Screenwriter and actor

Born: December 9, 1930;

Died: January 8, 2020.

BUCK Henry, who has died at the age of 89, was an important and unique figure in modern American comedy.

As a comedy writer, he will be best remembered for his work on the 1967 film The Graduate, the screenplay for which earned him and Calder Willingham, who had been one of its previous writers, an Oscar nomination.

He went on to co-write Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy homage, What’s Up Doc? (1972), which starred Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, and Gus Van Sant’s black comedy, To Die For (1995), in which Nicole Kidman played a murderous TV weather girl.

On American television, he co-created the spy spoof series, Get Smart, with Mel Brooks and the sci-fi comedy, Quark, and he was a well-known face thanks to his appearances on the hugely popular comedy show, Saturday Night Live.

Buck Henry was born Henry Zuckerman in New York in 1930 to Paul Steinberg Zuckerman, a former US Air Force general-turned stockbroker, who was friends with such notables as Ernest Hemingway, and his actress wife, Ruth Taylor.

She had been one of silent movie producer Mack Sennett’s famous Bathing Beauties, had appeared in more than 40 movies – her roles included Lorelei Lee in the original film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928) – and the iconic Ziegfeld Follies revue on Broadway, but she gave up acting and performing not long after Buck’s birth.

Nevertheless, the young Henry was surrounded by his parents’ celebrity friends and is thought to have made his first appearance in a movie studio when, as a two-year-old, he was taken to visit the Paramount lot so that his mother could show him off.

Educated in New England, Henry enlisted during the Korean War and toured army bases performing in a revue which he had written and directed. When he returned to New York, he had various jobs, including dubbing foreign films for American audiences.

In the early 1960s, he joined an improvisation group, The Premise, and worked on such TV comedies as the US version of That Was the Week That Was.

His first film script, written with Theodore Flicker, was The Troublemaker (1964), about a naïve New Jersey chicken farmer who moves to Greenwich Village to open a coffee house. Following the success of Get Smart, which ran for five seasons from 1965, Henry became the fourth writer to be charged with the task of fashioning a script out of Charles Webb’s novel, The Graduate.

His handling of the story of the inexperienced young Benjamin (played by Dustin Hoffman) seduced by the older Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) helped make the film a massive hit, though he was surprised that it was regarded as a comedy. “I thought of it as a love story that had comedy things in it,” he said.

In 1998 The Graduate was placed in seventh position in the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American movies.

Henry went on to work with director Mike Nichols again, when he wrote the screenplay of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, for his 1970 movie of the same title.

The phenomenal success of The Graduate made Henry a hot property. Among his subsequent films were the offbeat Candy (1968), the eclectic cast of which included Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Charles Aznavour and Ringo Starr, and the screwball-like comedy, The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), which starred Barbra Streisand and George Segal.

He earned a second Oscar nomination for co-directing, with Warren Beatty, the fantasy-comedy Heaven Can Wait (1978), which was a remake of the wartime classic, Here Comes Mr Jordan.

He went on to direct the comedy, First Family (1980), but it was a box-office dud despite a cast that boasted such top comedy names as Bob Newhart and Madeline Kahn.

Unlike most screenwriters, Henry became something of a celebrity thanks to his appearances on camera in many of the films he wrote, among them The Graduate, in which he popped up as a clerk in the hotel where Benjamin and Mrs Robinson are meeting for their assignation.

He was also cast in films which he had not written, among them Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) with David Bowie; John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980), with Gena Rowlands, and – most notably – Milos Forman’s Taking Off (1971), in which he played a father in search of his runaway daughter.

In Robert Altman’s all-star Hollywood satire, The Player (1992), he played himself and was seen pitching a sequel to The Graduate. He also appeared in Altman’s Short Cuts later that year.

Henry continued to make guest appearances in movies and television until relatively recently, most notably in a recurring role as Dick Lemon, father of Liz Lemon, in Tina Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock.

He is survived by Irene Ramp, whom he married in 2008, and by a daughter from an earlier relationship.

Alison Kerr