Monday, November 2, 2015

An Interview with Buck Henry

Kliph Nesteroff: I was talking to Robert Klein this morning and your name came up in relation to Marilyn Chambers the pornstar - before she was a pornstar.

Buck Henry: Oh yeah, I was instrumental in hiring her for The Owl and the Pussycat. She played Klein’s girlfriend. He goes to bed with her.

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about That Was The Week That Was. It is a revered, but forgotten program. When T3 - as it is often referred to in print - aired in the fall of 1963, it was the first attempt at political satire on network television. What do you remember about working on it and why do you think it failed?

Buck Henry: It kind of failed because… oh, I don’t know why it failed. Let me think. There were a lot of reasons. It was somewhere in between too slick and too loose. It had a lot of talent on it. It was fun to do, but I think it was a little sophisticated for 7:30 on a Tuesday, and they frequently changed the time slot. They had to listen to the voluptuously gorgeous Nancy Ames singing tricky, difficult songs. The English program from which it was borrowed, taken, copied – had no time constraints at all. Sometimes they went three hours. And they were brilliant performers. Really interesting people. They did real hardcore politics too.

There was a famous episode in which some guy came out of the audience and broke the jaw of a well-known commentator from a left-wing magazine. He was sitting on his stool giving his editorial and this guy just came out and decked him. That kind of stuff. The American version was live - but we were not that live. In the second year [during the 1964 presidential campaign] the Republicans bought our time period four weeks in a row [with paid political announcements]. That did us in. All expectations left and people forgot we were there. That was probably the first and only time that ever happened – that politicians bought out a show.

Kliph Nesteroff: That was calculated?

Buck Henry: Totally. Well, I have no reason not to think that. If they had their choice? It was probably a cheaper half hour, I have to admit.

Kliph Nesteroff: Leland Hayward, the producer of That Was the Week That Was, said NBC was sabotaging their own show. Trying to dilute it.

Buck Henry: Mmm hmm. I’m sure they were taking some heat.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was Leland Hayward like?

Buck Henry: He was a real New York guy’s guy. He had a pilot’s license and he was really handsome, involved with many interesting women. I’d known him for a long time. He was a friend of my father’s. He was show business hip - from theater to life. I liked him a lot. He was an interesting guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: The talent list is amazing. Mort Sahl, Henry Morgan, Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory…

Buck Henry: Nichols and May.

Kliph Nesteroff: Very impressive roster.

Buck Henry: The shame of it is it just doesn’t exist. They let them all fall apart and no one kept a kinescope even. I went to an evening at the Museum of Broadcasting to talk about it and they had no more than forty minutes of material. It had an interesting, strange history.

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1959 you wrote a script called Puzzle in the Park. It won a scripting award of some kind.

Buck Henry: Yes, it’s true. Some station in Chicago.

Kliph Nesteroff: It got produced as a teleplay…

Buck Henry: It did.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember…

Buck Henry: Nothing at all.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did it help you get your footing... 

Buck Henry: No, I don’t think it had any effect.

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get hired on The Steve Allen Show?

Buck Henry: Bob Rafelson with whom I went to college, was working with Dan Melnick at the David Susskind company. It was the first and most comprehensive theater show on television. What the fuck was it called? They did famous American plays and they had great casts. Very interesting. When Danny Melnick went to program for ABC, Bob Rafelson went with him and they put together The Steve Allen Show. Bob dragged him to see me in The Premise, the off-Broadway show, and they hired me out of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were teamed with Stan Burns. Was this a team you were assigned to?

Buck Henry: Yeah, he was the odd guy without a partner because Herb Sargent had left The Steve Allen Show to do That Was the Week That Was. They were partners for years. Herb was famous for getting up and leaving the room and never being heard from again, in the room or in a restaurant or in a show. I didn’t know who Stan Burns was, but I fell in love with him immediately. He was an incredibly funny man and a great character. The show only lasted for fifteen weeks.

Kliph Nesteroff: This was a new version of The Steve Allen Show.

Buck Henry: It was referred to as the ABC Steve Allen Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: You also appeared on screen.

Buck Henry: I was also a performer, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: Steve Allen started doing a pet segment at that time called Meeting of Minds...

Buck Henry: Oh, God, the horrible Meeting of Minds! No, I don’t think that happened on my show. It was probably on the Westinghouse show which was his next one. He did get Meeting of Minds on that one.

Kliph Nesteroff: Who was the company of players on your version of The Steve Allen Show?

Buck Henry: There were all kinds of discoveries on that version of The Steve Allen Show. The Smothers Brothers. Jim Nabors. Tim Conway, who was then known as Tom Conway. Some guys who had done previous Steve shows like the Dead End Kid...

