Mark Cousins Remembers ‘The Graduate’ Writer Buck Henry, Dead at 89

Filmmaker and film historian Cousins offers an IndieWire tribute to the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and actor, who passed away on January 8.
Buck Henry
Buck Henry
Underwood Archives/Shutterstock

In the midst of this week’s flashy awards shows, the film industry received a sad update with the death of Buck Henry, the two-time Oscar-nominated writer, director, and actor. Henry’s most famous credits may have been his screenplay for “The Graduate” and his direction of “Heaven Can Wait,” but his career stretched across 60 years and many memorable credits film and television alike. Here, critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins (“The Story of Film”) shares his thoughts on Henry’s significance. 

“I’ll read it when I’m dead.”

I had said, again, to Buck Henry, that there should be a book about his life, the people he worked with, the times and places he knew. He seemed to have met everyone in film, theater, comedy and music in the 20th Century. “The only people you didn’t know are Elvis and my granny”, I said. “I knew Elvis…”

The obituaries will tell you more about Buck Henry than I can. They’ve already compared him to Zelig, but that makes him sound like a bit-player. I was just a bit player in his life. But seeing how he lived changed how I live.

I met him and Irene — his hilarious, laconic partner — at the Edinburgh film festival in Scotland. He and I shared a stage, and talked about his films – “The Graduate,” Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” Robert Altman’s “The Player,” Milos Foreman’s “Taking Off,” etc. He was unguarded: He told me that he wrote speeches for Sean Connery, and that he saw a French auteur – Jean Eustache – put a cigarette out on a woman’s arm in Paris in the 70s.

He and Irene took me to a Cuban restaurant on Broadway.  We ate plantains and black beans, a first for me. There were so many firsts with Buck. I had landed a new TV show on the BBC in which I talked to film people about their work.  He introduced me to Lauren Bacall, who called him Buckie. She beamed when she said his name.  Bacall was on the diva scale, but not with him. Again and again, I saw movie stars on their best behavior with him. He’d skewered stardom too often, and hubris too. When Bacall arrived for the shoot, Buck was there “to smooth things over.” He introduced me to Stanley Donen and Jack Lemmon too, and gave me the phone number of Sidney Lumet. I was a young guy, a bit of a nobody, but he opened so many doors. How generous. How passionate about film history. We talked of the lost silent film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in which his mother, Ruth Taylor, starred. For years, when I went to a film archive, I asked if they might have a forgotten copy of it. I wanted to show him it to say thank you. I wanted to see Buck Henry’s face light up.

We went to Mexico, where he screened his favorite films, “Taking Off.” It was as astringent as “The Graduate.” It punctured hippiedom and its platitudes. Hardly anyone showed up, but he went onstage afterwards anyway, and we talked again about his life. He invited some young people in the audience to join us for food afterwards. He told me to go to the Mayan temples of Palenque, and so I did.

Years passed. I’d get emails about the Warren Beatty and Peter Chelsom film “Time and Country,” which Buck co-wrote. He called it “the film that will not die,” because it went on forever, but he’d always defend Beatty against industry gossip. And his unwarranted kindness to me continued. In Los Angeles once, he took me to lunch with a surprise guest. It was Carrie Fisher. He knew, as a film lover, that I’d like her stories. I loved them. In my “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” Buck talked about “The Graduate,” “Catch 22,” and Orson Welles.  We filmed at his house in LA, where he had an ultra-realistic baby doll. He loved when it freaked out guests.

After the filming, when we arrived at the old Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank, there was a line to get in, and the place was packed. He said nothing like “do you know who I am?”, but a table appeared. And the famous people there came to say hello. He sat, they stood, and beamed. They knew he was a high water mark. Afterwards, he said, “you want to be famous enough to get a table, but no more than that.” He always wore a baseball cap and, as he aged and restaurants seemed to get darker, its peak had a light in it. It lit up his face. He looked like an astronaut.

Buck Henry lit up my face, my life. What a hole he will leave in the life of Irene and his close friends. In his place we have his films and TV shows. His constant hunger for new theater and new movies taught me about appetite and newness.

And then there was his welcome.

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