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.