Buck Henry has had a remarkable career in the entertainment industry, one that has encompassed acting, screenwriting, directing, producing and even dubbing foreign language film imports. Not content to sit on his laurels, Henry at age 86 remains active in Hollywood where he is allegedly working on the screenplay to Get Smart 2. His previous assignment was writing the screenplay for The Humbling (2014), a comedy-drama directed by Barry Levinson starring Al Pacino and based on the novel by Philip Roth.
In April 2010, Buck Henry was a guest at the first annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and was present at a retrospective screening of The Graduate to answer questions from Vanity Fair contributor Sam Kashner. I conducted the following interview with Henry about his career prior to that festival for Turner Classic Movies.
Since The Graduate was being shown at the festival, I start the interview with that topic but move on to cover other aspects of Henry’s career and achievements in the below transcript.
Jeff Stafford: When you were first hired to write The Graduate screenplay, did you know that Calder Willingham had already written a draft?
Buck Henry: I did not know that anyone had written a draft.
JS: When you found out, did you ever have an opportunity to see what he had done?
BH: Yes, I read it when the credits were disputed.
JS: This has always confused me. Since the script used was yours and his script was discarded, I don’t understand how the Screen Writers Guild could rule in favor of Willingham getting a credit.
BH: Generally it’s a three-legged stool they’re sitting on…to confuse a metaphor. And the three legs are the story, the characters and the dialogue. Since he wrote from the same book – he used the same characters and their names – he used basically the same story and quite a bit of the same dialogue that I used. He was considered the first author. That’s the way it works. There are thousands of scripts that have been adjudicated in that way. And thousands of bitter writers because of it.
JS: Well, I’m sure he got a lot of work from the success of The Graduate without actually writing the version that was used.
BH: I don’t know but he had done a lot of stuff. Although I didn’t know him and sure don’t like him for doing that, he wrote some great stuff.
JS: Yes, Paths of Glory.
BH: Well, you may find that he didn’t write that either.
JS: Oh, is that another case of arbitration?
BH: There are several of them. [Robert] Altman would froth at the mouth if you mentioned his name..because Willingham always did this. He got bounced and he sued and he got credit. So his reputation was not good about that. I have to say I could have cheerfully killed him at one point but he wrote some wonderful stuff. End as a Man is a terrific novel and play [The film version was called The Strange One] and the last film script he wrote – I can’t remember what it was but it was really good. JS: Rambling Rose?
BH: Rambling Rose is terrific. And he wrote a wonderful gothic novel sometime in the seventies or eighties. The title of which I can’t remember [Eternal Fire, which was actually published in 1963].
JS: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Charles Webb?
BH: I know Charles Webb very well.
JS: He has such an interesting history and I was sorry to read in the BBC News that he was living in basic poverty over in England.
BH: Well, they’ve given all their money away more than once. They’re very, very eccentric. The Webbs. When I say very eccentric, I mean the limit of eccentricity. The eccentricity they apply to you just before they say, “Well, he’s nuts” and put you in a home. Charles is a really nice guy. I like him very much. And his wife Fred. She had her name legally changed to Fred, just Fred. It was Fred Fred for a moment but it changed to just Fred. They lived for a long time in various nudist colonies. JS: I had read that the Webbs had managed a nudist colony in New Jersey and thought, this is one of those internet rumors. That can’t be right.
BH: Well, it is right. They stayed out here on the West Coast at various nudist colonies, up and down the California coast for a while and then invited me – very nicely – to come and – they had a second marriage – and they wanted me to come and participate in some way. I said I can’t go to a nudist wedding. It’s just beyond my capacity to endure with a straight face. So I missed that one and I’m probably wrong. But at any rate, he’s had a really hard time over the years. They got quite a bit of money over the years because The Graduate sold a lot of books for them. They gave it away to various movements.
JS: I heard that he’d given the rights away to the Anti-Defamation League at one point
BH: It didn’t get published here. It got published in England. I read a chapter of it. I thought the chapter I read was terrific. And I was astounded to hear that they wouldn’t publish it [here]. But you have to remember…who knows what the conversations were like between Webb and whatever lawyers were needed to get something published.
JS: When you were writing the character of Ben in The Graduate, it sounded like Nichols had an image of him as a blond WASP from California before he met Dustin. But I was wondering if you had a certain physical type in mind when you were writing it?
BH: Well, we all thought of blond WASP guys because that’s what Chuck [Webb] was. And clearly it was a kind of autobiographical novel and these were the tall, blonde people who lived in Pasadena and still do.
