Buck Henry unplugged 

I’m so stoked.

Buck Henry is coming to town.

I’ve been quite surprised by the sheer amount of stony silence I’ve received form folks to whom I’ve imparted this particular piece of information over the past week or so.

Maybe that’s to be expected. Maybe I’m wrong to think of this as the kind of event that more people my age (36) or older should be rather intrigued by. But somehow, I can’t help thinking that I’m right in being bewildered at the lack of response to the news.

Then again, the majority of the populace simply don’t follow (their own) pop culture with the sort of fiendish devotion that media critics and entertainment journalists do. That’s a shame, because knowing even a little about the impact that Mr. Henry has made on this business we call American entertainment is quite rewarding.

First off, one gets to be privy to a number of darkly sardonic performances, both on television and in film that could likely have only sprung from the particularly fertile mind of Buck Henry Zuckerman.

Those performances date back to the 1950s when he first gained some type of mainstream notoriety for his shortlived “role” as G. Clifford Prout Jr., the President of The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. This classic media hoax had more than a few folks buying the ruse until the jig was up.

Since then, the 74-year old actor and writer who got his start at a very young age in a touring company production of Life With Father has gone on to write or co-write several seminal works of American film, such as The Graduate – only his second screenplay – for which he shared an Oscar nomination in 1967.

Other notable screenplays which bear Henry’s unmistakably deadpan flair for wit, satire and irony include Catch-22, What's Up, Doc?, The Day of The Dolphin, Protocol, and The Owl and The Pussycat (which he’ll introduce and show along with friend and collaborator George Segal during the upcoming Savannah Film Festival).

In 1978 he co-produced and co-directed the blockbuster Heaven Can Wait with the film’s star Warren Beatty, and would later direct the 1980 farce First Family on his own.

And that’s just some of his behind the scenes work in film. He’s also appeared in both small and large roles in countless motion pictures, both major and minor, and consistently brings a very particular mood to whatever piece he’s included in.

In the world of television, he is just as legendary a figure.

He was a writer and featured actor on the groundbreaking news satire series That Was The Week That Was in the mid-’60s, when shows of that type were by no means commonplace.

He – along with kindred spirit Mel Brooks – created the beloved TV spoof of the secret agent genre, Get Smart, which had a phenomenally successful 5 year run from 1965 to 1970.

And as if that weren’t enough, he was chosen to be one of the earliest guest hosts for the first season of NBC’s Saturday Night (later to be known as Saturday Night Live). In total he has hosted that show 10 times.

Convinced yet?

Speaking on the phone with Buck Henry as I did in anticipation of his upcoming visit to Savannah was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in some time. That’s probably due to the fact that Henry’s propensity for (seemingly) playing himself in many of his roles and cameos leads one to believe they actually know something about how the man thinks and acts.

It’s a mystery to me whether or not the Buck Henry I know from his work and the Buck Henry I chatted with are one and the same, but I’d venture to say that the two are much more similar than the corresponding sides of most actors you’ll come across.

It seems that for some time now, when directors, actors or other aspiring screenwriters are in search of a “Buck Henry type,” they simply go straight to the man himself. That’s probably wise, as I have yet to be made aware of any other humorist working today who even comes close to the sort of marvelously dry satire that he seems to have a controlling interest in.

At the time he spoke to me (from his home in New York City), he had just returned from several days at another film conference in Austin, Tx. And while he at times seemed guarded during our conversation, that too was in keeping with his known image.

A meek-looking and assumedly mild-mannered graduate of Dartmouth College, he parses his words carefully, but can become quite loquacious when the mood strikes him.


Buck Henry: So what’s the weather like?

Connect Savannah: It’s just turned chilly recently. But here that means 68 degrees.

Buck Henry: Is the storm gonna come up and grab you?

Connect Savannah: We can only hope not. I heard it had weakened.

Buck Henry: It’s gotten stronger!

Connect Savannah: I’ve had my head buried in work and didn’t realize.

Buck Henry: I’m a weather bird, and I’m really going to be disappointed if the weather is bad while I’m down there... I want no part of bad weather!

Connect Savannah: What was the weather like in Austin?

Buck Henry: Gorgeous. It’s sometimes a little too hot, but I love Austin. The film things always go well down there.

Connect Savannah: What drew you to the Savannah Film Festival? I don’t think you’ve been here for that before.

Buck Henry: I’ve never been there at all.

Connect Savannah: have you heard good things about the city?

Buck Henry: Well, I’ve heard the same things everyone has, of course.

Connect Savannah: I know you’re going to be appearing here with your friend George Segal. You’ve worked with him since your early improv days in Greenwich Village. Do you get to hang out very often, or is this an unusual event for you two?

Buck Henry: Oh my, yes. We see each other frequently. We’re coming down specifically for this.

Connect Savannah: Now, part of what you’re doing here is you’re conducting some sort of screenwriting workshop?

Buck Henry: I have absolutely no idea.

Connect Savannah: (Laughs) Well, SCAD tells me that you’re going to be working with the film school students and doing an intensive screenwriting workshop...

Buck Henry: I think “intensive screenwriting workshop” is probably quite an exaggeration.

Connect Savannah: Do you often do that, or would this out of the ordinary?

Buck Henry: Well, I talk to students, but I hate to put it into a severely academic context. I plan nothing. Not a thing.

Connect Savannah: So how does that usually turn out?

Buck Henry: You mean how would I grade it?

Connect Savannah: Sure. how would you grade your own performance?

Buck Henry: I would give it very high marks.

Connect Savannah: What sort of topics come up? Is it a Q & A format where you feed off the students?

