‘BUCK AMOK!’ will honor acclaimed filmmaker Buck Henry
By Varun Bhuchar, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, October 11, 2012
With a career that includes multiple television shows, several Academy Award nominations and the contribution of some of pop culture’s most referenced moments, Buck Henry ’52 may just be the most successful alumnus Dartmouth has had in the arts. He returns to the College on Oct. 14 for “BUCK AMOK!,” a career retrospective talk in the Black Family Visual Arts Center’s new Loew Auditorium, which will pay tribute to the enormously talented artist.
Henry was born in New York City to an affluent family in 1930 and grew up in the city. His mother was a silent film actress, but that had no direct influence on his future career choice, Henry said.
“My mother’s career didn’t have an influence on me in an active way,” he said. “I’ve been around actors and writers my entire life, and that obviously had some effect on me.”
When Henry came to Dartmouth in 1948, the arts scene as we know it today was virtually nonexistent. There was no Hopkins Center, most of the artistic disciplines had not been developed into real departments and the Dartmouth Film Society would not be founded until his sophomore year. However, that didn’t stop Henry from indulging his artistic inclinations.
“I was always rehearsing or doing a play all the time I was there,” Henry said. “There was never a time when I wasn’t doing a play, as far as I can remember.”
Even back then, Henry made an impression on people. Joanna Rapf, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and occasional visiting professor at the College, vividly remembers the times Henry babysat her when he was a Dartmouth undergraduate. Rapf’s father Maurice Rapf taught screenwriting at Dartmouth during the time Henry was a student.
“[When he babysat me], he played the ukulele and used to sing me the song, ‘You’re so ugly, you’re so ugly, you’re some ugly child,’” Rapf said. “I remember it vividly. He was great, and we’ve remained friends all these years.”
Henry recalled that his intentions of going into show business were questioned by most of his peers, as it was not a business most people aspired to pursue back then.
“Everyone did not want to be in showbiz in those days,” he said. “People didn’t think that I could graduate and go work for a talk show and make a lot of money, or any of those things.”
Despite the misgivings of his peers, however, Henry did go into show business and was moderately successful during his first decade after leaving Dartmouth. He was cast in bit parts on several television shows, but he truly came to prominence when he teamed up with Mel Brooks to create the spy satire television show “Get Smart.” Despite the pairing of two great comedy legends, Brooks only worked on the pilot and departed soon after, according to Henry, who left the show after two seasons.
Henry left “Get Smart” to write a film that may be the greatest achievement of his career — “The Graduate” (1967). Starring a then-relatively unknown Dustin Hoffman, the film depicts an older woman having an affair with a younger man and has become ingrained in the consciousness of pop culture with iconic lines and the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. Henry’s screenplay earned him his first Academy Award nomination. No one was more surprised at the film’s success than Henry himself.
“It was very interesting to see it become this huge thing,” Henry said. “It’s not what anybody expected, least of all me. It wasn’t a given — [the success] didn’t happen all at once.”
A few years later, Henry made his mark on another beloved institution, Saturday Night Live. The show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, called Henry up in 1976 and asked him if he would be interested in hosting.
“I told [Lorne] that I’ll probably say yes, but I’d never seen it,” Henry said. “I realized what a phenomenon it had suddenly become and said, ‘That looks like a lot of fun.’”
Between 1976 and 1980, Henry hosted the show a total of 10 times, holding the record for most times hosted until Steve Martin broke it in 1989. In one episode he hosted, John Belushi accidentally injured him with a katana during a sketch.
“[Belushi] opened up a hole in my head, but it was really good for the show,” Henry said. “It started with me being wounded and ended with everyone on the show in bandages.”
In 1978, Henry earned his second Academy Award nomination for “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), a comedy about a football player who is accidentally killed and given a second chance at life in another body. Henry and Warren Beatty were nominated for best director in what was the former’s directorial debut. Like with “The Graduate,” Henry was surprised by the film’s critical success, especially because it was a comedy, a genre the Academy tends to ignore.
Two years later, Henry directed his final film to date, “First Family” (1980), a political satire. Despite the extraordinary success he had with his first film, Henry has no plans to step back into the director’s chair.
“I don’t really care for directing — it’s not something I enjoy,” Henry said.
For the rest of his career, Henry has continued to write screenplays for such films as “To Die For” (1995) and “Town and Country” (2001). He has also continued to act, and younger audiences may recognize him as Liz Lemon’s dad, Don, on NBC’s “30 Rock.” It is a role that was likely procured because of his SNL connections, Henry said.
Despite his tendency to be humble, one cannot ignore Henry’s status as arguably one of the most important comic writers to emerge in the 20th century.
“He’s one of the most important figures in comedy for film and television in the last half-century,” Bill Pence, director of film for the Hopkins Center, said. “I would say comedy before Buck was one thing, and it’s different after him.”
Pence said he believes that his career has put him in a whole different league from other Dartmouth alumni.
“In terms of people in entertainment who have graduated from Dartmouth, I would say that he ranks up there with a handful at the very top,” Pence said.
Henry has also been influential for generations of Dartmouth students. Film and media studies professor Bill Phillips ’71, who teaches screenwriting at the College, went to Dartmouth during the period when Henry was most prominent.
“[Henry’s] been prominent in the culture of the United States ever since I was a Dartmouth student,” Phillips said. “He’s just a funny guy, and that baseball cap of his is such an endearing trademark.”
When asked to give the proudest moment of his career, Henry responded in a manner characteristic of his prolific career.
“You know, I don’t think anyone can seriously answer that question, and everybody tries to ask it,” Henry said. “I don’t think it’s possible.”