Showbiz Stories From The Vault — Buck Henry Died Today; I'm Proud To Say I "Put Words Into His Mouth"

Back in the day, I ran a show for HBO called “Tales From The Crypt”. My creative partner and I were hired to take over the show’s third season after its second season went a million dollars over budget. We ran “Tales” through four more seasons (60 plus episodes) and two “Tales From The Crypt” feature films (“Demon Knight” and “Bordello Of Blood“).

Making Tales was a hoot from start to finish (I absolutely do NOT include the making of Bordello in the ‘hoot’ part; making Bordello was literally the stupidest experience of my life). Gil (my partner) and I pushed hard to take Tales back to its ironic roots and to make the Crypt Keeper more of a franchise character than he was. We also pushed hard to get the biggest, best names we could get for our silly little horror TV show. And we succeeded.

We got to work with Tom Hanks (first thing he ever directed — an episode of Tales), Brad Pitt (a very young Brad Pitt), Michael J. Fox, Kirk Douglass, Dan Ackroyd, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Friedkin, John Frankenheimer, Isabella Rosselini, Ewan MacGregor & Daniel Craig (among many others). I’m not a star-effer by nature. I might be a fan — but if you screw up a day’s work and make life hard for everyone, you’re useless to me. The quality of the work is my bottomest line. Celebrity is twaddle.

But — funny thing about even mega-celebrities? Even THEY have someone they get goofy over. My executive producers on Tales were huge names: Bob Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Dick Donner, Walter Hill. I learned a ton from each of them. I wrote two of the three Tales episodes Bob Z directed (about which I am very, very proud).

And yet — for all the “big names” I got to work with and for, the one person I got to work about whom I felt… awe — there’s no other word — was Buck Henry who died today at 88 years of age. You can find Buck’s credits here. He was a giant in American comedy writing. A Giant.

“Get Smart” was seminal. “The Graduate” was transcendent. Buck Henry didn’t write the book (Charles Webb did that) but Buck Henry (along with director Mike Nichols) made “The Graduate” iconic by capturing something ineffable about Benjamin Braddock’s dilemma. “The Graduate” didn’t cast stones from outside Benjamin’s experience, it cast stones from inside. It identified white middle class alienation and spoke to a generation of kids (white, suburban) about the terrible contradiction they faced going forward between what they felt in their guts about life and the utter bullshit their parents (and the rest of the adults) were selling them about life.

“The Graduate” didn’t “solve” Benjamin’s problem, it simply pointed out that he had one.

I write screenplays — occasionally for a living even. I bow down before superb writing. Buck Henry’s work in “The Graduate” is superb.

We cast Buck in an episode called “Beauty Rest” wherein Mimi Rogers kills roommate Kathy Ireland to take her place in a beauty contest where she’s guaranteed to win — unaware that the contest is for a Miss Mortuary & the winner is going to get killed as part of her “prize”. It’s goofy, I know. That was Tales — it was more black comedy than horror. Our casting director Victoria Burrows suggested Buck Henry to play the strange beauty contest’s strange emcee.

He said yes.

My job on Tales was to rewrite every script (in addition to writing my own) until it was ready for production — and fit our franchise. The original script (credited to “Donald Longtooth” but actually Terry Black — Terry resented being rewritten) needed massaging as all scripts did. We added a musical number for the emcee character to perform and I wrote that part of the episode.

Writing dialogue for a great screenwriter is both tricky and (when they seem happy with it) gratifying. This isn’t just another writer reading your stuff and nodding at it — they’re having to take your words into their mouth — and speak them. They’re going to have faith in them as an actor — the words make sense to them and they feel they’ll look okay speaking them.

A screenwriter I deeply respected had faith in the words I was writing specifically for him to say. He had enough faith to sing some of the words I wrote for him. That’s a huge indication of “faith”.

He was a lovely man. I wish I had been less star-struck. I wish I had had more confidence in myself as a writer; I’d have talked way better shop than I talked. I don’t think we talked shop at all actually; I was waaaaaaaaaay to intimidated.

Rest In Peace, Buck.

You made the world a better place than it deserved to be. Thank you.

These Are Desperate Times, Mrs. Lovett, And Desperate Measures Are Called For

Sweeny Todd got it right. These ARE desperate times we’re living in. What if it’s already be too late for desperate measures?

What measures come after the desperate ones?

