Comic actor Henry Gibson, who first broke out as a member of Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In and later became a familiar face in Robert Altman’s acting stable, has died after a brief battle with cancer at the age of 73. Born Henry Gibson Bateman, he dropped his surname early on in his theatrical career—which he entered into after a stint in the Air Force as an intelligence officer—as a play on “Henrik Ibsen," and slowly began developing a character he called “The Poet,” a Southern-accented fop which he later turned into a nightclub act. (In an interesting sidenote, Gibson first tried his hand at Southern caricature at the Catholic University of America, where he was one-half of a comedy duo of "hillbillies." His partner, who acted under the name "Harold Gibson," was none other than Jon Voight.) Gibson's "The Poet" would later become a staple of Laugh-In, where for three years, Gibson would recite satirical verse while wearing hippie beads and carrying a large flower, a routine that was so memorable that John Wayne once performed a famous parody version, and which Gibson later reprised over the course of two comedy albums and a book. He was also frequently seen as a priest in the show's famous "cocktail party" scenes.
After first getting noticed in Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor (where he played a college student), Gibson slowly accrued cameos on some of the bigger TV shows of the ’60s like The Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched before becoming an indelible part of the most influential comedy program of the era. His post-Laugh-In career included roles in four Robert Altman films—The Long Goodbye, A Perfect Couple, Health, and Nashville, in which he played the pivotal role of Haven Hamilton, singing several songs he’d co-written, including one adapted from a poem he’d first read many years before on The Dick Van Dyke Show. For his performance, he received a Golden Globe nomination as well as a Grammy nod, and later picked up the National Society Of Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actor Award.
Besides Altman, Gibson was also a favorite of director Joe Dante, who cast him as Tom Hanks’ suspicious neighbor Dr. Klopek in The ’Burbs, Martin Short’s weary boss in Innerspace, and later in a brief cameo in Gremlins 2: The New Batch, where he plays a janitor who’s fired for trying to sneak a smoke in a closet. Younger audiences will also recognize Gibson for his role as leader of the “Illinois Nazis” in The Blues Brothers, as well as for voicing Wilbur the Pig in the classic animated adaptation of Charlotte’s Web.
In recent years, Gibson had settled into a recurring role on Boston Legal, contributed voiceover work to King Of The Hill, and turned in a memorable bit part in Wedding Crashers. Arguably, his last great film performance was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, where Gibson offered an even more aristocratic take on his earlier “Poet” persona, playing the flamboyant, acid-tongued barfly who’s a constant thorn in William H. Macy’s side. (Sadly, his last actual major film role will apparently be as a prison inmate in 2007’s Big Stan, Rob Schneider’s straight-to-video directorial debut.) He was also an ardent supporter of environmentalist causes, and a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, which often published his op-eds and the occasional poem.
UPDATE: Here's a clip of Gibson from Kentucky Fried Movie that is probably both tasteless and totally inappropriate, yet which sums up his low-key approach to humor nicely. We think he would approve.