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

Four discs, Shout! Factory, $39.98

The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends

Four discs, Shout! Factory, $39.98

The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons

Three discs, Shout! Factory, $39.98

The Dick Cavett Show: Ray Charles Collection

Two discs, Shout! Factory, $24.98

The Dick Cavett Show:
John and Yoko Collection

Two discs, Shout! Factory, $24.98

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.

Working for Paar, Cavett made two comedian-friends who would influence his style, appear on his own show, and become regularly dropped names in his boldface conversation. One was the pre-auteur standup comedian Woody Allen, and the other (whom he met the very next day) was Groucho Marx, then in his 70s. Cavett spotted Groucho at the funeral for George S. Kaufman, and proceeded to keep him company as he walked downtown. Paar retired in March 1962 after only five years of hosting The Tonight Show. But Cavett stayed on, writing briefly for Paar's replacement, Johnny Carson, and then for the shortlived Jerry Lewis Show, before giving up writing to pursue a career in standup comedy. On the advice of Groucho Marx, who repaid Cavett's worshipful attention with mentorly moments, Cavett tried to make the most of his Nebraska upbringing and his college years.

The autobiographical comedian and stargazing show business buff were both prominent in the persona that Cavett unveiled on his late-night talk show, which actually started as a morning show: the nice young man who wants to know everything about you, but who is also sufficiently convivial to spur things along with light banter or even his own thoughts and feelings. He could play the foil or, for that matter, the star.

His interviewing technique was a marvel of tone. He could make banal questions into little occasions--for storytelling, opinion, whatever--as he ceded control to his guest with the expectation that they do what was necessary to make the conversation lively. Also, his interest in his guests was sincere, establishing a threshold of civility and amusement high enough to generate good talk but low enough for a truly interesting person to rise above it and deliver surprises. The dirty business of booking big names and promoting other projects then faded from view, as the exchange of personalities absorbed the spotlight.

On the phone, Cavett mentions the one piece of advice Jack Paar gave him for his new job: "Don't have interviews. Always have a conversation." In Cavett, he was even more explicit that the interviewer's role must consist of more than asking questions. "It's so much nicer when it's more of a dialogue. It's so much easier when you have that breakthrough, and you get into something that resembles actual speech as it would be spoken away from the lights and the camera. . . . When that happens, I feel that I'm in it as an equal, rather than as somebody who is standing aside."

Over the last year, a stream of old Cavett episodes have been collected and released on DVD. Music, rock especially, figures prominently in the collections, though not as prominently as fame itself. This set of greatest hits might instead be called Cavett's greatest gets. An excusable bias, it is, however, corrected somewhat by the wise decision to present full episodes, thus letting in an assortment of second and third guests, several of whom make for better conversation.

Take the convoluted, hilarious, and slightly ribald appearance of Tony Randall, who, though a big star at the time, was actually a second-string guest on an episode featuring Ray Charles. After a couple of songs, Cavett and Charles chat about--what else?--what it's like to be blind, and then Randall comes on and talks about all the naked women hanging around the hotel pool where he stays in Hollywood.

Which is pretty funny, but then the conversation turns to the subject of Wilfrid Lawson, a recently deceased English actor whom Randall worked with in a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Like many an actor trying to recreate what existed only on stage, Randall seems in every gesture and word a little precious and overdetermined; but he is totally engrossing as he describes what this little known performer did so well.

The Dick Cavett Show and its host were stalked by the adjective "intellectual," but the topics were rarely ideas, and what guests said, like most conversation, issued from personal experience. "Intellectual" served as a substitute for the category "other," so unlikely was it even then to have a TV show that encouraged guests to talk about whatever they were thinking. Actors and their ilk were not treated as thinkers, but they were expected to be good and spontaneous talkers. Cavett's was a variety show in which chatting was its own performing art.

Several raconteurs who excelled at this game appear in Cavett's Hollywood Greats collection (which, for fans of conversation, is the best of the bunch). John Huston, to whom a 90-minute episode is devoted, surprises with a thoughtful lesson on the history of his adopted country, Ireland, and yet does not shirk his duty as friend and colleague of various famous people, including Humphrey Bogart, telling juicy anecdotes from the movies he'd directed. Also with a full episode to himself, Orson Welles seems as if he would make the ideal drinking companion as he digresses from stories about his theater days to the time he ran into Winston Churchill (a big fan) and drops hints of his luckless search for financial backing for projects. All the personality bubbling just beneath the surface of Peter Bogdanovich's terrific interview book This is Orson Welles comes pouring forth.

Katharine Hepburn, that imperious Connecticut WASP, proves to be every bit the prima donna as she is caught on camera unawares complaining about the show's set and barking orders to stagehands.

"Nobody answers in this business," she bellows when her whims aren't instantly gratified. Hepburn was only visiting the set, to get used to the idea of doing an interview when she decided, on the spot, to go ahead and do it. And yet she gave Cavett permission to use the candid footage. Then, in the interview, there is the added pleasure of hearing the great actress, looking especially serene, talk about how every minute of her show business career has been an absolute pleasure.

Humility has its own rewards. On the Comic Legends collection, Carol Burnett confesses that some of the skits on her show aren't all that good, that the performers and writers know when their skit is a dumb one--but still, it's the best they can do. On an episode that is included only because of a Stevie Wonder performance, Elsa Lanchester, who played the bride in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and was married to Charles Laughton, regales the audience with tales of her cosmopolitan childhood in a Parisian dance school run by Isadora Duncan, whom she didn't like one bit. The most elegant appearance (on Hollywood Greats) comes at the cost of an interview, with Fred Astaire as the guest. Modesty seems to inhibit the great dancer-singer from indulging in the autobiography that usually takes up such conversation, though he's very specific and interesting when asked about the work behind his famous routines.

