RIP Henry Gibson

I was going to cover some of the usual folderol I cover here today, but, sadly, we have another passing to note with the death at 73 of Henry Gibson from cancer.

Gibson — whose stage name derives from an early character he did with roommate Jon Voight — was a personal favorite of mine. Not a large man, he was the kind of actor who might have one or two scenes in a movie, but was pretty much guaranteed to bring something detailed and memorable to his usually hilarious scenes; a relatively recent case in point was his great turn as the befuddled shocked clergyman towards the end of “Wedding Crashers.” He’s also familar to fans of “Boston Legal” as one of the show’s recurring judges.

With his eccentric but unassuming air, he gained his greatest fame as a cast member on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a faster paced, but more shtick-laden late sixties/early seventies forerunner of SNL. His signature bit involved him reciting absurd, vaguely counter-cultural, poetry in his ultra deadpan style while holding a giant flower and bowing with exaggerated politeness at the end. (He was famously spoofed on the show by John Wayne, who brought his own unique socio-political sensibilities to his verse.)

Numerous movie and TV roles followed, including probably the closest Henry Gibson ever got to a leading film role, cast brilliantly against type as a controlling and hypocritical country music patriarch in Robert Altman’s masterpiece, “Nashville.” Later, he’d play out-and-out villains, but usually in more comical contexts. Fans of eighties comedies have a special affection for his commanding role as the patriarch of a very strange family who loom in Tom Hanks‘s fevered imagination in Joe Dante’s comedy horror homage, “The ‘Burbs.” He was also the head neo-Nazi in “The Blues Brothers.”

All in all, the loss of Gibson at the relatively young age of 73 is a sad one and hit me personally a bit harder than expected. I’ve loved Gibson’s work since childhood and, whether he was playing a Napoleonic villain or a gentle preacher totally out of his depth, there was an abiding soulful quality to his work that made him all the more funny. Truly original performers like him are few and far between.

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My friend, Zayne, has a very nice remembrance of Mr. Gibson at More a Legend than a Blog, and Edward Copeland shares my appreciation of his work as country music legend Haven Hamilton.

There’s less of him than I’d like on YouTube, but I did find a few fine moments of Gibson, which you can check out after the flip.

I suppose this bit from 1977’s “The Kentucky Fried Movie” could be considered to be in questionable taste to use in an obituary post, but I think Gibson would want us to use it. For one thing, it highlights his deadpan genius. For another, death comes to us all — and funny is funny.

Here is a rather hysterical clip featuring Gibson, once again cast brilliantly against his usually gentle persona, as a fashionably dressed ultra-bad guy incarcerating Lynda Carter on an episode of “Wonder Woman.” (Apparently, the father of whoever posted this was one of the captive athletes in the scene.)

The scene I really would have liked to post here is the opening number from 1975’s “Nashville,” “200 Years,” which Gibson wrote for his character to sing. I did, however, find an online video someone made of the song, a patriotic anthem written with the coming bicentennial in mind. In the dispassionate context of Robert Altman’s classic satirical look at American culture in the mid-seventies, the song is definitely ironic — though not sarcastic. Even listening to it here accompanied by a more straightforwardly patriotic assortment of images than Gibson or Altman intended, however, you can get an idea of the kind of commitment Gibson brought to his work. This song really sounds just like it would had Gibson been an actual talented but somewhat self-righteous middle-aged country superstar, circa 1975. Also, I think Gibson might have enjoyed the slightly incongruous final image on this video.

  

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