Op-Ed

Patt Morrison Asks: Inside guy, Buck Henry

[Warner Bros. executive and producer] John Calley could never get Kubrick to come over [from Britain]. He hated to travel. He didn't leave his house. But he was tracking all of it -- what the grosses were everywhere. He would plot what street corner the theater was on in Detroit, and he knew exactly what was playing there and he would say, "Take it out of that theater and put it in there." Now you can hire people to do it. Stanley did it by himself. He would call on the third day a film was in release and say, "You know why we're not doing well in Cleveland is because you've got it in that [expletive] theater that's next to the parking lot'' -- he knew it. It was easier to do in those days when a movie opened in 25 major theaters and stayed there for a month, as opposed to 11,000 theaters and gone in three weeks.

And then there's the sequel, running an idea into the ground.

It's not even about that. It's about executives figuring what they can do cheaply and without too much trouble. [The studio heads of the 1930s and '40s] would do versions of previous films, but I don't think they'd do sequels.

So no "The Barretts of Wimpole Street: The Revenge."

They were marketers, but those guys also considered themselves filmmakers, and indeed they were, in the sense that they signed the talent, supervised the making of films, even though they may never have looked through a lens. And part of it is now about who owns what. Of course you're going to do some [property] over again that they don't have to pay any money for.

You've put the kibosh on a sequel to "The Graduate."

I did my best to kill it. They would be hard put to make it without Mike [Nichols] and Dustin [Hoffman]. All things you love have an excuse to be of and by themselves.

There's no such thing as a formal TV season anymore, but shows are launching their new seasons now. What do you watch?

I watch series like "Damages." I watch "30 Rock" and "Hot in Cleveland" because I've been on [them], so it's like watching friends. And reality TV, I'm ashamed to say. I'm interested in the behavior, because it's all manipulated. It's nothing about life, it's all about art. Is this behavior interesting or isn't it?

There's something going on between people and the screen. We're all compelled to watch something that speaks to some part of us that we probably wish weren't there. Guilty pleasures. "Big Brother" I loathed, but I watched religiously. I hated the people in it so much, and their language is so debased. It's very difficult to listen to them saying things like "Well, Harry and I's version of it...." I's? I's? No one taught them my or mine? I's? Ay ay ay.

I read your observation that actions do not have consequences in comedy these days.

They don't. The great thing about classical comedy, you found consequences, much more so than today. Moliere is a consequence guy. [Richard Brinsley] Sheridan, and Shakespeare.

Vaudeville made it possible for us to do things without consequences, but all to the good. It was the beginning of surrealism in daily life. I was very young but inspired by the mirror routine in [the Marx Brothers'] "Duck Soup." Unbelievable piece of work.

There are two or three things that are always running through my head, all the time. [Orson Welles'] "The Third Man" -- I see it before I go to work on something, just to remind myself that it is possible to produce a perfect three-act work. And the mirror routine is always playing as something I know I can't possibly reach. It's perfect.

Writers sometimes turn to genres to get deep and difficult points across without hectoring viewers -- humor, for one.

Westerns too. And surely with science fiction, which I love and wish I could do.

You don't read "Dune" thinking, "That happened to me, just a little different. I didn't have those big worms coming at me, but I did have a mother-in-law...." Sometimes all of that speaks to an inner person that we're not even aware exists.

Hollywood is considered a political force; where does it show up in film?

There are a number of writers and directors and actors on the same level that the Warner Bros. actors and directors [were] in the '30s. They're working for the light every time. They know they have to entertain [too].

George Clooney, a major share of his work is politically engaged. I was at a SAG screening, two people outside. One said: "I don't expect to like it, because Clooney's the same in every movie. He's just playing himself. He's not really an actor." If I were free to carry a loaded weapon, they'd both be dead. It's so irritating that one's own peers don't get it.

And an intensely political film isn't boffo box office.

Couldn't ever be boffo. It's harder because you've got to sell it to all layers. You don't have to sell "Horrible Bosses" to very many layers of people, but I imagine [a film such as] "Syriana" had to be a tough sell on every level. It doesn't have an ending where someone turns and says, "Let's go home."

Here's my guilty pleasure. I want to see your scar, where John Belushi's samurai character whacked you with his sword on "Saturday Night Live."

[He takes off his baseball cap.] There isn't a scar. I was begging for one. I wasted all that energy and blood. The stage was covered with blood -- I also tore my leg on the way out the window, so it was bleeding too. Fortunately it was followed by a commercial, so it gave us three or four minutes. John Belushi's doctor just happened to be sitting in the audience. I said, "Can you give me a good scar?" He said, "Not without sewing it up, and I can't do that here. I'll just put a clamp on." Ten days later it was almost gone. A month later -- nothing. I consider it a disastrous failing.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.
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