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Remembering 'Graduate' Screenwriter Buck Henry


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Buck Henry, the screenwriter and character actor, died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 89. In the 1960s, he emerged as one of the sharpest comic voices for a new generation. He co-created the TV series "Get Smart" with Mel Brooks, wrote the screenplay for "The Graduate" and even had a small role in that film as a hotel desk clerk. And in the '70s when "Saturday Night Live" premiered on NBC, he was one of the earliest guest hosts during that all-important first season.


BUCK HENRY: Thank you all very much. Now, you're probably wondering, as I am wondering, why I have been chosen to host tonight's show. After all, it's quite true - I'm not a comic. I don't sing. I don't dance. Sure, I've acted in a few films, few television shows. I've written a few. But those aren't ordinarily the prerequisites to fronting a big show, like this one. I probably wasn't their first choice.

BIANCULLI: "Saturday Night Live" hit the '70s like a bombshell, and before that, in 1967, "The Graduate" landed with just as huge an impact. Directed by Mike Nichols, it told of an aimless college graduate, played by Dustin Hoffman, stumbling into an affair with an older woman and family friend, Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft.


ANNE BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) May I ask you a question? What do you think of me?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) What do you mean?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) You've known me nearly all your life. You must've formed some opinion of me.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Well, I always thought that you were a very nice person.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know I was an alcoholic?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Did you know that?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Look - I think I should be going.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Sit down, Benjamin.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, if you don't mind my saying so, this conversation is getting a little strange. Now, I'm sure that Mr. Robinson will be here any minute now.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) No.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) What?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) My husband will be back quite late. He should be gone for several hours.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Oh, my God.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Pardon?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson. Oh, no.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What's wrong?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, you didn't - I mean, you didn't expect...

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) What?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) I mean, you didn't really think I'd do something like that.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Like what?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) What do you think?

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) Well, I don't know.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) For God's sake, Mrs. Robinson.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson, laugher).

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Here we are. You got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music. Now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won't be home for hours.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson) So?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me.

BANCROFT: (As Mrs. Robinson, laughter).

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) Aren't you?

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Buck Henry in 1997. Their conversation took place at the Film Forum in Manhattan as part of a celebration of the then-30th anniversary of "The Graduate." They spoke after a screening of the film, which ended with Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, barging into the wedding of Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine, whom he now loves. They run off together, making their getaway on a public bus, but after a few moments of triumph and exhilaration, they're both staring blankly into space.


TERRY GROSS: Well, let's start with the end of the film. In the end of the film, it's kind of, like, a few beats after the typical happy ending. You know, they run away together, boy and girl get each other, a real triumph. And then the camera just lingers longer on them than it normally would. And you see their faces drop, and this, like, oh, what now expression come over. Did you know that that's the way it was going to end when you wrote the screenplay? What...

HENRY: No. Well, let me lead you up to it. Nichols was always disturbed by the idea that in the book, Benjamin gets to the church in time to stop the wedding, before the vows have been taken. And he always thought it's too corny; it's like the cavalry coming in at the last moment. So we thought, well, let's let him get there after the ceremony is over and really wreak havoc.

It isn't Christ symbology when he's up there pounding on the glass. I mean, there's a guy in a church pounding on glass, so critics are inevitably going to make of it a Christ symbol, which it wasn't intended to be. Perhaps if he'd have pounded one-handed, it would - things would have been different.


HENRY: They...

GROSS: Through the blood coming out of the palms of his hands (laughter).

HENRY: Yeah. With a - yeah, with a few scars. But that was not intended, and had we foreseen it, we might have done something differently, but probably not. The - and the cross - which I think was my idea, but I don't remember any longer. I just thought of it as, you know, a kind of vampire thing. Get back, you bloodsuckers. And then naturally sticking it in the door seemed the next logical thing to do.

So they're running away, and they got on a bus, and they ride. And Mike had a long roll left on the film. And I don't remember him - I think he just didn't tell Katharine and Dustin anything in particular except, sit down there and take a ride, and we'll see what happens. And, of course, what happened was they had nothing to say, nowhere to look. And so the sort of sense of, good lord, what's going to happen next, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for the actors to feel, became part of the character and now has become this sort of legend in some people's minds, who haven't seen it in the last few minutes, that the scene lasts for 10 minutes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: And they're sitting there and it's - as I read in someone's critique of it in the last few days, it's a whole - it looks forward to the end of the '70s and the doom of that generation - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.


GROSS: Well, in the film world, I mean, I think it's fair to say, now that a lot of producers are uncomfortable with ambiguous endings, and a lot of test audiences at the focus groups before a movie is released, they don't like unhappy endings. And a lot of endings nowadays are changed so that viewers get what they want, which is a happy resolution. There was no such thing in '67, '68 when this was coming out, right? You didn't have to test market it?

HENRY: No. Actually, no, I don't think we did test market it. But also - well, there are two aspects of this that are interesting. One is that it tested - when it was first shown in theaters in previews, the audiences were receptive beyond any of our dreams. The other thing is that - the opposite of that is when Mike showed it first to a kind of friends screening, it wasn't quite that respect - the audience wasn't quite that enthusiastic. I mean, they said, oh, it's terrific. It's funny. It's interesting to look at. The kid is weird, isn't he? It's a shame. He's so odd-looking - big nose.