JS: I read in one interview that Nichols had originally thought of opening The Graduate with Hoffman’s college graduation ceremony.
BH: It was written and it was in the first draft.
JS: But was never actually shot, right?
BH: Never shot it.
JS: Were there other scenes that you actually did write but didn’t end up in the final film?
BH: No, nothing big was edited out. It might have been cut out between second and third drafts but the only thing I can remember was that – the opening.
JS: When you first saw the completed film, what were your feelings about the choice of the Simon and Garfunkel music?
JS: So during the making of the movie he was playing it on the set?
BH: As I was writing it, he was playing it! He always had it in mind. It wasn’t a big deal one way or another for me. It was always there and it went on the track immediately before editing was ever finished. The Sounds of Silence was put on. Paul [Simon] had been hired to write a score and he did but except for “Mrs. Robinson,” nothing matched the pieces he’d already written that Mike put on the track.
JS: That’s interesting. So there was music created that never made it to the soundtrack.
BH: Oh yeah.
JS: I saw this interview with you from the Emmy Television Archives and you said when you were young you really wanted to be a Broadway actor. By the time you left the army and started to work in the entertainment industry, did you still feel that way? Were you still thinking of the theater first as opposed to TV or film?
BH: I don’t know quite how to answer that because I’m not sure that I really remember. I was looking for a job. It didn’t matter to me whether it was television, film, theatre or anything.
JS: In terms of American theater though, you were in New York at a time when there were all these amazing actors on the Broadway stage. Were you able to afford to go and see the plays?
BH: Yeah, I saw everything.
JS: So when you came out of the Army, you moved to New York and lived in Greenwich Village. Did you ever see Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire?
BH: Saw it twice. Saw him with both women [Jessica Tandy & Kim Hunter].
JS: What were some of the other amazing performances you saw?
BH: Well, that, of course. Death of a Salesman. Everything the Lunts did [Alfred Lunt & his wife, Lynn Fontanne]. I started going to the theatre when I was four. My parents started taking me to the theatre, literally, on my fourth birthday. So I saw all the famous people who the Brando generation didn’t know anymore. The classical actors.
JS: Katharine Cornell?
BH: Katharine Cornell, absolutely. The Lunts as I said. The Oliviers. Redgrave. All that stuff. There were amazing theatrical productions of Shakespeare. And most of the classic plays. But I have to include in that endless roster things like The Living Theatre. The Connection was a major amazement. There was that whole gang of writers and companies.
JS: Like the La Mama Group that did Futz and The Brig?
BH: Yep. Futz. The Brig was The Living Theatre. So all of that fed into everybody’s experience. And certainly The Actors Studio has to be named.
JS: That would have been a great time to be in New York.
BH: It was something. And you could afford the theatre because standing room – which my friends and I did forever, I mean, who cares – we stood. To this day, I like to sit in the back row of the orchestra rather than in the first ten rows because you really see a play [that way].
JS: Hardly anyone can afford theatre tickets in New York today.
BH: No, they’re all $100-120 dollar seats in the front of the orchestra but there are ways to get around it.
JS: In terms of your television work, was The Steve Allen Show your first writing job?
BH: It was.
JS: When the shows were actually taped, were the writers present for that?
BH: The writers were always around.
JS: Were you present when Lenny Bruce appeared on The Steve Allen Show?
BH: No, that was a different show of Steve’s [It was The Steve Allen Playhouse].
JS: The first film you worked on as a screenwriter was The Troublemaker, correct?
JS: And a lot of the people in that were from The Premise, the improv group you were involved with. Was that difficult to go from improving on the stage to improvising on film?
BH: Not that I remember.
JS: Was that more of a collaboration where you and the director Theodore J. Flicker were working together to write the script?
BH: Yes, we absolutely did. We took a house in Palm Springs and wrote it in a month’s time.
JS: It seemed like you and several of the people in The Premise moved to Los Angeles around the same time. Was that because there was suddenly a lot of work available in L.A.?
BH: I think that was sort of a natural progression. I can’t remember what I did in between. I think I worked on Steve Allen, then went back to New York and shot the movie and then…. Oh, I got a job with Garry Moore but I left L.A. to go back and do that job.
JS: I don’t know if you have ever looked at your own credits on IMDB but I often find things in that database that seem suspect.
BH: Endless mistakes.
JS: I saw some things in your filmography and wanted to verify if they were true or not. They had you listed as doing the voiceover for the English language version of Bernard Wicki’s The Bridge, which was made in 1959 in Germany.
