’s TV shows in the 1960s before penning the script for The Graduate, Mike Nichols’ seminal film starring Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross and Anne Bancroft. The film focused on the generation gap of the later 1960s and includes a number of memorable scenes and lines.
Who could forget Hoffman’s college-age Benjamin Braddock telling Bancroft’s older character, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” Later, after she asks Benjamin, “Do you find me undesirable?” he tells her, “Oh no, Mrs. Robinson, I think you’re the most attractive of any of my parents’ friends.”
The film — which was adapted from Charles Webb’s book and featured the timeless-but-Oscar-ineligible Simon & Garfunkel hit “Mrs. Robinson” — scored seven Oscar noms including Best Picture, with Nichols winning Best Director. The pic made the top 10 in the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies list in 1998.
Get Smart, starring Don Adams as the bumbling yet somehow effective Maxwell Smart, aka Agent 86, debuted on NBC in 1965. Driven by the popularity of the James Bond films, the CONTROL-vs.-KAOS sitcom was an early hit, finishing the season No. 12 among all primetime programs. Co-starring Barbara Feldon and Edward Platt, it moved to CBS for its fifth and final season in 1969-70. Along with one of TV’s greatest opening credits, a number of the show’s catchphrases would become pop-culture lore: “Missed it by that much,” “I think it’s only fair to warn you …,” “Sorry about that, Chief,” “I demand the Cone of Silence,” “… and loving it” — the list goes on.
Adams would reprise his iconic role for the 1980 feature The Nude Bomb, and — would you believe … — Steve Carrel starred in a 2008 Get Smart movie.
In his TV Foundation interview, Henry recalled how he and Brooks got the idea for Get Smart. “Nobody seems to remember it but me,” he said. “I go to [Talent Associates partner Danny Melnick’s office] and he says, ‘I want to give you guys an idea: What are the two biggest movies in the world today? James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. Get my point?’ … It’s parody and satire.”
ABC paid for the Get Smart pilot but passed on the series. Melnick then took it to NBC titan Grant Tinker, who was looking for a project for his contract actor Adams.
Henry would focus his writing on the big screen during the 1970s, co-penning the Barbra Streisand starrer What’s Up, Doc? and writing or co-writing book-to-screen adaptations for such films as Catch-22, The Owl and the Pussycat, and The Day of the Dolphin.
He had appeared onscreen in numerous films and comedy shows by the mid-’70s when he was chosen to host Saturday Live Night during its first season in early 1976. Appearing alongside the Not Ready for Primetime Players, he would go on to host nine more times through 1980, becoming the first person to do the gig five times — and later 10. Among his memorable characters was the Samurai interviewer/straight man; the creepy Uncle Roy, who menaced children he was babysitting; a sadistic stunt coordinator; and Mr. Dantley, the father of Bill Murray’s uber-nerd Todd in the latter’s famous sketches with Gilda Radner.
During that time, Henry also created Quark, a short-lived 1978 NBC comedy starring Richard Benjamin that spoofed the era’s popular space epics. In 1984, NBC debuted variety-sketch series The New Show, on which Henry was a regular alongside SCTV alum Dave Thomas and others. It aired briefly as a midseason replacement.
Henry would go on to co-pen the Nicole Kidman feature To Die For (1995) and the star-laden 2001 pic Town & Country. Early big-screen screenplay credits include the Radner-led First Family (1980) — his only feature directing credit other than Heaven Can Wait — and Candy (1968), whose cast included Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Coburn and Walter Matthau.
Henry also had acting roles in dozens of movies — including most of the ones he wrote — and appeared as a guest on numerous talk shows including those hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and David Frost. His most recent acting credits include episodes of Franklin & Bash, Law & Order: SVU, Hot in Cleveland and 30 Rock, twice playing the father of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon.
Among the many awards Henry racked up during his career are 1994 Golden Globe and Venice Film Festival prizes as part of the ensemble in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, BAFTA and Writers Guild awards for writing The Graduate and another WGA Award for What’s Up, Doc?
Survivors include his wife, Irene, who was by his side when he died. He had no children.