Comic geniusBuck Henry

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After serving in the Korean War as a helicopter mechanic, Henry became a comedy writer, actor, and director. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Graduate (1967), and again for Best Director for Heaven Can Wait (1978). He also wrote What’s Up, Doc?, and wrote (or co-wrote) the screen adaptations (from books) for Catch-22 (1970), The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), and The Day of the Dolphin (1973), among others. Henry made his mark in TV, too, writing for The New Steve Allen Show (1961), hosting Saturday Night Live ten times from 1976 to 1980, and guest-starring on many shows, including Murphy Brown, Hot in Cleveland, Will & Grace, and 30 Rock. Henry was initially “discovered” after a highly successful prank, with TV news shows (in particular) as the victims; Henry appeared in numerous interviews to perpetuate the gag for several years.

Buck Henry as the straight man for John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba. In one Samurai sketch, Belushi accidentally hit Henry in the forehead with his Katana, drawing blood. Henry kept going without breaking character.

But I think his most enduring legacy is co-creating (with Mel Brooks) Get Smart (1965–1970), a parody crossing James Bond with Inspector Clouseau. And it worked exceptionally well even though ABC, which paid for the pilot, passed on the series; NBC quickly snapped it up. It went on to be nominated for 21 Emmy awards, winning 7. “He said ‘I don’t like to write with people because if they aren’t as funny as me, I hate them’,” remembers actor Judd Apatow, “‘and if they are funnier than me, I hate them.’” Born Henry Zuckerman, Buck Henry died January 8 from a heart attack. He was 89.

From This is True for 12 January 2020