Family & Companions
After limited success as a stage actor, writer Buck Henry established himself as a sketch writer and performer in 1960s television before writing scripts for some of cinema's most seminal films. Henry first found screen success on "The New Steve Allen Show" (ABC, 1961) and "That Was the Week That Was" (NBC, 1964-65) before joining forces with Mel Brooks to create "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS 1965-1970), the popular and Emmy Award-winning screwball sitcom that lived a long fruitful life in syndication for generations. During the spy comedy's run, Henry wrote the script for Mike Nichols' iconic film, "The Graduate" (1967), which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. He continued to pen engaging films like "Catch-22" (1970) and "What's Up Doc?" (1972), while directing Warren Beatty in "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), only to find himself slipping with the unwatchable "First Family" (1980) and the routine Goldie Hawn comedy, "Protocol" (1984). Henry shifted focus from putting pen to paper in order to concentrate on performing, which included hosting "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) over 10 times, while serving as a rotating host for the failed late night talker, "The Late Show" (NBC, 1984), and a recurring stint on "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990). Henry regained his stature as one of Hollywood's top screenwriters with "To Die For" (1995), only to get pulled into the disaster known as "Town & Country" (2001), which showed that his career had as many moments of sharp disappointment as it did of unadulterated genius.
Born on Dec. 9, 1930 in New York City, Henry was raised by his father, Paul Zuckerman, an Air Force general and stockbroker, and his mother, Ruth Taylor, a former silent film actress who starred as Lorelei Lee in the silent version of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1928), among other films. Having been introduced to Broadway plays by his parents when he was four years old, Henry became interested in the performing arts at an early age. At 15 years old, while attending the then-all boys Choate School, he made his professional acting debut in a Broadway production of "Life with Father," which a year later went on a tour of theaters in Brooklyn, Long Island and the Bronx. After his schooling at Choate, Henry earned his bachelor's degree in English literature, a senior fellowship in writing, and a spot writing for the university's humor magazine, the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern. Following his graduation, he joined the Army during the Korean War, though instead of seeing action, he toured Germany with the Seventh Army Repertory Company performing in a play he also wrote and directed.
While living hand-to-mouth in Manhattan, Henry's life took a fortuitous turn after he joined the Premise, an improvisational group that performed in the West Village. Thanks to the troupe's popularity, Henry became a cast member of "The New Steve Allen Show" (ABC, 1961), which led to landing an agent and appearing on "The Garry Moore Show" (CBS, 1950-1967). Following his short stint with Moore, Henry was a writer and performer on "That Was the Week That Was" (NBC, 1964-65), a satirical sketch program based on a BBC show that also served as a precursor to the more famous and long-running "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). Going from writer and performer to show creator, Henry made what may well have been his most lasting contribution to pop culture when he created along with Mel Brooks the Emmy Award-winning sitcom, "Get Smart" (NBC/CBS 1965-1970), which featured Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, a bumbling spy barely tolerated by his cranky Chief (Edward Platt) and often aided by the more competent Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). Known for its off-beat characters and gag gadgets, like Smart's shoe phone and the frustrating Cone of Silence, "Get Smart" lived a long life in syndication while spawning several movies, including a big budget remake in 2008 starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.
Branching out on his own, Henry was the sole creator of "Captain Nice" (NBC, 1967), a short-lived sitcom about a mild-mannered chemist (William Daniels) who becomes a mild-mannered superhero in a pajama costume knit by his mother. Despite the show's short stay on the air, Henry's fans long remembered the goofy comedy. Also that year, he made an auspicious feature debut as a screenwriter with "The Graduate" (1967), the iconic comedy-drama about an adrift college graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who engages in a May-December affair with family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), only to find himself falling in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross). Aside from being a big box office hit, "The Graduate" spoke to the members of a disaffected generation by giving life to otherwise inchoate feelings of alienation and frustration. Ably performed by Hoffman, Bancroft and Ross, and scored by Paul Simon, it became one of the seminal films of the late 1960s alongside "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and "Easy Rider" (1969), ushering in a cycle of youth-oriented motion pictures that rejuvenated a moribund American film industry hurt by the splintering of the studio system. "The Graduate" also earned several Academy Award nominations, including one for Henry - who made a cameo appearance as a hotel clerk in the film - for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Sticking to the big screen, Henry adapted "Candy" (1968), Terry Southern's sex farce about an innocent young woman (Ewa Aulin) who is completely unaware of her own sexual power. Following a small role in the World War II comedy "The Secret War of Harry Frigg" (1968), he teamed with "Graduate" director Mike Nichols to write "Catch-22" (1970), an uneven adaptation of Joseph Heller's satirical look at the absurdity of armed conflict as seen through the eyes of a war-weary bombardier (Alan Arkin). Henry made an appearance as the sadistic and humorless Lieutenant Colonel Korn. After writing the Barbra Streisand vehicle "The Owl and the Pussycat" (1970), he had a starring role as Dr. Manos in "Is There Sex After Death?" (1971), a satirical sex comedy about the making of a documentary about sex. Also that year, Henry co-starred in Milos Foreman's American debut, "Taking Off" (1971), a comedy-drama about two parents (Henry and Lynn Carlin) who resort to smoking pot while searching the East Village for their runaway daughter (Linnea Heacock). Returning to his natural forte, Henry wrote the script for "What's Up Doc?" (1972), Peter Bogdonovich's screwball comedy about four identical plaid overnight bags and the four owners (Ryan O'Neal, Barbra Streisand, Mabel Albertson and Michael Murphy) who get them mixed up.