Kliph Nesteroff: Gabe Dell.

Buck Henry: Gabe, whom we loved. There was also Louis Nye, Tom Poston, Don Knotts.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Dana?

Kliph Nesteroff: How about comedy writers Marvin Worth and Arne Sultan. Were they there as well?

Buck Henry: Yes, they were. Marvin Worth was a real character. He was very short. He dressed like a poor hippie and he smoked a lot of dope.

Kliph Nesteroff: Frankie Man told me the clique was Lenny Bruce, Marvin Worth and Buddy Hackett. I think of Marvin Worth as a name from old sitcom credits.

Buck Henry: Well, Sultan and Worth like other duets in the comedy writing field…  one was a comedian and the other wasn’t. I think it was Arne Sultan who wrote the comedy and Marvin was sort of his manager. Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker were like that too.

Kliph Nesteroff: Mazursky and Tucker got a job writing on The Danny Kaye Show.

Buck Henry: We were all around at the same time. They wrote the Kaye show, I wrote Steve Allen. Pat McCormick, of course, was on The Danny Kaye Show as well. So we all got to know each other very well. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Pat McCormick is legendary, at least within showbiz circles.

Buck Henry: He is to me, yeah. I could write a whole book about Pat McCormick. There was nobody else like him. There was a famous roast in which Pat was sitting next to Carl Reiner. Pat took off his pants and underwear under the dais. Pat was six foot four. When he stood up everyone saw this gigantic naked ass coming into view. Carl said it was the loudest, most sustained laugh he ever heard in his life. Pat talked about how he wanted to look good when he stood up so he had been massaging and playing under the dais so it could get some form.

Kliph Nesteroff: Pat McCormick did a lot of roasts and always performed vile and surreal material.

Buck Henry: Yes, the surrealism of it was really interesting. I have used Pat McCormick anecdotes on many occasions. If people don’t know who he is, they think I’m making it up. I was in many places with him when it looked like we would end up in prison. I loved him dearly. I hosted a week of The Dick Cavett Show when Cavett was on vacation and Pat McCormick was one of my guests. It was hilarious and weird.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had an interesting trajectory. He was also one of the first guys at the Comedy Store when it opened… I don’t know if he actually did a nightclub act…

Buck Henry: He always did jokes about bowling with midgets. We did an act, which Mitzi Shore put onstage a few times. It was called Stand-up and Blow, a take-off on Stand Up and Sing. It was really a disparate group. Pat, me and that guy Famous Amos who sold chocolate chip cookies for years. We whistled patriotic songs and recreated the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima with Pat McCormick as Iwo Jima. Some people came and saw it and thought it was a meaningful moment. Others were appalled. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You also wrote for The Garry Moore Show.

Buck Henry: It was terrific. There were really funny people that worked on it. Garry Moore was a really nice man. The head writer was a guy named Vinnie Bogart who was interesting to work for. It was tailored for middle class, suburban America. It was just a job, but I kind of enjoyed doing it. As Stan Burns would say, "It was at the worst of times - good practice."

They were funny guys, the six or seven writers. I apparently replaced Woody Allen – so you can imagine how strange that might have been. I don’t remember them ever talking about him, which is interesting because these guys could sling some rude words around.

Kliph Nesteroff: Vincent Bogart seems less well known than other guys in the room. 

Buck Henry: Yeah, I have no idea where he came from but I suspect that Joe Hamilton, the producer, really appreciated him. He must have worked on one of Joe’s other shows.

Kliph Nesteroff: Coleman Jaacoby was one of the writers...

Buck Henry: Coleman Jaacoby was hilarious and a real New York type writer. He hated the West Coast and would never go there, so his work was confined to East Coast shows. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Arnie Rosen.

Buck Henry: Arnie Rosen later produced Get Smart in its fourth or fifth year. He was Coleman’s partner.

Kliph Nesteroff: And Carol Moore?

Buck Henry: Carol Moore. Really sweet, funny guy who could move rather well between sitcom and insult comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were a key member of an interesting but forgotten improv-sketch comedy collective called The Premise.

Buck Henry: I was standing in a bar one night. A friend of mine who was a director off-Broadway said, “Tomorrow this guy Ted Flicker is looking for someone to replace him. You should give it a shot.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I went downtown and I got the job.

Kliph Nesteroff: It’s nowhere near as famous as The Committee or Second City but it was similar…

Buck Henry: It was famous in New York for other reasons. We were shut down by the cops several times. There was this longtime cabaret license feud. If you told jokes in public you had to have a license and all that stuff. Also we campaigned for John Lindsay. We were pretty well-known. When I came in they had been going for about a year and Flicker decided he wanted to do something else or back off or something. By that time it had gathered an audience. We were never empty while I was there. It was always a good audience.