BH: I worked as a dubber for Titra films in New York which kept a lot of actors alive. I think it was a hundred dollars a day which was a fortune in the fifties and sixties and if you did three or four weeks work in the course of a year, it would be enough to support you. All the good radio actors did it. I’m in all the Hercules films. I did most of the German films that were on the circuit in America because these same guys did all these films. This group I was with – we did a lot of foreign films. The Japanese were the tricky ones. Those were the hard ones but there were some very clever writers who rewrote the dialogue so that English would fit into the mouths. JS: Did you also ever find yourself in a situation where you were dubbing more than one or two character in the same film?
BH: I don’t remember that. In a group scene we’d all pitch in and you’d hear all our voices. The Hercules [films] were the funniest…we’d always do it at night because the dubbing places were doing business during the day. And we would go in at night like night marauders and laugh ourselves sick. You know, putting in fake dialogue and laughing at the silliness of the stories. But we also did serious German and Russian films like The Cranes Are Flying and The Bridge. And that kind of stuff.
JS: There was another credit of yours – a short called I Miss Sonia Henie.
BH: I Miss Sonia Henie is interesting because I just was sent – I got it today – this month’s Believer magazine which contains in it a DVD of Karpo Acimovic-Godina’s shorts. He was a Slovenian director of great fame among people who really dig into films. And he started – it’s a long story that I’m not about to tell you because it’s too complicated – but I went to – what’s the capital of Yugoslavia?
BH: There used to be a film festival there – The Two Worlds Festival. And this is in Tito years. And I went to the film festival and in the film festival was Taking Off, the [Milos] Forman film and Catch-22 and I had a series that was playing in Moldavia or somewhere. So they thought I was sort of a mini-Orson Welles and had me giving speeches. This was really a weird event. I attended a screening of Catch-22 for the Yugoslavian high command and if that wasn’t a mismatch – oh my god, they were so upset – and in the Q&A – [Alan] Arkin was there and he says to me, “We’re dead. We’re not gonna get out of here. They’re gonna kill us.” And indeed that’s the way they looked. Anyway, at that film festival, Karpo came and organized with a whole bunch of directors, there were about ten of us – a film called I Miss Sonia Henie, all in bits and pieces. Every filmmaker that he got that said they would do this had to make a film with very strict guidelines. Among them being a fixed camera, five hundred or five thousand feet of stock…actor and actresses from wherever we could scrounge them. It had to be no longer than, I think, six minutes. And somewhere it it someone had to say in a line, “I miss Sonia Henie.” Well, it sounds like it should be a great time. It isn’t. It’s pretty boring. But also they’re shooting the making of it so they have two things going. They have this bizarre collection of short films made by a group of completely disparate personalities.
JS: Yes, Frederick Wiseman and Tinto Brass and Paul Morrissey and others were involved.
BH: Yeah, it’s a strange bunch and meantime they’re making this documentary of all of us working. They played a lot of pieces from it at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] a couple of years ago and it’s a…it’s a tough one. But sort of interesting.
JS: Well, I’m glad it’s not a lost film and has resurfaced much to your chagrin.
BH: Yes, it has resurfaced and now they’ve actually put it out.
JS: That’s great because when I saw all these directors connected to it I said, this can’t be real.
BH: Yes, people have been tracking it for years. When it showed in Brooklyn a couple of years ago people came from all over. One guy hitchhiked from California. It’s a great, bizarre story. JS: After The Graduate, you went right into Candy. I was curious why [Terry] Southern, who had already written several screenplays by this time, didn’t write the screenplay himself?
BH: I have no idea. He may have written a version of it but maybe somebody didn’t like it.
JS: Were you with the production the entire time or did you finish at an early point and leave?
BH: No, not at all. I was about twelve pages ahead of them during a lot of the shoot.
JS: So I assume it was sort of a chaotic shoot?
BH: It was TOTALLY chaotic. But always interesting and of course the food was great because we were in the middle of Rome. And I will go anywhere for good food. I mean, I knew it was going to be disastrous from the very beginning because the number of languages involved, the percentage of actors who didn’t speak English or didn’t speak a lot of English and the misconception of why things were funny or not. It was just very clear that things might look great but they weren’t going to sound too good and then they would add actors at random! I mean I’d be working on a scene for three days hence and they would come and say, “Hey, we got The Living Theatre.” “I’m sorry?” “We’ve got The Living Theatre and they’re passing through Italy – they wanna work so let’s do a scene.” That kind of stuff.
JS: Was most of Candy filmed in Rome or did they return and shoot a lot of it in California?