Buck Henry: Totally a Q & A.

Connect Savannah: And, do you find with some degree of regularity that their responses are very much the same from place to place or do they very wildly?

Buck Henry: Well, groups of people tend to ask about the same type of subjects. They have similar problems and want to explore the same issues. Now, because of what I like to call the “eclectic nature of my career”... that’s a good way to say it... There’s a lot of stuff for people to latch on to. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to draw from. They have everything from Get Smart to That Was The Week That Was to The Graduate to all the films and the television stuff I’ve done. Then there’s the Saturday Night Live years. There’s plenty of sub-topics from which one can draw fabulously intense lessons.

Connect Savannah: Do you often get asked back?

Buck Henry: I actually always get asked back. This will be a first if in Savannah I am asked to leave and never return.

Connect Savannah: Run out of town on a rail?

Buck Henry: Yes.

Connect Savannah: Does anyone ever come out of left field and stump you with a piece of work or a show that you took part in decades ago that you never thought anyone would remember, let alone inquire about?

Buck Henry: Well, I’m hardly ever surprised by any questions. Mostly it’s different ways of asking about the same topics. Everything tends to be explored in some sort of interesting way. They usually don’t ask about about my gigantic failures – of which there are many.

Connect Savannah: Is that because they feel awkward doing so?

Buck Henry: I believe it is because they are unaware of them.

Connect Savannah: Do you ever bring them up for educational purposes?

Buck Henry: Oh yeah, yeah. They can certainly illustrate a point. There are several things that are so obscure that no one is even aware of them.

Connect Savannah: What would be an example of something like that?

Buck Henry: Well, most people don’t know anything about The Troublemaker, for instance.

Connect Savannah: You’re right. I don’t. What can you tell me about that?

Buck Henry: Well, it’s an very early film of mine. That’s all. I have nothing to say about it.

Connect Savannah: (Laughs)

Buck Henry: It’s not really bad or anything. I just have nothing to say about it.

Connect Savannah: What sort of projects are you working on right now?

Buck Henry: I have a script that is sort of a package, meaning that it has a director and a producer, but no one has come forward with the money to have it made. It’s fallen out of several different studios. I have another one that I’m supposed to have finished, but it’s not done yet.

Connect Savannah: Do you mean it’s overdue, or that there are people who actually believe that you’ve finished it when that is not the case?

Buck Henry: It’s way, way overdue. They know it’s not done, and they’re sore.

Connect Savannah: Do you intend to wrap that one up shortly?

Buck Henry: Oh God, I hope so. With any luck I’ll finish it before I come down there.

Connect Savannah: How much of the writing you do is on you own material, and how much is on other people’s scripts?

Buck Henry: Oh not much script doctoring these days. That’s a very small percentage of what I do now.

Connect Savannah: Do you get the same kind of enjoyment out of that as working on your own stuff?

Buck Henry: Let me think... I do it primarily because it can be very lucrative. I try to escape from it, but I’m often connected with it in a way I wish I weren’t. How should I word this? Most of the projects where they bring you in as a designated hitter are already in trouble. I feel sorry for them. But I’m not responsible for the nightmare! It’s just a matter of problem solving.

Connect Savannah: Are these dramas or comedies mostly?

Buck Henry: Usually they’re comedies that someone feels could use a dramatic tone or some sort of acerbic wit.

Connect Savannah: Do you keep up with modern improv or sketch comedy?

Buck Henry: Not at all. It sort of faded out. There’s too many other things.

Connect Savannah: I’ve noticed where NBC lately has been showing the very early Saturday Night Live episodes...

Buck Henry: Yeah, I heard that! Really late at night?

Connect Savannah: Yeah, like 5 in the morning on Sundays. I know many of those episodes have been edited to remove some of the sketches that Lorne Michaels thought weren’t funny enough.

Buck Henry: Yeah. There’s a number of those sketches that I’ve never seen. I haven’t seen them since the day we did them, and I’d love to get my hands on that footage just for the sake of posterity. It’s creepy the way they’ve gone back and mixed and matched that stuff. I really don’t like it because in my head there was a definite rhythm that existed to those shows back then. In reality I know there wasn’t, but that’s the way I remember it. When I know how things went down, and then I see something else dropped in there, it’s off-putting. It’s the same effect one gets when you see a film that has been edited for television.

Connect Savannah: Or the profanity looping for broadcast TV. What a farce.

Buck Henry: Oh, I agree.

Connect Savannah: I’ve always been amazed that they don’t simply blank out the dialogue or use a beep instead.

Buck Henry: The looping sessions that we always did at the end of films for what we assumed would be a TV version were always just ghastly. You’d have gangsters screaming “darn you!” And you know, they spend a lot of time and money trying to match that stuff up.

Connect Savannah: A few years ago a friend gave me a great tape of phone pranks that had been pulled on Hollywood celebrities, and you were one. Were you aware of this tape?

Buck Henry: You know, years ago I vaguely recall hearing about that. A few people mentioned it to me, but as I recall, I actually was pretty wary of the whole thing and I don’t think I fell for it. Wasn’t Roddy McDowell involved with that?

Connect Savannah: Yes.

Buck Henry: He called me up a few months later all excited, because they had told him I was interested in doing a sequel to Planet of The Apes. I had to tell him, “Roddy, Roddy... It was all a joke.” w

Buck Henry and George Segal introduce and screen the classic romantic comedy The Owl and The Pussycat at 12:30 pm on November 1 at The Lucas Theater.

About The Author

Jim Reed

More by Jim Reed


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