There are just two things that Buck Henry would rather not talk about, he says as he searches for the lobster in his lobster Parisien and settles his mood somewhere between mordant and merely weary.
"One is my work, and the other is my life," says Henry, looking just as he does on "Saturday Night Live," in his rumpled cardigan and baseball-style hat and Jack Lemmony expressions in one of those Georgetown restaurants that look as if even the table cloths should be pin-striped. "One is embarrassing and immodest to talk about and the other isn't very interesting."
He will talk about mass-murderers like John Wayne Gacy, the recently convicted killer of 33 young men, and other assorted instances of the bizarre and the violent. "Deviant behavior is so interesting. It's all of our nightmares."
This is said with one eye cocked for the reaction and with a slight air of revenge for having been pushed on the subject of the many films with which he earned his reputation -- from "The Graduate" and "Catch 22" to "Heaven Can Wait." With them, Henry earned a high place in the screen writer's pantheon, if not the kind of walking-down-the-street recognition that his many guest host spots on "Saturday Night Live" have given him among the college-aged.
Currently he's in town to direct a movie called "First Family" that's winding up three months of shooting with some scenes in Washington. The movie stars Bob Newhart and Gilda Radner and is either a "happy, funny, film that will make people laugh and sing and dance," or "a serious film, a film about the times we live in," or, and this time he seems to be tilting slightly toward accuracy, "a series of incidents relating to a chief executive's family. It's a funny-funny-but film." No, he doesn't want to talk about the movie, either. He looks up, looks down, looks apologetic, bites his nails, and looks mostly for the exit.
He will talk about "The Graduate," the movie made in 1967 that tore its own hole in the social fabric but which seems almost precious a medecade later. o"Big films get naive real fast," says Henry. "We begin to love them for their innocence. What at the time seemed to be an incredible sophistication mellows into a beautiful innocence."
There are, he says, old films that don't fade away. "The films like 'The Maltese Falcon' or 'Casablanca' don't pall. They stay alive because of their sentiment. The themes were very simple then, good guys and bad guys. They all came down to one man standing against the crowd, working out his fate like Rick in 'Casablanca' or even Benjamin in 'The Graduate.'"
Audiences, says Buck Henry, have changed since "The Graduate." "They require more and more noise to keep them awake. Their attention span is shorter. The group who goes to see 'Star Wars' over and over again is different from the one that went to see '2001' more than once. Now they're much more sentimental, much more vulgar."
He edges the conversation back to the lurid, the grotesque and whatever else he thinks can't get into a family newspaper.
He is, he says, "a professional ambulance chaser.I don't necessarily want to be involved. But I always want to watch. It was part of being an only child," he says, "if you don't have a peer group to find things out from, you find out for yourself."
The only child is the son of a Mack Sennett bathing beauty and, according to which yellowed clip is referred to, either a stockbroker or a retired Air Force officer. "Well, right there, you can see how confusing that could be when you're growing up," is all he says by way of clarification.
He did, however, go to Dartmouth, get drafted into the Army, burn a novel, write a play that didn't exactly burn up Broadway. And he joined an improvisational Off-Broadway group before moving to Hollywood and writing jokes for Steve Allen and Gary Moore and getting into the money with "Get Smart" in 1964. It was then the he met Mike Nichols and collaborated with him on "The Graduate."
But the first dream was to write fiction. "I found out I wasn't good enough," he says. "And I don't want to do anything I can't be pretty near the best at."
His expression wanders off to a remote corner of melancholy and the talk turns to books. Proust is at the top of the list. "That's who I'd take to the desert island with me," he says. "But you can't write that, it sounds so pretentious. But his work is like what most extraordinary art is like, it's like the painting you can't wait to see when you get to a particular city, it's the end of all time, it's a century of soap operas!"
Buck Henry also likes to read the personal column in the New York Review of Books. "All of them want mininum hang-ups," he says, fascinated. "Thousands of tiny hang-ups. I like it when they want someone tall."
He picks up his latest issue and begins to read aloud. "Artistic, affectionate, playful woman seeks a tall male friend, 50s, wise, kind and funny for mutually rewarding relationship." As he reads, he's creating stories for the cast of characters -- the "handsome, wealthy, low-key businessman," the "twenty-four caret divorced white Los Angeles cowboy," the "sensational female," the "exceptionally handsome man," the "married L.A. woman who coped and wanted more."
"Wow," says Buck Henry, eyes growing wide, "I just want to get them all in a room together."