Kliph Nesteroff: It got enough traction that a film was made, The Troublemaker.

Buck Henry: I wrote it. Ted Flicker and I wrote it. It had some good things. It had some funny moments and an interesting kazoo score by Cy Coleman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it political in temperament?

Buck Henry: It was local political. It had local political references because Flicker felt there was an audience interested in his New York cabaret card troubles, but of course, no one was interested in that. But there were incidentals that were amusing. The great Tom Aldredge was the core of The Troublemaker as an innocent come to the big city. It was fun to make, but we bankrupted Janus Films, which has always been on my conscience.

Kliph Nesteroff: How?

Buck Henry: How bankrupted or how on my conscience…

Kliph Nesteroff: How bankrupted.

Buck Henry: Well... we put them out of the filmmaking business - cost them too much money.... They were, as you probably know, the most interesting….

Kliph Nesteroff: Sure, they distributed all the foreign films.

Buck Henry: They became a distribution arm. Bergman and everyone who was interesting came through there. We cost them too much money. I think the film cost $230,000.

Kliph Nesteroff: Cy Coleman did the music.

Buck Henry: Cy Coleman, yes. It was a wonderfully funny, interesting score. When it came out, it did not do too much business. Bosley Crowther said, “Someone named Buck Henry is giving the longest running impersonation of Jack Lemmon we have yet seen.” Which never occurred to me – but it didn’t make me happy – and didn’t make me think anymore highly of Bosley Crowther.

Kliph Nesteroff: He was a notorious square.

Buck Henry: Yeah, Crowther famously said we should bring in fewer foreign films because they weren’t doing any good.

Kliph Nesteroff: He despised Bonnie and Clyde, famously, in stark contrast to Pauline Kael who hailed it as a new coming of age in Hollywood.

Buck Henry: I thought he was a real jerk, so…

Kliph Nesteroff: Let me ask you about some other people in The Premise - Godfrey Cambridge.

Buck Henry: Yes, sure. Flicker put together a Black cast and it was a great cast. Diana Sands, who died very young. She starred in the play of The Owl and the Pussycat on Broadway with Alan Alda. She was in a number of Broadway plays. Godfrey, Diana Sands, Al Freeman Jr... He was a terrific actor and he put together that company. Peter Bonerz was in a whole other company that worked a lot outside New York. I was only in the Manhattan company with George Segal, Joan Darling, James Frawley.

Kliph Nesteroff: 1964 you did a comedy record. There were a slew of comedy records in the wake of Vaughn Meader and The First Family album. I used to have this album – At Home with That Other Family.

Buck Henry: Is that what it’s called? Jesus Christ. George Segal got me into that. He called one night and said, "You better get over here. We’ll be working all night." He said a bunch of names were working on it and I went over. It was really strange. It was a lot of people with no ideas at all. I have the record somewhere and it’s hard to listen to.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a whole genre of First Family rip-offs. Ron Clark did one called The President Strikes Back, Rich Little did one called My Fellow Canadians. The one you're on is a spoof of Khrushchev. I had one called The Last Family, a spoof of the Castros…

Buck Henry: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: At Home with That Other Family also features a young Joan Rivers.

Buck Henry: Good God, I have no memory of that. Hilarious.

Buck Henry: Oh, of course.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were once quoted as saying Get Smart was originally rejected for being un-American.

Buck Henry: That’s my memory of it. Whoever was the ABC guy – or someone working for him – said, “Look, we can’t put that on the air. You do a jokey thing about garbage when it’s dinner time in America? You have a cowardly dog and a cowardly hero? This isn't American!”

Kliph Nesteroff: How were they swayed otherwise?

Buck Henry: They weren’t! Somebody gave it to Grant Tinker at a different network and he said, "Okay, we’ve got Don Adams, let’s try it."

Kliph Nesteroff: How involved were you with the day to day?

Buck Henry: I did two years. Don Adams was swell. He loved doing it. It was a brutal schedule because we shot them in four or five days. There was a lot of material and it was one-camera, shot like a movie. So it was tough. It took a lot of man power to get that made.

Kliph Nesteroff: Talent Associates was a David Susskind thing…

Buck Henry: That was his main company, yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote a pilot for Bob Rafelson called Three’s a Crowd.

Buck Henry: Three’s a Crowd, yeah. I had the choice of writing The Monkees or Three’s a Crowd. I picked Three’s a Crowd. It was basically a reworked version of The Captain’s Paradise. Bill Bixby did the pilot.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your other sitcom creation was Captain Nice. It did not endure.

