Tony Hendra, the British satirist and comic whose roles included top editing positions at magazines such as National Lampoon and Spy and a part in musical mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, died on Thursday in New York. He was 79.
His wife, Carla Meisner, told the New York Times the cause of death was Lou Gehrig’s disease, which the writer was first diagnosed with in 2019.
In Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, he played Ian Faith, the bumbling band manager who tells Michael McKean’s character that having a gig in Boston cancelled isn’t a big deal because “It’s not a big college town.”
Hendra began writing and performing comedy while a student at Cambridge University, working alongside future members of the Monty Python troupe. In 1964, he and his performing partner, Nick Ullett took their stage act to the United States, where he regularly began performing stand-up comedy, writing and editing for various publications, as well as acting and publishing books.
Seeking a more regular income, Hendra pivoted to television writing in 1969. He wrote for Hugh Hefner-hosted Playboy After Dark and Music Scene. But following these successes, he inadvertently sabotaged his career. Taking out advertisements in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter in the form of an open letter to James Roche, chairman of General Motors, he scolded him for the company’s record on pollution, which damaged his writing gig opportunity for a coming special sponsored by Chevrolet
By 1970 he began writing at the newly founded National Lampoon, created by alumni of The Harvard Lampoon. The following year, he was made managing editor, remaining with the magazine for the better part of the decade. It was the Lampoon’s most successful period, spawning a franchise, complete with books, record albums, film series and more, such as “National Lampoon’s Lemmings.” The theatrical production became an Off Broadway hit featuring cast members Chevy Chase and John Belushi.
Among other notable projects, Hendra co-penned the screenplay for 1996 boxing comedy The Great White Hype with Ron Shelton, which featured Samuel L. Jackson, Damon Wayans and Jeff Goldblum. In 2004 he published his critically lauded memoir, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, which recounted his relationship with a monk who he wrote helped him overcome personal setbacks and moral corruption, leading him back to the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood. In the book, he said he contemplated suicide before Spinal Tap began filming, but that working on the production gave him a new lease on life.
However, following the book’s release, Jessica Hendra, Hendra’s daughter from his first marriage, submitted an op-ed essay to The New York Times stating that Hendra had sexually abused her on several occasions when she was a girl, which was not mentioned in his book. While the Times didn’t publish the essay, it assigned an investigative reporter to look into the accusation. A month later the Times published an account of Hendra’s story. A year later, Hendra published a memoir of her own, How to Cook Your Daughter, where she detailed the abuse. Hendra denied her accusations.
Following the allegations, Hendra avoided the spotlight, though he published a novel in 2006 called The Messiah of Morris Avenue.
Born in Willesden, England, he resided in the United States for most of his life. He married Judith Hilary Christmas in 1964. After divorcing her in the 1980s, he married Meisner in 1986. In addition to her, he is survived by his daughter Jessica and another daughter from his first marriage, Katherine; three children from his second marriage, Lucy, Sebastian and Nicholas; a brother, Martin; two sisters, Angela Hendra and Celia Radice; and four grandchildren.