With an act he had perfected in college, Henry Gibson made his fame in the Sixties playing a stand-up poet reciting ironically inane free verse that parodied the apoplectic poesy of the Beat Generation. Discovered by Jerry Lewis and anointed as Hollywood's go-to odd little man, Gibson parlayed outré guest appearances on such popular television sitcoms as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "F-Troop" and "Bewitched" into a steady gig on the ABC sketch comedy revue "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." Finding favor with iconoclastic filmmaker Robert Altman, Gibson was cast as little men who exerted a big influence in "The Long Goodbye" (1973) and "Nashville" (1975), while he contributed larger-than-life cameos to John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980) and Joe Dante's "The 'burbs" (1988), playing, respectively, an Illinois Nazi hauptsturmfuehrer and Tom Hanks' sinister next-door neighbor. An in-demand voice artist in later life, Gibson gave speech to characters on a number of animated series and in features, most notably as crusty Texas newsman Bob Jenkins on Fox's "King of the Hill." He impressed the critics with his appearance as an aging, gay barfly in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (1999) and enjoyed semi-regular status as an unorthodox judge on the ABC courtroom drama "Boston Legal" shortly before his death from cancer in September 2009. Though he never fully slipped his early association with comedy, Gibson proved time and again that he was more than just a one-hit-wonder, emerging from the shadow of his "Laugh-In" persona as a character actor of surprising gravity and grace.
Henry Gibson was born James Bateman in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, PA on Sept. 21, 1935. The son of Edmund Albert Bateman and his wife, the former Dorothy Cassidy, he was a child actor from the age of seven, making his debut with the Mae Desmond Theatre Company in 1943. At Philadelphia's St. Joseph's Preparatory School, he was president of the drama club. As a student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Bateman met a kindred soul in younger student Jon Voight. Bateman and Voight formed a comedy team focused on a pair of numbskulled hillbilly brothers named Harold and Henry Gibson, with the latter chosen as a comic play on dour Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. After obtaining a bachelor degree in dramatic arts in 1957, Bateman enlisted in the United States Air Force. Stationed in France, he rose to the rank of Intelligence Officer. During his time in Europe, he also audited classes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Returning stateside in 1960, Bateman reunited with Voight. The pair headed to New York City to try their routines in the cabarets of Greenwich Village. Voight eventually moved on to serious drama and feature films, earning fame as the star of John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" (1969). Retaining his old character moniker as a stage name, Gibson hit the stand-up comedy circuit, performing satirical poems straight-faced while holding an oversized flower. Spotted by comedian Jerry Lewis during an appearance on "Tonight Starring Jack Paar" (NBC, 1957-1962) in August 1961, he was offered a role in Lewis' "The Nutty Professor" (1963), in which he appeared as a college student named Gibson. That same year, Gibson made three appearances on "The Joey Bishop Show" (CBS, 1961-65) and contributed character parts to episodes of "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964) and "The Beverly Hillbillies" (CBS, 1962-1971), appearing on the latter as rhinestone-suited cowboy star Quirt Manley. Gibson was buried down in the cast list of Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me, Stupid" (1964), starring Dean Martin and Kim Novak, but made more of an impression as a red Indian cum beatnik in the later Three Stooges vehicle "The Outlaws is Coming" (1965). Additional TV work followed, with Gibson put to good use as maladroit cavalry Private Wrongo Starr on "F-Troop" (ABC, 1965-67) and as Napoleon Bonaparte on "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-1972). In 1967, he revived his fey Southern poet character for the pilot for "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," later joining the regular cast of the vaudeville-style sketch comedy series, which ran on NBC between 1968 and 1973. Gibson appeared in 23 episodes of the series, holding the stage on his own for "A poem by Henry Gibson" and garnering a Golden Globe nomination before departing after the 1970-71 season for more ambitious projects.