A lot of us sensed it election night 2016 the way animals can sense a temblor coming. Trump “winning the election” (he didn’t, Russia did) wasn’t going to be the worst of it. It was going to be the start of it.

When I ran Tales From The Crypt for HBO, I took pride in the fact that I murdered people for a living and got away with it. I’ve spent my career imagining terrible, terrible things that could happen to people. I’ve written scenes that would make your average person squirm to watch, never mind actually endure.

But nothing I’ve written — or could write — can compare with or compete with Donald Trump. There’s nothing special about Trump except for the fact that he’s the embodiment of evil. Evil — real evil — isn’t special; most of the time, it’s pretty banal. We prefer our evil to be beat-you-over-the-head obvious. Unfortunately, that’s not how evil works.

There is nothing exceptional about Donald Trump. And yet, this unexceptional man has done something, well, exceptional — he’s very nearly destroyed the greatest experiment in human self-government ever. He’s had help, of course — Moscow Mitch McConnell (starting with his mission to hijack the judiciary as a means to impose permanent minority rule), Bill Barr (the most corrupt AG ever – and that includes John Mitchell, Nixon’s AG!), Mike Pompeo (the most corrupt Secretary of State since whoever Trump’s last Sec State was) and GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (whose worry that Russia was paying Dana Rohrbacher & Trump was put to rest with a simple “Let’s keep that in the family” by then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan).

The only thing that’s even remotely exceptional about Trump — his capacity for banal evil. That, apparently, is bottomless.

Me & A Friend

I was going through photos for the book I’m agent shopping — “How To Live Bullshit Free: A Practical Guide To Not Killing Yourself” — and found this one of a much, much, MUCH younger version of me and a… “friend”, let’s call him, The Crypt Keeper.

From season three till the bitter end, I wrote every word the Crypt Keeper, um, “said”. It was a strange gig — pulling my hair out to come up with words for a puppet to speak (in addition to writing and producing the Tales From The Crypt episodes).

The Crypt Keeper was designed by special effects wizard Kevin Yagher (who directed all the Crypt Keeper segments) and was actually the product of 6 separate puppeteers. One was the CK’s right hand, one his left, one controlled his head movements and the others worked the animatronic controls that gave remarkable life to the Crypt Keeper’s face.

Everything was synched to the vocal track I’d recorded with Jon Kasirer, the actor who provided Crypt Keeper’s voice. Working with Jon was always great fun. With the vocal track playing, Kevin would call “Action”, the puppeteers would go to work and The Crypt Keeper would seem to fill with life.

I don’t believe in magic but… our minds play tricks. While he was moving and talking and acting like the Crypt Keeper, there was no puppet. There was only the Crypt Keeper.

Then Kevin would call “Cut!” The take would end. The puppeteers would sit back — and the Crypt Keeper, now lifeless, would sag to the surface of his table like, well, a lifeless puppet.

It was like watching him die each and every time. It’s still disconcerting how disconcerting it was.

Have You Heard The One About Meatloaf When He Met The Crypt Keeper?

Seeing Meatloaf on Morning Joe this morning brought to mind a story included in How To Live Bullshit Free: A Practical Guide To Not Killing Yourself, the book I’m now agent shopping. I once cast Meatloaf in a TV show.

How To Live Bullshit Free is also a memoir — the story of how I came within inches of offing myself (but got better). I’ve had a very unusual showbiz career. I wrote and produced HBO’s Tales From The Crypt and Showtime’s The Outer Limits. I’ve written and produced feature films. I have crossed paths with an amazing amount of people (as one does in show business) — many of them very, very famous. I’m not afraid to name names.

One of the stories I tell in How To Live Bullshit Free is about Meatloaf — and how we cast him in an episode of Tales From The Crypt called “What’s Cookin” about a down on their luck couple about to lose their incredibly unsuccessful diner. The homeless guy who works for them shows up one day with steak — that attracts so many customers they can stay open. In fact, they’re suddenly making money hand over fist. The problem? The steak is all human flesh.

Hey — it was Tales From The Crypt. Anyway — without further ado — this is from my book (which I’m agent shopping — or did I say that already?)

As the Crypt Keeper would say: “Bone appetite!”

