Henry Gibson, whose gentle poet persona on 1960s classic TV show “Laugh-In” made him one of the original flower children, died Monday in Malibu after a brief battle with cancer. He was 73.
A favorite of director Robert Altman, the diminutive, soft-spoken actor more recently had a five-season stint as Judge Clark Brown on “Boston Legal” and provided the voice of newspaperman Bob Jenkins on “King of the Hill.”
Gibson developed the persona for which he became known — the humble poet laureate of Fairhope, Alabama, whose name was a pun on the name of Henrik Ibsen — while working in New York in the early 1960s. His appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “The Joey Bishop Show” caught the attention of Jerry Lewis, who cast him in “The Nutty Professor.”
He made guest appearances on classic 1960s shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “My Favorite Martian,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Bewitched” before joining “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” where he played characters including a priest and the poet, who performed his poems grasping a giant flower for three seasons. Two comedy albums, “The Alligator” and “The Grass Menagerie” as well as a book, “A Flower Child’s Garden of Verses” were released based on his poetry. He used the success of the “Laugh-In” character to further his work in the environmental movement, writing op-eds and poetry for publications such as the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.
Gibson appeared in four Altman films, started with “The Long Goodbye,” in which he played the evil Dr. Verringer. He won a National Society of Film Critics award and was Golden Globe-nommed for his perf as country singer Haven Hamilton in “Nashville,” for which he also wrote the character’s songs. His other Altman films were “Health” and “A Perfect Couple.”
Born James Bateman in Germantown, Penn., he began acting at the age of 8 with a touring theater company. After graduating Catholic U., he served in France with the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer, then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
His early roles included a Broadway stint opposite Ruth Gordon and Walter Matthau in Lillian Hellman’s “My Mother, My Father and Me,” and a role in Billy Wilder’s film “Kiss Me, Stupid.”
Other roles included the voice of Wilbur the Pig in the animated “Charlotte’s Web,” as the Illinois Nazi pursuing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in “The Blues Brothers,” and roles in “The ‘Burbs,” “Magnolia” and “The Wedding Crashers.”
In 2001, he returned to Broadway in the Encores! New York City Center production of Rogers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee.
He is survived by sons Jon, a business affairs exec at Universal; Charles, a director and visual effects supervisor; James, a screenwriter, and two grandchildren.
Donations may be made to the Screen Actors Guild Foundation and Friends of the Malibu Public Library.