Turning to the more unfamiliar territory of political thriller, Henry adapted "The Day of the Dolphin" (1973) for director Mike Nichols, which depicted a group of dolphins who help a brilliant scientist (George C. Scott) foil a plot to assassinate the president. Meanwhile, Henry began hosting "Saturday Night Live," appearing on the show 10 times from 1976-1980 - a record that was later surpassed by Steve Martin. Over the four years, he became kind of an honorary cast member, playing a variety of recurring characters, including a sadistic stunt coordinator, a pedophilic babysitter and a frequent costumer to a deli operated by a crazed Samurai (John Belushi) - the latter of which led to Henry receiving a head injury on live TV thanks to Belushi's wild chopping with his samurai sword. Back on the big screen, Henry co-starred opposite David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976), which he followed with his debut as both a producer and director with "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), which starred Warren Beatty as the star quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, who dies on the verge of playing the Super Bowl, but receives a new chance on life when he occupies the body of an about-to-be-murdered businessman. Meanwhile, he went back to creating television with the sci-fi comedy "Quark" (NBC, 1978), which failed to duplicate his early success in the medium.
As he entered into the next decade, Henry's writing declined drastically, both in quantity, and in the eye of some critics, in quality as well. The first sign of trouble came when he was the sole writer and director of the poorly received feature satire, "First Family" (1980), which cast Bob Newhart as a bumbling president, Madeline Kahn as his alcoholic wife and Gilda Radner as their oversexed daughter. After a small part in John Cassavetes' "Gloria" (1980), he was credited for creating the characters for "The Nude Bomb" (1980), a film version of "Get Smart" that saw Maxwell Smart (Adams) try to save the world from a bomb that will destroy all of mankind's clothing. He returned to the silver screen as the writer of "Protocol" (1984), an average-at-best comedy about a cocktail waitress (Goldie Hawn) who saves the life of a foreign dignitary (Richard Romanus), which leads to landing a job in the protocol department of the government. He later became a writer and cast member of "The New Show" (NBC, 1984), a failed attempt by "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels to bring a variety show to primetime.
While his screenwriting career began to wane, Henry's career as a character actor thrived. He began serving as a rotating host on "The Late Show" (Fox, 1986-88), the first-ever show produced by then-fledgling network, FOX, while also appearing in a three-episode arc on the popular primetime soap, "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990). After playing the kindly priest who runs the mission at the local leper colony in "Tune in Tomorrow" (1990), he appeared as himself in Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992) during the film's opening sequence, where Henry pitches a sequel to "The Graduate" to studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Allegedly, the scene sparked real, but fleeting Hollywood interest in a "Graduate" sequel. Following a brief amusing turn as a dedicated weekend fisherman in "Short Cuts" (1993) and a small role in Gus Van Sant's rather dull road comedy "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (1994), Henry made a triumphant return to screenwriting with a well-received adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, "To Die For" (1995), a hard-edged satire on the nature of American celebrity. Starring Nicole Kidman as a beautiful, well-spoken woman fancying herself as an on-the-cusp news anchorwoman who will do anything - including killing her in-the-way husband (Matt Dillon) - in order to get famous.
