Friday, January 10, 2020

And Here’s to You, Buck Henry: Weird and Funny—with a Stroke

Buck as a hotel desk clerk in "The Graduate"

“Ben and Elaine are married still. . . . . Mrs. Robinson, her aging mother, lives with them. She’s had a stroke. And they’ve got a daughter in college—Julia Roberts, maybe. It’ll be dark and weird and funny—with a stroke.”  
This pitch for a sequel to The Graduate was the invention of the film’s screenwriter, Buck Henry. He had been invited to the set of Robert Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire, The Player, which focuses on the increasingly fraught life of a studio development exec, played by Tim Robbins. Altman had told him to be creative. So as part of a bravura opening sequence, Henry pitched to Robbins’ character his idea for The Graduate, Part II, a follow-up to the hit 1967 comedy he’d written (and appeared in) back in 1967.His trademark deadpan delivery made the moment a delicious lampoon of Hollywood’s eternal search for the next big idea, even one that envisions the glamorous Mrs. Robinson as a stroke victim.

How sadly ironic that circa 2016, when I tried to contact Buck Henry for my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, I learned he was too ill to connect with me. The reason: he’d been severely weakened by a stroke. From what I was told, it was no laughing matter. This man of great verbal inventiveness, a two-time Oscar nominee and frequent guest-host on Saturday Night Live, was not up to being interviewed for a book on one of his most memorable film creations.

Happily for me, I got to meet Buck Henry, though it was six months after my book’s 2017 publication. Larry Mantle, the popular host of KPCC-FM’s AirTalk, had launched a film series highlighting movies set in Southern California. The series kicked off at a vintage DTLA movie palace with a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I’d like to think it was an on-air interview I did with Larry on KPCC that inspired him to choose The Graduate as his series follow-up. I was invited to be part of the post-screening panel, which also featured the film’s producer, Lawrence Turman, and film critic Peter Rainer. To my delight, Buck too agreed to appear. No question that the stroke had taken a toll: he showed up in a wheelchair, fussed over by attendants, and the seating was arranged on-stage so that he could favor the side of his body that still pretty much worked.

I was so awed and thrilled to meet Buck backstage that I didn’t get to ask many questions. He did affirm, though, that his birth name was Henry Zuckerman. “Buck,” he explained, was his birth nickname, borrowed from his grandfather. And he made clear that, despite the gag sequence in The Player, he had never actually considered doing a follow-up to the story of Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson. Like Larry Turman, he could not account for why there had been a stag event on the Graduate set that featured topless young ladies cozying up to the male cast and crew members. (I had brought along copies of archival photos proving this happened, but both Buck and Larry swore they didn’t remember a thing about this obviously lively event.)

One question I didn’t have the heart to ask Buck: why he held in his lap a whimsical teddy bear, upon which his withered arm rested. Stuffed animals and Buck Henry did not seem to go together. Still, when he took the stage, I was glad to see his wit was in no way impaired.

Rest in peace, Buck – you’ve earned it! 

Here’s a link to the broadcast that was aired after our live event, along with a picture of Buck in his wheelchair.

And here's that scene from The Player.

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