BH: No, almost all of it was Rome. Some exteriors and a few things were shot here at the end.
JS: That was a good immersion by fire I suppose, one of your earlier experiences with film business craziness.
BH: Oh my god. But I had so many good friends involved that it was sort of wonderful in its awfulness.
JS: You worked with Nichols again after The Graduate on Catch-22. Was that experience easier after your first collaboration?
BH: I’ve always been closely involved with the directors because they’ve always been friends of mine. I only wrote one film that I wasn’t there for and I wasn’t on the shoot so the answer is yes but that’s not really the answer to that question because I write the script and then the directors usually say “Let’s edit this part out.” I mean we don’t sit down and go through a draft.
JS: Was it a bit intimidating to adapt such a popular cult novel at the time?
BH: Totally. Yeah, it was very intimidating because of its length and this number of characters. There’s like 200 characters in the book.
JS: I had read that Orson Welles had originally tried to buy the rights years earlier. It’s ironic that he ended up being cast in Catch-22 as Dreedle. Can you talk a little bit about the filming of his scenes in the movie?
BH: I can but I don’t really want to. It would take too long.
JS: Ok. I’ll ask this one question in relation to that, did he try to direct himself?
BH: Well, he’s famous for [that] but he was always very respectful of Nichols as well he should have been. But he would say things like [imitates Orson’s voice] “You know you’re not going to use this angle, Mike, let’s not do it.” That kind of stuff. JS: Did you inject any of your own army experiences as a helicopter/light aircraft mechanic into the film?
JS: For The Owl and the Pussycat, was your contribution to that adaptation of the stage play minimal or did you bring a lot to it?
BH: No, there’s much more of my dialogue than his [Bill Manhoff].
JS: I wanted to ask you about Alan Abel and your collaboration on Is There Sex After Death? BH: There was NO collaboration. He asked me if I would come and do a piece on this movie he was making and I said yes. And then I did and I was fairly horrified as to what he was doing. And I thought well, it doesn’t matter. It’s never going to see the light of day. And then it did.
JS: I saw it in college and thought it had some laughs in it and then saw it again on DVD recently and thought, Well, that’s a time capsule.
BH: Yep. I have managed not to see it since it opened I think. No, I was mildly distressed because he used my name to promote it. Yeah, he had people with signs walking up and down in front of the theatre… But we are friends.
JS: I wanted to ask one or two questions about Taking Off. Were you the first writer and choice of actor for that film?
BH: I don’t know. If there were other people involved, I wasn’t aware of them and I don’t know whether a script existed when he asked me.
JS: When you actually started shooting the movie, I got the impression that a lot of it was improvised, at least it felt that way such as the scene in the bar where you bite into a hard boiled egg.
BH: That was totally improvised but we never saw a script – never, ever. So if there was a script, I wish I had a copy. Well, actually there was a script published in book form. But all of it is basically a transcript of the finished film.
JS: It’s one of my favorite movies. I had no idea you were simply improvising from scene to scene.
BH: I know there’s a pre-shoot script. And the list of writers – you wouldn’t put them together in a room – completely disparate sensibilities…which can be understood in the light of Milos being new to the United States and not knowing the language and not being really fluent. And not knowing who the writers were. Of course he learned…but not having the sense of who would write a really American story, one that would have been working here a long time and had been working in the business.
JS: The Taking Off musical sequence with Ike and Tina Turner. Was that just a coincidence or something that Milos planned to shoot in conjunction with that sequence?
BH: I know very little behind the scenes stuff. I assume that they knew that Ike and Tina Turner were gonna be there before the shoot because it had to be all planned. You know, equipment had to be brought…It was only like one or two nights but still they had to know who was going to be there and who was going to be performing. And since it was Ike and Tina Turner, it wouldn’t be a pickup job. Also, that audience was a real audience. And there were like hundreds of them.
JS: Where was the location for that sequence?
BH: Grossinger’s [a resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains in New York].
JS: You’ve worked twice with Robert Altman. Is there anything about his film set and the way he works with actors that gave you a sense of greater freedom as an actor?
BH: I don’t know quite how to answer that. I’ve never really felt constricted by anybody. He had an interesting and peculiar way of shooting – that I wrote about in fact for a piece in Film Forum. Actors love him for a lot of reasons, the ones he didn’t torture. Partly because there’s a seeming freedom with the way he uses the cameras. His cameras are mostly way back there. There’s two or three of them a lot of the time, which means that you really don’t have to worry about which way you’re turning. And it gives [it] that Altman-look like you’re spying on the story from a distance. And it sort of changes your relationship to the other actors and you don’t have to have a relationship to the camera, which you usually do. This is my take on it.
