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Buck Henry, the comedian who created Get Smart

Buck Henry (1930–2020), classic SNL host & “The Graduate” writer

by Linnea Crowther

Buck Henry was an actor, director, and screenwriter who co-created “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks, was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay for “The Graduate” (1967) and hosted “Saturday Night Live” 10 times in the show’s early years. Henry co-directed “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) alongside Warren Beatty, earning another Academy Award nomination for Best Director.

One of SNL’s early greats

Henry first hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 1976 and went on to become one of the show’s most frequent hosts in the 1970s. He was the first host in the show’s legendary “Five-Timers Club,” and in 1980, with his final hosting appearance, he became the first person to host ten times. That achievement wasn’t surpassed until Steve Martin had his 11th hosting appearance in 1989. One of Henry’s best-known recurring characters on SNL was Mr. Dartley, the straight man to John Belushi (1949-1982)’s Samurai Futaba – the two reprised the sketch each time Henry hosted until Belushi left the show in 1979.

Offscreen and onscreen

In addition to his Emmy-winning writing for “Get Smart,” starring Don Adams (1923-2005), Henry also wrote for television shows including “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “That Was the Week that Was,” and his screenwriting credits for the big screen include “Candy” (1968), “Catch-22” (1970), “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), and “To Die For” (1995). As an actor, Henry appeared in films including “Taking Off” (1971), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), “Eating Raoul” (1982), and “Grumpy Old Men” (1993), and on TV shows including “Murphy Brown,” “Will & Grace,” and “30 Rock.”


Henry on the secret to great screenwriting

“So the best secret is – and it’s not a secret – is just when [you] get stuck in a scene, write nonsense. But do something to keep your hand moving, doing something on the page. That’s all. There are no great insights.” —from a 2009 interview with the TV Academy Foundation

What people said about him

“We have lost the magnificent Buck Henry, the screenwriter of The Graduate, a droll, dry comic actor, and one of the funniest men ever to put pen to paper or unfurl an anecdote with withering precision. Hugely important in the career of Mike Nichols and many others. RIP.” —writer Mark Harris

“Buck Henry, guys. A brilliant talent and a really lovely guy. RIP” —actor Michael McKean

“Got to spend a little time with Buck Henry at two TCM festivals, one for The Graduate. Said Mike Nichols wanted the ‘plastics’ line out of the movie. ‘An old reference,’ Nichols said, ‘young 60s kids won’t get it.’ Buck insisted he leave it in. ‘Why?’ ‘Plastics is always funny.’”  —TCM host Ben Mankiewicz

“Sad to lose the gifted Buck Henry… one of a kind. His wry presence enhanced so many movies and TV shows. My favorite is still Milos Forman’s Taking Off, which he told me was his favorite too. Rest in Peace.” —film critic Leonard Maltin

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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