Thursday, September 17, 2009

Henry Gibson


Primarily remembered as one of the original cast of loonies on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Gibson's career was altered by director Robert Altman, who cast the soft-spoken comic actor in The Long Goodbye in 1973. Gibson further exercised his dramatic chops in Altman's Nashville, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. He won the National Society of Film Critics' supporting actor award for his performance as country singer Haven Hamilton (he wrote much of the character's music as well). He became a regular player in Altman films, appearing in two further vehicles, A Perfect Couple and Health. Additional film appearances included The Blues Brothers, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The 'Burbs, and Magnolia. He had an ongoing voice-acting career, appearing in several episodes of King of the Hill, and providing the voice of Wilbur the pig for the animated feature Charlotte's Web.

In his later years, he was a common face on various episodics, including a recurring stint as a prissy judge on Boston Legal.

Despite his dramatic pedigree (he studied at Catholic University in DC and at RADA in London), he became known for his comedic work. In New York in the early 60s, he created the character for which he is best known, a milque-toast poet from Fairhope, Alaska. He riffed on the name of dramatist Henrik Ibsen, and called himself Henry Gibson. Appearances on The Tonight Show and Joey Bishop's talk show led to a role in Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor in 1963. He made his Broadway debut the same year, in Lillian Hellman's My Mother, My Father, and Me, opposite Walter Matthau and Ruth Gordon.

In 1968, he auditioned for producer George Schlatter by reciting one of his loopy poems, then turning a full back flip. "Is that anything?" he asked naively. Schlatter replied, "Be back here Monday." Gibson took his place among the originating cast of Laugh-In (I wrote a bit about them when host Dick Martin died). Henry became recognizable with two regular characters. In the fast-paced cocktail party sequence, he played a sedate priest, sipping from a teacup, and calmly uttering such quips as, "Our congregation accepts all denominations. But we prefer 20s and 50s." He created a national catchphrase (one of many born from Laugh-In) with his signature routine, wearing love beads, and carrying an oversized flower:

"A Poem.

By Henry Gibson." (stiff bow)

"Did you ever stop to figure

Why the thumbnail is so hard?

Well it hasn't any choice

With all that skin to guard.

It may look fat and pudgy

But it's heart is good and true.

It's prettier than a toenail

And easier to chew. "

Gibson received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Laugh-In. He died this week after a swift battle with cancer at the age of 73.

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