Buck Henry: Among other problems, CBS counter-programmed it with a comedy about a superhero at the same time - Mister Terrific. At the exact same time! It was really bad. Then some other show that was a huge hit was on ABC at exactly the same time. That didn’t help. It may never have found an audience anyway, but in those days those were major deal breakers.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote the screenplay to Candy. What kind of working relationship did you have with Terry Southern?

Buck Henry: I didn’t have a relationship with him. We were passing acquaintances. I got friendlier with him later. Terry didn’t have anything to do with it. I don’t know why. I assume they just took it away from him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Around that time you formed a production company with Mike Nichols and Mace Neufeld.

Buck Henry: I did. There was no purpose to it at all.

Kliph Nesteroff: Buck Mace Productions. Wasn't the purpose to have somewhere to invest The Graduate fortune?

Buck Henry: No, because Mike wouldn’t let Mace near anything like that. I don’t know what it was. It was Mace trying to get some business going.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was a rumor in the trades that the production company was going to produce Carnal Knowledge. “Mike Nichols said Buck Henry will likely produce Carnal Knowledge because ‘Sex is his field.’ ”

Buck Henry: (laughs) That’s very kind of him to say so, but it was never discussed nor did it ever happen.

Kliph Nesteroff: Buck Mace Productions was planning on adapting the autobiography of Aleister Crowley.

Buck Henry: Jesus Christ! I have no idea what came of that.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was going to be a motion picture called Seven…

Buck Henry: Seven Foot Prints to Satan?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, that’s it.

Buck Henry: I don't know why they would report that because it had nothing to do with Aleister Crowley. It was a wonderful potboiler novel written by A. Merritt, the great pulp writer. He was like the road company HP Lovecraft. This was a real great pulp novel that I kind of adored and I thought would make an interesting film. People are always saying, "Let’s make it." They’ve been doing that for forty years, but it doesn’t get made. 

Kliph Nesteroff: That’s the nature of show business, isn't it? So much is announced and then never comes to fruition. I have a list of projects you were supposedly attached to that never came to be. Scoop starring Don Knotts and Jack Weston?

Buck Henry: I wrote a script called Scoop but it never went into production and as far as I can remember there was never an actor attached to it. It wasn’t made.

Kliph Nesteroff: 1973 – a screenplay called Scraping By.

Buck Henry: Never heard of it! I wonder if it’s any good.

Kliph  Nesteroff: November 1975 – you were on the board of something called the American Academy of Humor and they did an award show on ABC. 
These are fairly obscure things, which is why I am asking. I hope you don’t mind.

Buck Henry: Yeah, no, I have no memory of that one. People would always call and say, "Would you mind if we put your name…?" They did this with everybody. Who else is on the board of the American Academy of Humor with me?

Kliph Nesteroff: Steve Allen, Alan Arkin, Bill Cosby, Jules Feiffer, Sheldon Keller, Alan King, Harvey Korman, Carroll O’Connor, Joan Rivers, Dick Sargent and Neil Simon.

Buck Henry: Hilarious. I never heard of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: There was speculation in the late 1970s that you were going to testify in the Harry Reems – Deep Throat trial.

Buck Henry: Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and I had all met Harry and spent time with him at Hefner’s. When he got in trouble - we all being traditional, leftist, free speech types - said, "We’ll testify." We were all thrilled that we didn’t have to go and do it. It was in some terrible town somewhere.

Kliph Nesteroff: Florida.

Buck Henry: Somewhere in Florida. It was not long after that that Carnal Knowledge got in trouble and was pronounced obscene by some halfwits in local government. I think in the Midwest, but I’m not sure. I always thought of those two things as connected, but they’re not really. But that was what that was about. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Saturday Night Live. There’s a story that you were responsible for the concept of recurring characters. 

Buck Henry: I think I said to Lorne Michaels, “I’d like to do that Samurai thing again if we do another show because it was fun.” I thought it was fun and the audience really liked it. So, somewhere Lorne gives me credit for the idea, which I can not even begin to take credit for. But it was nice enough for him to do that anyway and if there were money involved I would definitely take credit for it.

Kliph Nesteroff: You hosted it several times… but did you actually write on Saturday Night Live?

Buck Henry: Well, Lorne wouldn’t allow a guest to be called a writer. But I wrote the first sketch I did on the show with Chevy Chase. Then later on I had input, but I would never be called a writer. I would say let’s do this or that. And the girls, when they ascertained that I would be pleased to play Uncle Roy, they asked if I had any ideas. That happened many times over the five years that I was there.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1984 you were involved with the other Lorne Michaels sketch series The New Show. Again, another one of these shows absolutely loaded with talent that ended up a commercial failure.