So it does free you up to do what you want to do. Sometimes too much. My problem with improvised films – and I’ve been in three or four of them – is that sometimes there’s a little too much freedom. Actors repeating lines over and over drives me crazy. It happens in Milos’s films. It happens in Altman’s films. It happens in [John] Cassavetes’ films. And I love the films of all three of them.
JS: Did you ever discuss the possibility of working with Altman on a screenplay?
BH: No, never discussed.
JS: It seemed like he favored actors over screenwriters anyway from what I’ve read about him.
BH: Oh sure. JS: There’s a segment of the film Aria that I love – the “Rigoletto” sequence directed by Julian Temple at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Ca.. What a strange place. Had you ever been there before?
BH: I had never been there so I was thrilled. And if one digs into its history and how they do things the amazing thing about that orchestra they have – or had – I don’t know what’s going on these days but that orchestra was mostly peopled by retired musicians who live outside of Los Angeles who used to work in the film business. I mean they’re doddering, a lot of them – in their sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties. And when they have a full orchestra there it’s just remarkable.
JS: Can you talk about What’s Up Doc? and whether you wrote a script or whether Peter Bogdanovich just fed you ideas for the dialogue and situations?
BH: No, Bogdanovich. He had half a script written by Robert Benton, David Newman, and himself and I don’t know why it had run aground. He just said “Look, we’ve got a month to do this. There’s a green light but if we don’t get a script, we lose Barbra and if we lose Barbra Streisand, we lose Ryan O’Neal and then it all collapses.” And I said, “Well, I’ll do my best.” And then I made life really difficult for myself by adding to the farce nature of the baggage.
JS: So you were adding characters as well?
BH: I’m adding characters but I also added a bag. You know, it revolves around these three bags that are all in transit and that all look alike. And I added a fourth bag and it almost killed me.
JS: Did you create the character of Hugh Simon?
BH: No, Peter did that because of his long time loathing of [critic] John Simon.
JS: It’s unmistakable. The Day of the Dolphin. I’d always heard this was going to be a Roman Polanski film first.
BH: No, it was Mike Nichols. He was trying to get rid of his obligations to [producer] Joe Levine and there was this project that was sort of ready made because [Richard] Sylbert had scouted it microscopically. Sylbert had found every place where one could shoot everything and people could live and all that stuff. So a lot of the dog work was done. And it’s not a good excuse for making a film but there was that and I didn’t like the book very much. But I thought ,”Well, I always have a good time working with Mike and we’ll live on an island and be left alone. It will be sort of interesting.” And it was but I still didn’t like the book and think it’s sort of silly.
JS: Where was this filmed?
BH: Abaco in the Caribbean.
JS: How long did that shoot last?
BH: YEARS. I don’t really know but it was a few months I guess.
JS: Regarding the TCM film festival, you probably know several people who are attending. In the video interview you did for the Emmy Television Archive you talked about Vinnie Bogart of The Garry Moore Show and a skit you and George Gobel performed for him that finally got him to laugh – a parody of the film The Good Earth. I don’t know if you know this or not but Luise Rainer, the star of that film, is coming to the TCM film festival.
BH: God, what is she, a hundred and two?
JS: She’s a hundred!
BH: Jesus Christ.
JS: They’re going to show The Good Earth and she’s going to introduce it so I thought you would find that interesting.
BH: That’s incredible. I guess I couldn’t get a copy of it [The Garry Moore Show parody] and play it alongside it. Oh, no, no, no! I’d like to see it again. That was one of my favorite bits. I didn’t write a lot for Gary Moore that I loved but I enjoyed doing that.
I’d love to see Rainer again because actually one of the first things I did in the theater, just before I did my first professional job, was an amateur job in Dennis, Massachusetts. There was a non-professional production of Our Town done outside the Dennis Playhouse, literally outside in the lawns. And I was about fifteen or sixteen and I was the stage manager, the guy that tells everybody what’s going on. And Luise Rainer was doing [a play] in the playhouse so I watched her rehearsing. It was interesting watching her rehearse and perform it.
Buck Henry would return as a featured guest to the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2017 where he once again was present at a screening of The Graduate. To date Henry’s awards include an Emmy win, an Obie award, two Academy Award nominations (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait), a British Academy Award and a Writer’s Guild Award. He will turn 87 on his birthday on December 9, 2017.
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