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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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.