The Magazine

Televised Talk

Dick Cavett, master gabmeister of the 1970s.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By DAVID SKINNER
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The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats

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The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends

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The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons

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The Dick Cavett Show: Ray Charles Collection

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The Dick Cavett Show:
John and Yoko Collection

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Half the pleasure of watching episodes of the original Dick Cavett Show (1969-74) is in sampling the phony wisdom of the era. The younger generation, everyone said, was just terrific. Marrying young in order to experience sexual intercourse was a big mistake. All that nudity on stage and in the movies these days--well, said older female guests, it's no big deal, but how is that acting? Even the talk about talk is revealing. The word lecture is singled out for being so stuffy.

And yet something wonderful has been lost from talk shows ever since: conversation. On The Dick Cavett Show, movie stars, writers, comedians--that is, well-known people with no special qualifications--traded jokes, sometimes at each other's expense, offered opinions on the state of show business, the Vietnam war, women's lib, and otherwise rode the circuit of current topics without necessarily getting anywhere. It was a good time for famous people to hold forth, and no one was better than Dick Cavett at bringing it to television.

Because of a popular and still-entertaining 1974 book cowritten with his college buddy, sometime Time writer Christopher Porterfield (also an executive producer of The Dick Cavett Show in its heyday), there seems to be little about young Cavett, the shortish boy-man with a woody boom for a voice, that isn't known. Often mistaken for a book-length interview because of its Q-&-A format--as I learned in a phone interview with Cavett himself--Cavett was not transcribed, but more or less written the old-fashioned way, with the fleet-footed Porterfield acting as straight man, interlocuter, and occasional essayist.

Richard Cavett was born in 1936 in Gibbon, Nebraska, to a pair of English teachers. A little boy with a precocious vocabulary, he was a devoted moviegoer at an early age. His mother died from cancer when he was ten, after which his father married yet another English teacher. Socially awkward in his teenaged years, Cavett took an intense interest in magic and began to perform publicly before heading off to Yale. There he came into his own, majoring in drama but minoring in theatrical celebrities visiting New Haven and nearby Manhattan. In addition to a great memory for actors and faces, he had the personality to draw them in.

"No textbook of Dick's was more carefully pored over than Steve Allen's study of a dozen classic comedians, The Funny Men," noted Porterfield. "Studying was never too important to be interrupted by the opening monologue on a Bob Hope show, for which Dick would set aside whatever he was doing." Cavett compensated by turning his favored professors into stage characters: He "fastened eagerly onto a teacher's catch phrases or facial tics or rhetorical gimmicks. Once he had made the man come alive as an almost Dickensian character, he could make the subject come alive through the man."

After graduation and a season of summer stock, the young performer moved to New York City, but his dramatic career failed to take off. He took a job as a copyboy at Time, in whose offices he read in the newspaper that Jack Paar was always searching for material for his opening monologue. After giving this some thought, he typed up what sounded to his mimic's ear like a Paar monologue, then stuck the pages into a Time envelope--a prop to help him talk his way past reception at the RCA building. After locating Paar, who was getting ready to do his show, and handing him his jokes on the pretext that the envelope had something to do with an upcoming magazine story, Cavett joined the studio audience to watch.

Paar came out and, in his opening monologue, used some of the material Cavett had written. Spotting him in the elevator afterwards, Paar told him: "Thanks pal, you should do that again sometime." Cavett did, a week later, and was hired.