HENRY: So it's always - you know, you can't second-guess from any particular group.

GROSS: Any producer saying that the ending is too ambiguous, you've got a make it a more...

HENRY: No. No, nobody ever said that. And also, it is a happy ending with a little slice of lemon in it. I mean, it is - he's got his girl, and they've run away from the people that they're scared of, and they're going to have either a long or a short happy life - for a while. Who knows.


GROSS: When the film came out in late 1967, it really tapped into something. There weren't really many films at all that were addressing this generational split, that were addressing the alienation that college people felt when they went home back to their parents' houses, and they knew they didn't fit there anymore, and they didn't want to be there anymore, and their parents' friends were kind of scary to them. So this tapped into that at a time when Hollywood was always, like, several beats behind what was really happening in the world, and TV was even more beats behind that.

What do you remember of what people were saying about what "The Graduate" meant, you know, to our culture when it was released? And what rang true to you, and what did you think was really, like, absurd?

HENRY: Gee - that's a lot of questions in one.


HENRY: You know, it's odd because we didn't think of it as defining a time or a place and went about making it assiduously avoiding the errata of contemporary politics. And the only vague mention is when the guy who has the rooming house says, are you an outside agitator? Which was more about Berkeley than it was about the time. And actually, a critic when the movie was released took us to task for saying nothing about Vietnam, which I thought was really stupid because it's simply not what it's about.

It does come from a sensibility of some years before the time it was made, although I think the sensibility is universal. The sense of alienation that people have between teenage-dom and 20-something years old, when they feel most hostile - a lot of people do - most hostile to their environment, to their parents, to their schools, to all that stuff. And since we all came out of the same time and the same sensibility - that is, Charles Webb who wrote the book, Mike Nichols, Larry Turman and I - all got out of school, got out of college in the '50s, we all related to the same sources of that displeasure or anomie or whatever you want to call it.

GROSS: To me, one of the greatest paradoxes of the movie is that it's about, you know, a young man who comes home and he's just so lost in his parents' environment. And so what does he do? He has an affair with his parent's (ph) mother (laughter), you know. It's the first film that really addresses the culture - you know, the generation gap. And so he's sleeping with somebody of the other generation. It's really paradoxical.

HENRY: Always a good idea...


HENRY: ...To pass the time and to get to know new friends.


GROSS: I remember when I saw it, when the film came out, one of the things I couldn't imagine - I couldn't imagine any of the men I know, any of the men I knew, any of my friends sleeping with my mother's friends or with any of the mothers that we knew. It was just unimaginable to me. I think most of us saw our mothers as not being sexual. And so this was, like, a different world to me. Now, speaking about your mother...

HENRY: Well, they're two very different things. Sleeping...

GROSS: Yeah.

HENRY: You know, sleeping with your mother's friends or someone sleeping with your mother.

GROSS: Right.

HENRY: They're loaded in very different ways.

GROSS: Right. Now, I'm thinking - your mother was a silent film star. She was a beauty.

HENRY: An uncomfortable segue, but yes.


GROSS: But I'm thinking that you probably were brought up in a world where women were very glamorous and very sexual.

HENRY: There were many of my mother's friends I would happily have risked social approbation for.


GROSS: So the sentiment in this movie rang true?

HENRY: Oh, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Buck Henry speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with screenwriter and character actor Buck Henry, who died Wednesday at age 89. They spoke in 1997 at Manhattan's Film Forum, right after a screening of "The Graduate." It was the film's 30th anniversary.


GROSS: You know, when "The Graduate" came out, I think it was still very uncommon to have actual records used instead of just a score written for the movie. So the Simon & Garfunkel record's tie-in was very novel, and it was very successful. "Mrs. Robinson" rose to No. 1 on the charts, and it really certainly helped Simon & Garfunkel's career a lot. Whose idea was it to actually use records?

HENRY: Mike had Paul's music in his head from the very beginning. I didn't - I wasn't that familiar with it, but I listened to it a lot while - I listened to it a bit while working. He thought - well, Paul was going to write a whole new score. But hello darkness - is that what it's called?

GROSS: "Sounds Of Silence."

HENRY: "Sounds Of Silence." You think I'd know.


HENRY: "Sounds Of Silence" - they put - Mike and Sam O'Steen, the editor, put "Sounds Of Silence" onto the working track. And, you know, there was never anything that could replace it, finally. I think the only original song Paul wrote for it was "Mrs. Robinson," which we all thought was cute and catchy but hardly a world-shaker. And, you know, there we are. I mean, two years ago, three years ago - what are they called, the strawberries?


HENRY: Lemonheads. Yeah. Well, I was in sort of the right area.


HENRY: They did a really nice version of it.

GROSS: You've said that when you were writing the screenplay, you saw the character of Benjamin as being a very kind of prototypically Southern California, blond, surfboard kind of guy.