We got Chris Reeve to play the lead with Bess Armstrong and
Judd Nelson in the supporting roles (Chris, remember, had done ‘Superman’ with
Dick Donner, one of our Executive Producers). 
Chris was experiencing a strange phenomenon – where an actor becomes
hyper-associated with a character in the audience’s mind.  Superman had done that to a degree to Chris
and he was having trouble getting cast as ‘other’ characters (something that
apparently plagued Chris’s Superman predecessor, the 1950’s TV Superman, Steve
Reeves).  
Chris’s hyper-awareness showed while we discussed his
wardrobe.  Our initial choices were a
little too ‘Clark Kent’; he didn’t want to go there.  To us it was just a blue Oxford shirt and a
pair of khakis but, to be fair, Chris had walked around a lot more in Clark
Kent’s (wardrobe-provided) shoes than we had. 
When ‘Superman’ tells you ‘It’s too Clark Kent’, you listen.
For the part of the Landlord, we cast the singer MEATLOAF.  I think I laughed for about a half hour when our casting director first mentioned his name.  I mean, c’mon – how funny is that – casting MEATLOAF in an episode about CANNIBALISM – where his character gets eaten?
There’s a scene – toward the middle – when Chris – freaking
out about their financial hardships while still dubious about the crowds
pouring in to gobble up the steaks his wife keeps tossing onto the grill –
follows Judd’s homeless guy to the walk-in refrigerator for more steak.  As the walk-in door opens, Chris sees their
LANDLORD (Meatloaf) literally hanging from a meat hook, naked and dead.
While Chris freaks out, Judd picks up a meat cleaver and hacks
a couple of ‘butt steaks’ from the carcass. 
Tossing them onto the metal tray he’s brought, he heads back to the
front of the restaurant to give them to Bess who’s busily barbecuing away.
“Don’t leave the fridge door open,” says Judd’s drifter as
he goes – to the still too-horrified-to-move-or-speak Chris – “He’ll
spoil.”   
This was going to be a tricky special effect to pull
off.  The body had to look super
real.  The way the steaks came off the
carcass had to look real.  The way they
looked when they hit the tray HAD TO LOOK REAL. 
Sounds like a Job for Todd Masters…
One of the reasons I loved doing ‘Tales’ was that I got to indulge in some really horrible behavior –
betraying people, killing people, ‘eating’ people – and all without actually
hurting anyone.  Some of my favorite
moments were when I got to sit down with our Special Effects Maven Todd Masters
– with a couple of pathology textbooks and a shitload of bad intentions between
us.  After the first time my assistant
found me in Todd’s work space, cackling away like lunatics, she never looked at
me the same way again.  
The problem with great special effects though is that (in
addition to money), they take time. 
Having cast Meatloaf so late into the schedule, there simply wasn’t time
for him to come in so we could do a body cast of him.  Necessity – and a rigid shooting schedule –
forced us to hire a body double who we thought would approximate what Meatloaf
would look like hanging naked in a meat locker. 
Now, I knew what Meatloaf (the singer and actor) looked
like.  When I was in college, Meatloaf’s
‘Bat Outta Hell’ was one of THE albums we all revered (there in the Drama
Department).  C’mon – “Paradise By The
Dashboard Light’ is classic.  And it’s
funny.  Meatloaf was a big guy.  A heavy guy. 
A guy who could probably afford to lose a few pounds.  But that wasn’t our problem.  We cast the Meatloaf we knew and got on with
our lives.
And then, the day before he was due to work, Meatloaf – the
actor – arrived at the studio for his wardrobe fitting.  And we realized we had a problem.  ‘Mr. Loaf’ (as Christopher Lee called him
when they appeared together on SNL) had just finished a crash diet and had lost
60+ pounds.
He looked nothing like the body double – which he wanted to
see.  
Having worked very, VERY hard to lose all that weight – and
wanting to show it off – he was NOT happy that the old, ‘heavier’ Meatloaf was
who we had cast.  He insisted that our
body double was a good twenty pounds heavier than he had ever been.  I got to know my hands very well – staring at
them for as long as I did while Meatloaf circled his ‘not-exactly’ body double.
In the end, Meatloaf sucked it up – being a pro first and
foremost.  His history of being heavy
helped too.  He even agreed – graciously
– to wear a fat suit under his wardrobe so that it wouldn’t look quite so
jarring when we saw him ‘naked’.

Like I said — I’m agent shopping. There’s lots, lots, LOTS more where that comes from.