Dick Cavett Takes a Few Questions

To revisit “The Dick Cavett Show,” which ran late night on ABC from 1969 to 1975 (and in various other incarnations before and after), is to enter a time capsule—not just because of Cavett’s guests, who included aging Hollywood doyennes (Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn), rock legends in their chaotic prime (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix), and squabbling intellectuals (Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer), but because Cavett’s free-flowing yet informed interviewing style is all but absent from contemporary television. Late-night shows are now tightly scripted affairs, where celebrities can plug a new movie, tell a rehearsed anecdote, and maybe get roped into a lip-synch battle. But Cavett gently prodded his subjects into revealing themselves. Though he was pegged as the “intellectual” late-night host, he resisted the label. He was a creature of show business: spontaneous, witty, and interested in everything.

Cavett’s interviews with the likes of George Harrison, Orson Welles, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor have racked up millions of views on YouTube, providing a unique window into a raw, freewheeling, contentious time. A Nebraska native who went to Yale and got his start writing for the late-night hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson (before becoming Carson’s competition), Cavett presided over an era split between culture and counterculture, squares and hippies. He wasn’t quite either, but he was somehow at home with both. Two of his most frequent guests, each of whom became a close friend, were Groucho Marx and Muhammad Ali—who represented either pole. On December 27th, American Masters will air a documentary about the former, “Groucho & Cavett,” the filmmaker Robert S. Bader’s follow-up to “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes.”

Cavett, now eighty-six, has spent the pandemic in his palatial 1912 Greek Revival mansion in Connecticut. When I drove there recently, his second wife, Martha Rogers, led me to an ornate dining room: maroon walls with white crown molding, oil paintings in gilded frames, and a swan sculpture inside a Corinthian-columned fireplace. In a New Yorker Profile of Cavett from 1972, L. E. Sissman wrote, “At close range, Cavett seems both similar to and different from his television image. On camera, he appears slight and boyish; his gestures are subtly gamin, even elfin, his poise is catlike. In person, all this is amplified into something larger than life and possibly even more magnetic.” Half a century later, this remained true. Cavett sat at the end of a long dining table, a walker by his side, wearing a flannel shirt and headphones connected to an amplifying device, to make up for hearing loss. His voice was familiar from old TV clips—nasal, refined, with an audible “H” in “what” and “while”—but sonorous enough to carry across several rooms. Sipping from a “Dick Cavett Show” mug, he couldn’t resist a pun, a clever aside, or an anecdote about a cultural titan. A few times, he clutched his chest and gasped, suddenly awestruck by his own star-studded life. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I was reading a New Yorker Profile of you from 1972.

You know, I haven’t seen that since then. Would I like it? Tell me about it.

Well, there’s an interesting quote from Marshall Brickman describing you: “He’s always unruffled, calm, bland, and he just sort of moves ahead at his own speed. I think he’s not unaware of a kind of adjustment that he’s made. He’s aware that he has to be in a certain frame of mind to withstand the pressure of doing this kind of a show. . . . Disengagement—that’s his particular style.”

My God, Brickman’s even smarter than I thought! I like that. What year was that, ’72? Jesus. [He contemplates the time gone by.] Lately, I keep seeing people who are well known who have aged dramatically. I’d rather not name any names, but at this audience last night [at a screening of “The Fabelmans”], Martha spotted a couple of people, and I said, “No, that’s not who that is.” It was. Some of us change more than others. Have you lost friends, relatives, to the curse?

No. A friend’s father died, though.

Two really good friends of mine have died in the last couple of months. One lived in a very small town in Nebraska, and about a year before he died he had written me a note. Roger Welsch—he used to appear on “CBS Sunday Morning” in overalls, doing a “Postcard from Nebraska.” Anyway, he wrote that the people around him, because of an insect invasion, were “dropping with flies.” [Laughs loudly.]

This is partly me trying to get some advice, because I interview people for a living, but do you have a guiding philosophy for interviewing?

I’m almost embarrassed that I don’t, because I guess you’re supposed to. The first show I ever taped, I was nervous. My fear was: I was funny with friends last night, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to be funny on the show. As luck would have it, one of the guests was an ant expert, and I remember his wonderful name: Elmer Bursby. We go to commercial. They were going to go back to me to introduce him, and I thought, Johnny [Carson], Jack [Paar], whoever, would usually have something amusing in an introduction. I wonder if I ever will. The red light went on, and I said, “No show is complete without an ant expert.” This got just the laugh I needed.

This was Day One?

Yeah, Day One. The show went pretty well. I was relieved that I got through ninety minutes of unscripted television. I went back to be complimented, I thought, but the guy from ABC said, “Nobody gives a shit what Gore Vidal or Muhammad Ali think about Vietnam.” This sort of stunned me. They decided they would not air that as my first show. I objected. But they took one that I had taped a week later, when I was more broken in. That show aired first, and the “controversy” show was five shows later. I saved a clipping from somebody who said, “Cavett has gotten a lot better”—and they were talking about the first show!

What was the hardest part of learning the job?

I really can’t claim I ever found it difficult. I just seemed to fall into it, looked forward to the next day’s show, but found that you have to forget the one you did the night before, because the audience may not have seen it and any references to it wouldn’t work. Once, somebody said, “How’d your show go? Who was it?” And I said, “Jesus! Oh, my God, she sat right there.” And it took longer than you would guess for me to remember the somewhat obscure name Lucille Ball.

And yet the name of the ant expert has never left you.

When I was working for Johnny, when he was rather depressed, I said, “Is something bothering you?” And he said, “I went home last night, and my wife said, ‘Who were your four guests?’ ‘Well, we had—Jesus!’ Couldn’t come up with one!” So maybe that’s a vital blessing when you have to start all over the next day. There’s a lot of crazy mental things in this business.

The New Yorker Profile suggested that the monologues were the hardest part for you, and you were much more at ease doing interviews. Do you think that’s true?

I probably felt that at the time. I worried about them. And then they seemed to almost always go well. [This reminded him of the story of how he got his first job writing for the “Tonight” show, when he saw a newspaper headline that inspired him to sneak on set with sample jokes.] “Jack Paar Worries More About His Monologue Than Anything Else in Life”—that’s what spurred me to take my writing for him, as a copy boy at Time making sixty dollars a week, and catching him on the way to the men’s room. Luck! I was carrying a CBS envelope, which I grabbed up at the last moment, with the big logo. I thought that might catch his eye, and it did. He said, “I’ll read them.”

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