Buck Henry: It stopped breathing almost immediately. All the stuff that made SNL work – didn’t work for The New Show. It was laborious. It was very heavy, it was expensive, and it took a long time to shoot, as opposed to SNL, which was ninety minutes and out. We were there at two in the morning still reshooting stuff all the time. It only lasted fifteen weeks.

Kliph Nesteroff: The writing staff on that show included future SNL writer Jack Handey.

Buck Henry: Jack Handey came in mainly to write for Steve Martin. SNL fired him, I think. Anyone with a brain would have kept Handey forever because Jack Handey is really funny, but I don’t think I ever sat in the room with him.

Kliph Nesteroff: The First Family – the film. It had Bob Newhart, Gilda Radner, Fred Willard, Madeline Kahn, Rip Torn... You were the director. Again loaded with comic talent. A good experience?

Buck Henry: It wasn’t. Failure is never a good experience. There are just different levels of it and different recovery periods. But – yeah, there were great people on it. It wasn’t one of my happiest years.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was that due to studio interference?

Buck Henry: Not at all. No. They interfered sometimes in various ways, but they were all trying to make it better.

Kliph Nesteroff: The title has no relation to the comedy record.

Buck Henry: It was not intended.

Kliph Nesteroff: Fred Willard was in the film.

Buck Henry: He probably doesn’t remember it, but I knew him years earlier when he had a partner named Vic Grecco. Willard and Grecco were hilarious. They did a truly surrealistic act. Fred has always done good stuff. I knew them from The Garry Moore Show.

Kliph Nesteroff: The film was not what you had hoped. What was it that kept it from clicking?

Buck Henry: Me, I guess. I can’t really compute it. It was kind of a nightmare.

Kliph Nesteroff: We're almost done here, a couple more things. Michael O'Donoghue is a legendary writer from the early years of SNL.

Buck Henry: I loved Michael immediately. I didn’t know him when Lorne said, "Do you want to do this parody of Citizen Kane?" Michael had written it and I always found it hilarious. Then, of course, he did his famous impersonator who was no impersonator at all, but just a guy who liked to suggest famous people shove needles into their eyes. It would end with them falling on the floor and screaming. I loved it and I said, "Let’s do that one again and again!" It started with Mike Douglas thrusting needles in his eyes and then we did Tony Orlando and Dawn thrusting needles into their eyes. The third time we did it – I thought it should be the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so we had like fifty men and woman on stage in black robes shoving needles into their eyes and screaming. I was very, very fond of that bit.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were involved in this notorious Mardi Gras episode of SNL. I was surprised to find a rave of it in Variety – I had always been under the impression it was somewhat of a disaster.

Buck Henry: Well, I'm sure it was a nightmare for the production people, but I was having a good time. Jane and I were on a stage waiting for this parade that didn’t even show. Herb was feeding us jokes from the other side of the stage. You can’t get an experience like that everywhere. It was very weird for everyone. We were surrounded by screaming drunks. It was a very, very weird ninety minutes.


Kevin K. said...

That SNL Mardi Gras episode was a hoot, since it was so obviously out of control. Plus, it aired in prime time, making it even more bizarre.

You should ask Buck about how he allegedly had a falling out with Mel Brooks over "Get Smart." Something about which one created the shoe phone?

AndrewJ said...

Laraine Newman was on the Kevin Pollak Chat Show podcast, and the SNL Mardi Gras episode was brought up. She said she was only told years later that the city of New Orleans was so pissed off at Lorne and SNL for making so many demands during the run-up to the live broadcast that, moments before airing, the officials changed the route of the Mardi Gras parade so it bypassed the NBC cameras.

5w30 said...

All someone has to do is post a still of Buck Henry popping up as the hotel desk man in THE GRADUATE and I burst out laughing. Great peek into the memories of a comic legend.

Anonymous said...

I'm not entirely sure Captain Nice and Mr. Terrific ran against each other. I remember watching them both on network tv, then going to bed humming the theme songs for both.

Looking back, they were bizarre shows. One of the heroes (don't remember which one) would take a pill to get his super powers.

Barry Rivadue said...

I think Mr. Terrific took that pill. He'd I think change colors in his face once he took it.

Gary R. said...

CAPTAIN NICE and MR. TERRIFIC premiered on the same night on different networks, but TERRIFIC's time slot was a half-hour earlier than NICE's. Both series lasted about 7 months.

Anonymous said...

That's no nut boy, that's Captain Nice. Nice. Nice, nice ,nice.