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Buck Henry in 2013
Buck Henry in 2013 Credit: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

Buck Henry, who has died aged 89, was a performer, screenwriter and director who burst out of the American counterculture to generate many of screen comedy’s most memorable characters, scenes and lines.

His break came working alongside Mel Brooks on the long-running television spy spoof Get Smart (1965-70), but it was Henry’s work on The Graduate (1967) that would position him close to the heart of the iconoclastic “New Hollywood”.

Henry was the fourth writer hired to adapt Charles Webb’s novel, but the first to fully synch with the director Mike Nichols’s leftfield sensibility. It was Henry who added the discussion between the dreamy Ben Braddock and a pompous family friend (“Just one word … plastics”); he also engineered the bittersweet ending, delaying Ben’s arrival at the church until after Elaine has married another man (in Webb’s book, he arrives just in time).

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: Buck Henry was the fourth writer on the film but the first to align with director Mike Nichol's leftfield sensibility Credit: Embassy Pictures/Getty Images

Henry and his co-writer Calder Willingham won the Best Screenplay Bafta and gained an Oscar nomination, losing out to In the Heat of the Night. Nevertheless, Henry’s close association with the film (he even wrote himself a cameo as the owlish hotel clerk making Dustin Hoffman squirm) launched him to prominence as both a writer and performer.

In the former capacity, he made a slightly underrated stab of adapting Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970), again for Nichols; handed Barbra Streisand and his old friend George Segal snappy lines for The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); and contributed the polish that gave Peter Bogdanovich’s Streisand-starring screwball homage What’s Up, Doc? (1972) its sparkle.

As a performer, he was the prematurely middle-aged hero of Milos Forman’s sleeper hit Taking Off (1971), conspired with David Bowie as the patent attorney Farnsworth in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and hosted the new Saturday Night Live 10 times in its first five years.

Henry in about 1966 Credit: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

He rounded off the decade as a writer-director, with Warren Beatty, on the fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1978). Yet by the time of his last directorial credit, First Family (1980), it was clear that some creative freedoms were slowly being revoked. The success of the ultra-merchandisable Star Wars meant that Hollywood was pivoting away from irreverence and towards a vastly more profitable market: plastics.

He was born Henry Zuckerman on December 9 1930 to the former silent screen actress Ruth Taylor and Paul Zuckerman, an Air Force general turned Wall Street stockbroker. A creative child, Henry joined the ensemble of Life with Father on Broadway aged 16, before touring Germany with the Seventh Army Repertory Company. At Dartmouth, where he studied English Literature, he cut an eccentric figure, wearing his pyjamas at all times.

In The Man Who Fell to Earth Credit: Landmark Media/Alamy

After graduation, Henry won a measure of notoriety as a hoaxer, appearing on several television shows in the guise of G Clifford Prout, president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, insisting that all large animals should be clothed, and trumpeting the slogan “A nude horse is a rude horse”. Surprisingly, he was taken at face value by several media figures (including Walter Cronkite, who never forgave him) and some viewers, who began sending in donations to the SINA cause.

In 1960, just before his decisive move to Los Angeles, Henry set up the off-Broadway improv group The Premise: “If you’re up onstage every night for a year … with the audience yelling suggestions at you like: ‘Do Chekhov, but do it with Chinese characters,’ you get used to an immediate commitment to lunatic ideas.”

Once the sun set on New Hollywood he enjoyed a renaissance as a character actor in such cultish titles as Eating Raoul (1982) and Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991). He appeared as himself in Robert Altman三级成人视频’s Hollywood satire The Player (1992), pitching a Graduate sequel in which Ben and Elaine are forced to cohabit with an ailing Mrs Robinson; he later reported that an actual studio executive had approached him with an eye to developing the idea.

三级成人视频He wrote the black comedy To Die For (1995), appeared on television in 30 Rock (2007-10) as Liz Lemon’s wide-eyed father Dick, before being recruited by the news spoof The Daily Show (2007) to serve as their “Senior Historical Perspectivist” in a segment titled “The Henry Stops Here”.

He is survived by his wife Irene, and by a daughter from an earlier relationship.

Buck Henry, born December 9 1930, died January 8 2020