Gibson played the unfortunately named Clifford Stool, no-account nephew of railroad tycoon Mickey Rooney and antagonist of John Astin's Wild West gunman "Evil Roy Slade," a 1972 NBC telefilm. The following year, the actor supplied the voice of Wilbur the pig in Paramount Pictures' animated adaptation of "Charlotte's Web" (1973), and played a sinister physician in "The Long Goodbye" (1973), Robert Altman's revisionist take on the 1953 Raymond Chandler mystery novel. Altman would call on Gibson again for his next film project, but in the interim, Gibson made rent paying appearances on the unsold pilot for "The Karen Valentine Show" (1973) and in episodes of "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1969-1974) and "Get Christie Love" (ABC, 1974-75). He contributed a macabre cameo to "The Kentucky Fried Movie" (1975), in a faux public service announcement for the United Appeal for the Dead. Gibson would be nominated for another Golden Globe for playing a vainglorious country star in Altman's "Nashville" (1975). An amalgam of Porter Waggoner, Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, Gibson's patriotic and vitriolic Haven Hamilton was emblematic of Altman's condemnation of petty tyrants. Gibson performed his own songs in the film and his spot on performance netted him a National Society of Film Critics Award. Though shut out at the 1976 Academy Awards, "Nashville" was a box office and critical success, albeit reviled by the American country music industry.
Gibson worked for Altman twice more, in "A Perfect Couple" (1979) and "Health" (1980), appearing in the latter in drag. The actor earned a new generation of fans as an Illinois Nazi who fatally tangles with "The Blues Brothers" (1980). Though limited to a few short scenes, Gibson's spectacular death, as a passenger in a Ford Pinto falling from more than a mile above downtown Chicago, was a highlight of the film. Gibson reunited with his "Nashville" co-star Lily Tomlin as a mad scientist who makes big trouble for "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" (1981). A social satire by way of a spoof of the sci-fi classic "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957), the project was initiated by "Blues Brothers" director John Landis, who quit over creative differences with Universal Pictures and was replaced by Joel Schumacher. In the Canadian comedy "Tulips" (1981), Gibson brought his deadpan comic timing to the role of hitman Maurice Avocado, who agrees to murder would-be suicide Gabe Kaplan but refuses to break the contract when Kaplan falls in love with depressive street singer Bernadette Peters. Gibson spent the duration of the decade in uninspired TV work while making the occasional feature film appearance, as with "Monster in the Closet" (1986), a comic horror film about the wages of repressed homosexuality.
For filmmaker Joe Dante, Gibson played the minor but amusing role of Mr. Wormwood, a supercilious supermarket manager in "Inner Space" (1987); in this aerobic spoof of "Fantastic Voyage" (1967), miniaturized astronaut Dennis Quaid is injected into the inner ear of grocery store clerk Martin Short, leading to slapstick comedy in the world of industrial espionage. In "Switching Channels" (1988), Ted Kotcheff's updating of the Howard Hawks classic "His Girl Friday" (1939), Gibson played a meek death row inmate whose impending execution provides the film with a B-plot backdrop for its main stage love/hate relationship between cable TV journalists Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner. Joe Dante called Gibson back to play a small town cannibal in his cul-de-sac comedy "The 'burbs" (1988), opposite Tom Hanks. Gibson also contributed a cameo to Dante's "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990).
As a voiceover artist, Gibson gave voice to assorted characters on such animated TV series as "Galaxy High School" (CBS, 1986), Hanna-Barbera's "Fish Police" (CBS, 1992) and the Nickelodeon Network's "Rugrats" (1991-2004). He also contributed to the films "Tom and Jerry: The Movie" (1992), "The Bears Who Saved Christmas" (1994), and "Daisy-Head Mayzie" (1995), for which he provided the voice of Dr. Seuss' incorrigible feline, The Cat in the Hat. Gibson was the voice of Nazi obersturmbannfuehrer Adolf Eichmann in "Mother Night" (1996), Keith Gordon's adaptation of the wartime novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He played another overreaching scientist in "Bio-Dome" (1996), becoming in the process the unwitting comic foil of slacker funnyman Pauly Shore. The actor was all but unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Nilva, chairman of the Slug-o-Cola soft drink company, in a comic 1998 episode of the sci-fi weekly "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" (CBS, 1993-99).
In 1999, Thomas Paul Anderson cast Gibson in a poignant cameo in "Magnolia," a multi-character drama set in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley and inspired by the ensemble films of Robert Altman. Gibson kept busy in the years to follow, turning up in bits as a funeral director in "Never Die Alone" (2004), written by his son James Gibson, and as a cleric in "The Wedding Crashers" (2005) starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan. He provided the voice of one-eyed Texas newsman Bob Jenkins for several episodes of the animated comedy "King of the Hill" (Fox Network, 1997-2010) and appeared semi-regularly as a judge on the offbeat courtroom drama "Boston Legal" (ABC, 2004-08). Predeceased in 2007 of his wife of 40 years, Henry Gibson succumbed to cancer on Sept. 14, 2009, a week short of his 74th birthday.
By Richard Harland Smith