If a slightly hippie air attaches to Cavett's name, it's for two reasons: One, the mood of American adults at the time, struggling, a little pathetically, to engage with the concerns of young Baby Boomers in their Question Authority phase. Remember, this was the era when old fogie book-buyers made Charles Reich's The Greening of America the book of the year. And The Dick Cavett Show was certainly channeling this sociological impulse. The other reason Cavett's collars seem so wide was his show's embrace of rock 'n' roll. "Giants of the field" is how Cavett introduced Jefferson Airplane for his show's Woodstock Special, included in the "Rock Icons" collection.

The Woodstock episode combines the worst pandering of American adulthood with some of the least interesting music of the time. The show's usual studio setup--with standard proscenium and orchestra to the side--was traded in for a chairless room painted all groovy with thin stripes running end to end. The centerpiece of the set was a raised conversation pit with ottomans on which guests sat, not even pretending to be comfortable, looking as if they were wondering what in the world to say to this cat. To his credit, Cavett paused during the opening monologue to remove from his throat the Hugh Hefner scarf he had picked up in wardrobe. To his discredit, he asked the assembled rock stars and folk singers, "Is there anything else you guys want to rap about?"

Few of the rock 'n' roll interviews prove watchable--Janis Joplin is an exception--while most of the performances themselves are of only passing interest, especially considering all the footage available of stars like David Bowie or Stevie Wonder. On the phone, Cavett says, "I really didn't give a damn about rock music one way or the other," but he thought many of the rock stars were genuine "characters." Clearly he didn't admire them half as much as some of the old Hollywood hands who graced his soundstage. When, before a show, someone told him he needed to talk to Grace Slick, the Jefferson Airplane vocalist, he had to ask which one was she. In return, Slick called Cavett by the wrong name while the cameras were rolling.

The underlying premise of a talk show is that the person famous for making music or movies or what-have-you will make for interesting conversation. It's a shaky premise, even in the best of circumstances, and rock stars visiting Dick Cavett did their best to refute the idea.

No one was less interesting than the biggest rock star Cavett ever hosted: John Lennon, who with Yoko Ono has earned his very own DVD collection, featuring all three of their visits to the show. (If only John and Yoko were tabloid fodder today, we'd have the pleasure of calling this self-serious pair "Joko.") Lennon appears at best dippy and pretentious, and that's just in the first two minutes. Only Marlon Brando, on the "Hollywood Greats" DVD, proved a more worthless talker: enigmatic at first, then transparently narcissistic, and finally, while speaking his own lines, another great bore. But Brando and Lennon (and even Yoko, who plays a drum alongside John as he sings her anthem, "Woman is the Nigger of the World") were great gets. Still, in the hypothetical event that you have to choose to dine with one of them, you would do well to ask if Elsa Lanchester or Tony Randall isn't available instead.

The loveliest thing about The Dick Cavett Show was the evidence it supplied of a popular culture capable of complete sentences and a show business culture capable of candor. This sentence from Cavett seems illuminating: "I know that sounds like something from an application to the Famous Writers School, but it's a true story." Imagine, a television talk-show host so articulate he had to make fun of his own too-perfect stories! And such was the standard for conversation and wit on his show.

This had a downside. On a show where the host is genuinely interested in the guests, and also supposed to be genuinely interesting in his own right, the usual trickiness of mutual admiration comes into play. When Bill Cosby failed to answer whether he had ever seen Cavett's standup act, Cavett repeated the question, which Cosby deftly avoided once more. Cavett was also known to disapprove of some of his guests: Timothy Leary was told he was full of crap; Norman Mailer, who snidely referred to Cavett's notes, was told, "Why don't you fold it sideways and put it where the moon don't shine?" Lester Maddox famously stormed off the show when Cavett wouldn't apologize for something footballer Jim Brown said during the commercial. (Alas, none of these latter episodes has been collected.)

Not coincidentally--given this tendency to sharp words--Cavett hosted a number of famous writers. Today, of course, no literary feud such as the Mary McCarthy/Lillian Hellman match could be born on a talk show. The host would fall out of his chair if any epigram as sharp as McCarthy's description of Hellman--"Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'"--were uttered on the air. But there seems to be no Great Writers or Great Feuds DVD collection in the works.

"We're running out of easy categories," Cavett says on the phone.

Cavett represented a fading connection between books and television, between words and images. Nowadays, he seems to be cleaving to the wordy side of things. Also, he is more wont to show anger, especially about two things: President Bush, and issues of grammar and pronunciation. He corrects me on the phone when I say "Eye-rack" instead of "Ee-rock," and the president's fondness for "nucular" has Cavett wondering if it is a deliberate mispronunciation calculated to win the votes of illiterates in the Republican base.

When I ask about his introduction to the wonderful episode with Fred Astaire, he says, "Astaire particularly reminded you of a time when everyone wanted to be American. . . . America was jazz and Fitzgerald. . . . Now our guts are the most hated viscera on earth." Point taken. I ask who his favorite talk show host is on television now, and Cavett tells me he hardly watches television anymore. When the Emmys were on, the onetime Emmy host says he recognized almost none of the awardees.

Compared with other well-known people who have to talk regularly to the press, Cavett is surprisingly uninhibited, a little like a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. As he answers questions, a public relations minder sits on the line, ready to save the old pro should things turn ugly, but it doesn't seem to affect him. He just goes on talking.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.