Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Buck Henry, aka G. Clifford Prout

Buck Henry today

The news of the recent death of hoax artist Alan Abel in New York City made me think about the puckish Hollywood screenwriter, director, and occasional actor, Buck Henry, whom I was recently thrilled to meet when we both appeared on a panel hosted by KPCC-FM following a screening of The Graduate.  I’d studied Henry’s long career while researching my book, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation. So I knew about how Henry had fallen into screenwriting, at the behest of director Mike Nichols, after a TV career that included a role in creating (along with Mel Brooks) the classic TV series, Get Smart. I also knew something about Henry’s earlier life: the Ivy League schooling, the military stint in an entertainment unit during the Korean War, the televised shenanigans on The New Steve Allen Show and That Was the Week That Was.

Beyond all this, I had learned that the then-little-known Henry had made solemn television appearances circa 1960 as G. Clifford Prout, the quietly outraged spokesman for an organization called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. As the buttoned-down and bespectacled Prout, Henry made the round of talk shows, and was even interviewed by Walter Cronkite on behalf of SINA, which called for both wild animals and domesticated pets to be outfitted with trousers covering their genitalia.. (Here’s a link to a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! featurette in which photos of Henry, as Prout, can be easily recognized.)

One SINA slogan: “A nude horse is a rude horse.” The group issued a slew of press releases , clamored for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to put shorts on her bay gelding, and airdropped articles of clothing onto a cow pasture in support of the principle that “decency today means morality tomorrow.”

In its heyday,  SINA attracted thousands of serious-minded supporters, some of whom were willing to write large checks. But in 1963, the organization was unmasked as a hoax perpetrated by Alan Abel, a New York City resident who liked thinking of himself as a “20th century court jester.” Abel apparently never bilked anyone, going so far as to return .a contribution sent to SINA by a Santa Barbara woman who sought to join his moral crusade. It came in the form of a check for $40,000. As Abel told Esquire, “I fondled it for about five minutes and then sent it back. I told her I couldn’t accept money from strangers.”

 Ultimately it wasn’t the money that attracted Abel. No, he was in it for fun. The SINA hoax was his first, but he kept at it, running a fake candidate named Yetta Bronstein for president (“Vote for Yetta, and things will get betta”), staging a faint-in among audience members at a live broadcast of The Phil Donahue Show, and producing mockumentaries with titles like Is There Sex After Death? Ultimately he was turning his life into the sort of performance art later made famous by satirists like Stephen Colbert and Sasha Baron Cohen. In 1979, he (working with a small group of accomplices) staged his own death, and managed to get a respectful obituary published in the New York Times. When Abel passed away for real on September 14 at the age of 94, the Times was extra-careful to check its facts.

Happily, Buck Henry is still very much with us. Though his body has been weakened by a stroke, I can testify that his wit remains intact. But I suspect his alter ego, G. Clifford Prout, has shed a tear or two for his creator. 

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