When Buck Henry Fooled Walter Cronkite: “Zoos should be closed down until the animals could be properly attired.”

From a New York Times obit, by Bruce Weber, on Buck Henry:

With John Belushi (left) on Saturday Night Live.

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. . . .

in 1959, he joined forces with a friend, Alan Abel, who had created a hoax organization, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which was dedicated to putting pants—or at least undershorts—on dogs, horses and cows as a response to society’s evident moral decline.

Mr. Henry became the public face of SINA, as the organization was known, playing the role of its president, G. Clifford Prout, giving interviews to newspapers and magazines and appearing on television, where he would argue that zoos should be closed down until the animals could be properly attired.

The hoax wasn’t entirely unmasked until 1965, but until then many people—millions, perhaps—had been hoodwinked. Among them was Walter Cronkite, who featured a segment on SINA in August 1962 on the “CBS Evening News.” He never forgave Mr. Henry after learning that it had been a joke. . . .

The producer Daniel Melnick put Mr. Henry together with Mel Brooks to create the spoof of spy movies that became “Get Smart.” It was an idea born out of commerce, a high-concept melding of big hits—“Goldfinger” meets “The Pink Panther.”

“I go to his office one day, and he says, ‘I want to give you guys an idea,’” Mr. Henry recalled of Mr. Melnick. “‘Here’s the thing. What are the two biggest movies in the world today? James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. Get my point?’”

The show, both a parody and a satire, starred Don Adams as the spectacularly inept secret agent Maxwell Smart, a.k.a. Agent 86, and it became a landmark television comedy. Introducing the shoe phone, the cone of silence and other cockamamie spy gadgetry, and contributing to the popular lexicon several of Max’s signature locutions—“Sorry about that, Chief!”; “Would you believe …?”; “Missed it by that much!”—the show ran from 1965 to 1970, its outlandish silliness serving as the prototype mood for innumerable sitcoms and sketches to follow. . . .

Mr. Henry was an eager participant in “Saturday Night Live” sketches. He created the character of Uncle Roy, a comically creepy, lascivious babysitter. And with his preternaturally mild manner, he was the perfect foil for John Belushi’s various incarnations as a samurai—a samurai deli man, a samurai tailor, a samurai optometrist. In one famous incident during a “samurai stockbroker” sketch, Mr. Belushi accidentally struck Mr. Henry with his sword, taking a chunk out of his forehead.

He was later a regular on “The New Show,” a short-lived sketch show produced by Lorne Michaels, the creator of “Saturday Night Live,” on which his characters included a member of the Frightened family, each of whose members had a hairpiece that flipped up in horror at the most mundane occurrence. . . .

An especially unusual aspect of Mr. Henry’s career was that as a screenwriter he would spend time on the set. Even so, he recalled in 2001, the screenwriter’s lot is ultimately one of helplessness.

“When you are part of the process, what is done all along the way becomes what your concept of the film is,” he said. “If it is wildly successful, you are sure it was carried out exactly as you intended.

“I have no idea now what I thought ‘The Graduate’ would look like. I’m not sure I had a strong vision of it to begin with, and if I did, it wasn’t anything like what is on the screen. But if you ask me today, I think, ‘Yes, that is how I saw it.’”

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