January 17, 2020

Oscar-Nominated Writer Buck Henry, 89

Actor and writer Buck Henry poses for a portrait in circa 1978. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Buck Henry, an actor, comedian, director and producer who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “The Graduate,” died from a heart attack on Jan. 8 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 89.

Tributes from writers and comedians paid homage to Henry. “Dolemite Is My Name” and “Ed Wood” writer Larry Karaszewski said of Henry on Twitter: “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.” 

Writer and director Judd Apatow tweeted, “Buck Henry was hilarious and brilliant and made us laugh more times than we even know. 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 other people because if they aren’t as funny as me I hate them and if they are funnier than me I hate them.’ He wrote ‘The Graduate’ and ‘To Die For’ and co-created ‘Get Smart’ and was a riot hosting [‘Saturday Night Live’] back when they would let a writer host ‘SNL.’ One of the greats.” 

Henry left his comedic fingerprints on the small as well as well as the big screen in the 1960s and beyond. He was a cast member on “The New Steve Allen Show” and “That Was the Week That Was” in the early to mid-’60s.

He wrote for “The Garry Moore Show” and was the co-creator, with Mel Brooks, and writer for the spy-spoof sitcom “Get Smart” (1965-70) before transitioning to writing for the big screen. He wrote the screen adaptation of Joseph Heller’s darkly satirical World War II novel “Catch-22” (1970), which starred Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam and Richard Benjamin, about a man desperately trying to be declared insane so he can be kicked out of the military instead of having to serve.

Henry shared an Oscar nomination with Calder Willingham for “The Graduate” in 1967, adapted from Charles Webb’s novel of the same name. He won a BAFTA (British film award) and a Writers Guild of America (WGA) award for “The Graduate,” a seminal dark comedy about youth disillusionment in the turbulent ’60s. 

He wrote the screenplay for the Barbra Streisand-George Segal vehicle “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970), an adaptation of Bill Manoff’s Broadway play, and co-wrote “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), another screwball comedy starring Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. The latter earned him another WGA Award.

He adapted Joyce Maynard’s novel “To Die For” for the 1995 film of the same name, which starred Nicole Kidman.

“I can write in anybody’s voice, which is why I am so successful at adapting books and plays,” Henry told Variety in a 2009 interview.

He co-directed and acted in “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), a remake of 1941’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” that starred Warren Beatty as a Los Angeles Rams quarterback snatched from his body by an overly eager guardian angel before he was meant to die. Beatty and Henry earned an Oscar nod for direction.

Henry co-wrote the star-studded vehicle “Town & Country” (2001). He also created the short-lived sitcoms “Captain Nice” (1967) and the science fiction-themed “Quark,” about a spaceship garbage scow and its crew.

He appeared in more than 40 films, including “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Eating Raoul,” “Defending Your Life,” “Short Cuts” and “Grumpy Old Men.” Later in his career, he appeared on the hit TV shows “Murphy Brown,” “Will & Grace” and “30 Rock.” In the show’s early days, Henry hosted “Saturday Night Live” 10 times from 1976-80.

He also appeared in a Broadway revival of “Mornings at Seven” in 2002.

Buck Henry was born Henry Zuckerman on Dec. 9, 1930, in New York. His father was a stockbroker and an Army Air Corps pilot, and his mother was a Ziegfeld Follies performer and an actress in silent films, The New York Times reported, adding that he was named for his grandfather, also a stockbroker, acquiring his nickname, Buck, in the process. He reportedly did not legally change his name to Buck Henry until the 1970s. He made his professional acting debut at age 15 in a Broadway production of “Life With Father.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Dartmouth College and, after graduation, enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. He didn’t see combat, however, instead touring in Germany with a military theater troupe. 

Deadline reported that Henry was survived by his wife, Irene Ramp, who was by his side when he died. The New York Times reported that his survivors also include a daughter from another relationship. His wife told the newspaper that she did not know the daughter’s name.