HENRY: Yeah.

GROSS: Not Dustin Hoffman, who...

HENRY: Everybody...

GROSS: ...Doesn't fit anything in that description.

HENRY: We thought of all of - well, we used to call them the surfboards. And we thought of all of them as being big and blond and Southern California. You know, the - I mean, there is a genetic thing that happens. I don't know how it happens, and I think science should investigate it is that...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HENRY: ...The darkest and most exotic Jews move to Southern California, and in one or two generations, all the children are blond and tall and blue-eyed.


HENRY: What happens? What - is it - sand gets in the genes.


HENRY: And so we thought of - and Charles Webb was tall and blond and very prep school-looking. So we thought of them all as being the blond family - you know, ideally, a Ronald Reagan, Doris Day mother and father and a Robert Redford, Candy Bergin kids. And, of course, that fell apart as soon as we came around to really looking at actors doing it.

GROSS: So when you saw Dustin Hoffman on the screen test, what made you think that, even though he didn't fit at all your image of what this character should be, that he was right?

HENRY: Yeah. Well, it was there. The soul was there. And also, he was - it was a great - it's a great screen test. He's - I think he did it with Katharine, and they're just terrific in it. It's really good, and you just see it. He just wiped everyone else out.

GROSS: Did you see the character as being insecure and neurotic in the way that he is in the movie?

HENRY: I don't remember anymore.

GROSS: He supplanted what you had in your mind.

HENRY: Yeah. You know, they become the thing you thought you'd invented but didn't really know was there. But it was so interesting. So then we rationalized it because we'd been talking about them as being surfboards for so long, we had to make up in our own minds what happened. So we thought, OK, it's a genetic displacement. It's the other way around. He's a throwback to previous generations. And then around him were fit actors and actresses who really could do it. Not that there aren't blond people who can do it; it just didn't have the same suption, as Faulkner would say if he were here.

GROSS: Now, how did Anne Bancroft get the part of Mrs. Robinson? She had, not too long before "The Graduate," played the saintly and sacrificing Anne Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker," the story of Helen Keller, and this is a long distance from that.

HENRY: Well, she was a famous and loved actress.

GROSS: She's wonderful.

HENRY: And nobody ever - I mean, there's no question that she could do it and really do it. She was advised by everyone except Mel not to do it. At least, that's the story they tell.

GROSS: Were they married then?

HENRY: Yeah.

GROSS: She and Mel Brooks?

HENRY: Yeah.

GROSS: I'm going to squeeze a little question into the couple of seconds we have remaining, which is, did you identify - aside from admiring some of your mother's friends, did you identify with the Benjamin Braddock character at all?

HENRY: Totally.

GROSS: With - you did.

HENRY: Oh, yeah, and so did Mike, and so did Larry. We all did. I think that's what drove us toward - drove them toward the book and me, subsequently, too.

GROSS: If you identified with Dustin Hoffman's character, that kind of adrift - I don't have a future; I don't know what my future is - what was the turning point for you where you found writing, you found theater and movies?

HENRY: Well, I always knew I wanted to do it. It was just a question of people not letting me. So when I was younger - I got out of the Army and I spent years - like, seven or eight years - sort of batting around. I'd go on tour with a show, I'd write things that nobody would buy, and I did all that stuff that actors do. And then finally, I started working in television, and it all became a clearer path. I was never - you know, I'm very lucky. I've never been out of work since I started working. But the number of years before that were very edgy.

GROSS: Buck Henry, thank you so much for coming. It was wonderful for you to be here.


HENRY: Thanks.

GROSS: Wonderful of you to do it.

HENRY: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Buck Henry speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. He died Wednesday at age 89. Coming up after a break, we remember Jack Sheldon, jazz trumpeter and "Schoolhouse Rock!" singer, who died last month at age 88. And as we say goodbye to Buck Henry, let's revisit his famous scene from "The Graduate." He plays a front desk hotel clerk welcoming a young and very nervous Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, who wants to get a room for an intimate encounter with his parents' friend Mrs. Robinson. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin Braddock) A room - I'd like a room, please.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Single room or a double room?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) Single, just for myself, please.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Would you sign the register, please? Anything wrong, sir?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) What? No, nothing.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Do you have any luggage, Mr. Gladstone?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) Luggage? Yes. Yes, I do.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Where is it?

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) What?

HENRY: (As Clerk) Where is your luggage?

GROSS: (As Benjamin) Oh, it's in the car. It's out there in the car.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Very good, sir. I'll have a porter bring it in.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) Oh, no. I mean, I'd rather not go to all the trouble of bringing it all in. I just have a toothbrush. I can get it myself if that's all right.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Of course. I'll have a porter show you the room.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) Oh, well, actually, I'd just as soon find it myself. I just have a toothbrush to carry up and I can handle it myself.

HENRY: (As Clerk) Whatever you say, sir.

HOFFMAN: (As Benjamin) Thank you.


SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more that you will know. God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray. We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files. We'd like to help you learn to help yourself. Look around you. All you see are sympathetic eyes. Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home. And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know. God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.