Rob Sheffield: Buck Henry Was a New Hollywood Renegade
“Are you here for an affair, sir?”
It’s one of the great lines in The Graduate, a movie that’s nothing but great lines, written by a New Yorker a year older than Mrs. Robinson. Buck Henry, the man who penned the screenplay, plays the officious, condescending hotel clerk, tormenting Dustin Hoffman with a routine question about whether he’s there to attend a wedding reception. It’s a great single-scene breakout role for Buck Henry — he wouldn’t have been comfortable playing one of the participants in the affair. He was more in his element behind the scenes, stepping on camera just for a moment to stoke poor young Benjamin’s sexual anxiety, while he waits for Mrs. Robinson to show up. The man couldn’t have written himself a more perfect role.
Buck Henry was an archetypal Seventies cult figure, one of the New Hollywood renegades who became an antihero. He wrote black comedies, from The Graduate to The Owl and the Pussycat to To Die For. He co-created the classic sitcom Get Smart with Mel Brooks, a James Bond parody featuring Don Adams as nebbish spy Maxwell Smart. He became an actual TV star hosting Saturday Night Live — he hosted 10 times, all in the first five years. His Seventies celebrity mystique was very comparable to Randy Newman or Steely Dan: a Hollywood insider who liked working in the shadows, specialized in playing cynical con men, refused to smile for the camera and had zero desire to make any audience like him.
He also had the quintessential New Hollywood story, born Henry Zuckerman in New York in 1930, before going to the West Coast and hating himself for how much he loved it. As he told Peter Biskind in the classic Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “For the nice Jewish boys from New York, going to L.A. was like going to the New World. They stopped off that plane and put on funny suits, and bought funny cigarettes, and found very young blonde girls. It was a comic version of the guys who came out here originally and made the business.”
Back in New York, Buck was a bohemian artist in the Village who wore pajamas all day; when he had to go out, he just threw his street clothes over them. In Hollywood, he never lost that rumpled charisma. That’s why he’s so effective as the hotel clerk in The Graduate — he even scares Dustin Hoffman into showing him a toothbrush as proof he’s just there for a good night’s sleep. Thar film made his reputation. “Plastics” is deservedly the most famous line — “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” But for some of us, it’s even more painful when Hoffman squawks, “Mrs. Robinson, I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends. I mean that.”
During the Seventies, whenever he hosted SNL a couple times every season, the show always trotted out the usual jokes about why this not-so-famous old creep was hosting again. Henry was cherished as a calming influence on the writers and cast, queitly reading his newspaper in the lobby while they snorted and smoked their way through another week’s chaos.
He often played the straight man to John Belushi’s Samurai, including the night that the Not-Ready-for-Primetime player got a little out of control with his sword and left a deep gash in the host’s forehead. As the show went on, the rest of the cast wore bandages in solidarity. On Weekend Update, Chevy Chase announced, “Our top story tonight: Buck Henry cuts himself in the forehead on a sketch on the Saturday Night show, as a far-gone and drugged-out John Belushi hits him with a sword!” (Go to the one-minute mark below.)
Henry was always a snide comic presence in any film where he showed up, from Catch-22 to Grumpy Old Men, Eating Raoul to Milos Forman’s underrated Taking Off. But his best straight role was The Man Who Fell To Earth, the 1976 Nic Roeg sci-fi opera about David Bowie as a starman who lands in America to fetch water and bring it back home to his dying planet. The film is notorious for its terrible acting, aside from Bowie, who’s beautiful and brilliant as the alien. But Henry gives the film’s only other credible performance, playing against type as a seedy businessman who learns a bit of human compassion from Bowie. He wears thick glasses to symbolize his myopia, because Roeg wants all the earthling characters to have some hyperbolic flaw. But Henry refuses to turn his role into a cartoon villain. He’s a crooked guy — that’s why Bowie’s alien comes to him to be his business advisor. More importantly, he’s also a kindred spirit. It’s the only performance where you feel sad when Buck Henry suffers pain.
His career hit highs and lows, yet kept rolling into the Nineties — his sharpest screenplay ever might have been To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s 1995 satire with Nicole Kidman as a lethal newscaster. He directed a couple of epically awful Seventies comedies, First Family and Heaven Can Wait. (The latter with Warren Beatty — it gave Buck’s his only other Oscar nomination besides the Graduate screenplay. He lost both times.) He was a famous rewrite guy, breezing into the mega-budget Barbara Streisand/Peter Bogdanovich comedy What’s Up, Doc? and knocking off the screenplay in two weeks. He played Liz Lemon’s dad on 30 Rock, along with roles in Murphy Brown and Will & Grace. But through it all, Buck Henry never lost that nasty edge of his. He was always here for the affair. May his memory be a blessing — always a slightly disturbing one.