Henry's return to screenwriting prominence was short-lived following roles in the romantic comedy "The Real Blonde" (1997), the drama about a dysfunctional Los Angeles Family, "I'm Losing You" (1998), and the failed adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's classic "Breakfast of Champions" (1999), starring Bruce Willis. He wrote pages for the reshoot "Town & Country" (2001), after the original production wrapped amidst various problems, chief among them countless takes demanded by star Warren Betty. A disaster from start to finish, "Town & Country" - a lame attempt at making a screwball comedy - cost studio New Line Cinema to lose over $100 million. Ever since that debacle, Henry basically steered clear of writing for the screen in favor of acting. After appearing opposite Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin in the Hollywood satire "The Last Shot" (2004), Henry logged episodes of "Will & Grace" (NBC, 1998-2006) and "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-13). Turning to the theater, he appeared with Holland Taylor in an off-off-Broadway production of Lisa Ebersole's "Mother" (2009), which rekindled his love affair for playing in the small older theaters of his early career.
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Broadway acting debut at age 16 in a minor role in "Life with Father"
Acted in the touring company of "Life with Father"
Served in the U.S. Army; during the Korean conflict toured Germany with the Seventh Army Repertory Company in a musical comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in
Returned to civilian life
Joined the off-Broadway improvisational theater company "The Premise"
Moved to Hollywood (date approximate)
Became a regular performer on the final season of "The Steve Allen Show"
Feature debut, co-wrote story, co-scripted (with director Theodore J. Flicker) and acted in "The Troublemaker"
Wrote for and appeared as a regular on "That Was the Week That Was" (NBC), a well-received American version of the classic British political satire series
Breakthrough TV credit, co-created with Mel Brooks, scripted episodes and served two years (1965-67) as story editor on "Get Smart!" (NBC, CBS), the extremely popular spy spoof series starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99
Co-scripted the ABC special "The World of Mike Nichols"
Breakthrough screenwriting credit, co-scripted (with Calder Willingham) "The Graduate"; first collaboration with director Mike Nichols; garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay Adaptation
TV producing debut, executive produced, created and wrote episodes of "Captain Nice", an NBC superhero spoof
Reteamed with Mel Brooks to create "When Things Were Rotten," a short-lived spoof of Robin Hood on ABC
Hosted and wrote for "That Was the Year That Was," an NBC special that satirically reviewed 1976
Debut as film director and producer with "Heaven Can Wait" (with Warren Beatty), received an Oscar nomination for Best Direction
Created "Quark," a short-lived sci-fi spoof starring Richard Benjamin on NBC
Received a "from characters" credit on "The Nude Bomb," a feature version of "Get Smart!"
First feature credit as sole screenwriter and sole director, "First Family"
Became a writer and cast member of "The New Show" (NBC), producer Lorne Michaels' failed attempt to create a "Saturday Night Live"-like primetime show
Wrote and acted in "Wake Me When I'm Dead," an episode of the 1985-86 revival of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (NBC)
Appeared as a recurring character on three episodes of "Falcon Crest" (CBS), the popular primetime soap
Served as a rotating host on "The Late Show," a late night talk show (and the first series produced for Fox)
Last screenwriting credit for eight years, "I Love N.Y."
Appeared as a correspondent on "Edge," a monthly magazine series covering American pop culture on PBS
Served as Master of Ceremonies for the "10th Annual Independent Spirit Awards"
Appeared in a cameo role as himself in Robert Altman's "The Player"
Acted in Altman's "Short Cuts"; also featured in "Grumpy Old Men"
Had a role in Gus Van Sant's misfire "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues"
Wrote the screenplay for Van Sant's "To Die For"; acted in a supporting role
Featured in "The Real Blonde"
Starred on Broadway in "Art"
Acted in the independent features "I'm Losing You" and "Breakfast of Champions"
Voiced the character of Dadbert on an episode of the UPN animated series "Dilbert"
Featured in Griffin Dunne's "Famous"; screened at Cannes
Co-wrote the comedy feature "Town & Country," starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton as a couple with a troubled marriage; also acted
Cast opposite Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin in the comedy "The Last Shot"
Guest starred on "Will & Grace" (NBC)
Landed a recurring guest appearance on "30 Rock" (NBC) as Liz Lemon's (Tina Fey) father Dick
Credited with creating the characters for the feature film remake of "Get Smart," starring Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99
Starred off-Broadway opposite Holland Taylor in "Mother," a play by Lisa Ebersole
Cast as Elka's (Betty White) love interest on TV Land sitcom "Hot in Cleveland"