Buck Henry, a writer and actor who exerted an often overlooked but potent influence on television and movie comedy – creating the loopy prime-time spy spoof “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks, writing the script for Mike Nichols’s landmark social satire “The Graduate” and teaming up with John Belushi in the famous samurai sketches on “Saturday Night Live” – died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
His wife, Irene Ramp, said his death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was caused by a heart attack.
As a personality and a performer, Mr. Henry had a mild and unassuming aspect that was usually in contrast with the pungently satirical or broadly slapstick material he appeared in — and often wrote. Others in the room always seemed to make more noise.
Indeed, for almost 50 years he was a Zelig-like figure in American comedy, a ubiquitous if underrecognized presence not only in grand successes but also in grand failures. He wrote the screenplays for “Catch-22” (1970), an earnest but unwieldy adaptation, directed by Mr. Nichols, of Joseph Heller’s corrosively comic antiwar novel; and for “Candy” (1968), which turned a novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg — a riotous sendup of “Candide” set during the sexual revolution — into a leaden and star-studded bomb. (Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Walter Matthau and Ringo Starr all appeared as vamping lechers.)
His working partners were among Hollywood’s brightest lights, if not when they worked together then later. They included not only Mr. Nichols, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Belushi, but also Warren Beatty, with whom he directed the plaintive drama about mortality “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award; and Barbra Streisand, for whom he wrote two cockeyed romantic comedies: “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1970), adapted from a stage play by Bill Manhoff, and “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972).(for which Robert Benton and David Newman also received screenplay credit).
He wrote “Protocol” (1984), a vehicle for Goldie Hawn, and “To Die For” (1995), a grimly satirical take on the power of celebrity, adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel (itself derived from an actual news story) and directed by Gus Van Sant, which brought out a star-making performance by Nicole Kidman as a would-be newscaster who brazenly induces three hapless teenagers to murder her husband.
He also wrote, anomalously, the screenplay for “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973), a science fiction thriller based on a novel by Robert Merle, also directed by Mr. Nichols.
“I can write in anybody’s voice,” Mr. Henry said in 2009 in an interview for the Archive of American Television, “which is why I am most successful making screenplays from books and plays.”