November 19, 1936 – Richard Alva Cavett:
It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear.
Watching The Graham Norton Show, I must say, I miss the days when a talk show guest would move over on the couch and stay for the other guests and join in the conversation, and people did more than shill their current project: Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas would all cajole guests into extended conversations among themselves. Only Norton does this now and that is why his show is the best, but when I was young, it was Dick Cavett who was the master.
The erudite Cavett was alternately praised and chided for his innovative approach. He also had a series of one-guest shows with wide range of provocative interview subjects included Katharine Hepburn, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Norman Mailer and Jimi Hendrix.
In 1960, Cavett was living in a three-room, fifth-floor apartment on West 89th Street in Manhattan for $51 a month. He had graduated from Yale with a degree in Drama, and he found work doing small roles on television, while his girlfriend and future wife Carrie Nye landed roles on Broadway.
Working in the mail room at Time magazine, Cavett read a newspaper item about Jack Paar, then host of The Tonight Show. The article was about Paar’s concerns about his opening monologue and constant search for material. Cavett wrote some jokes on Time letterhead and went to the RCA Building (now 30 Rock). He ran into Paar in a hallway and handed him an envelope. He then went to sit in the studio audience. During the show, Paar worked in some of the lines Cavett had written. After the show, Paar invited him to contribute more jokes. Within weeks, Cavett was hired, originally as talent coordinator. Cavett wrote for Paar the famous line “Here they are, Jayne Mansfield” as an introduction for the buxom movie star.
Cavett continued with The Tonight Show as a writer after Johnny Carson took over hosting duties. He even appeared on the show once, doing a gymnastics routine on the pommel horse. After departing The Tonight Show, Cavett began a brief career as a stand-up comic. In 1964 he had a series of gigs at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. His manager was Jack Rollins, who later became the producer of nearly all of Woody Allen’s films. One of his jokes from this period was:
I went to a Chinese-German restaurant. The food is great, but an hour later you’re hungry for power.
In 1968 Cavett was hired by ABC to host This Morning, which proved too sophisticated for a morning audience, and ABC first moved the show to a late-night slot opposite Carson’s The Tonight Show.
When Cavett started on network television in the early 1970s, and he had a reputation as the talk show host for people who hated talk shows. It was a condescending compliment; the subtext was that he was too intelligent for the medium. It was wrongheaded. Cavett is an unapologetically showbiz figure, someone who used his vast knowledge and genuine interest in people, politics, culture, and the arts to make a career for himself in the entertainment business.
There was a time when it seemed necessary to have mixed feelings about Cavett. Rick Moranis did a terrific, cutting Cavett imitation on SCTV, playing him as a self-satisfied, passive-aggressive babbler who believed his own hype. Now, it’s easier to appreciate what he brought to talk shows and see his flaws as endearing. It’s not as if anyone has done what he did better or seems interested in even trying to do it now. Paar also booked politicians and writers alongside the showbiz types, but Paar was so emotional as a host that his guests frequently took a backseat. Seth Meyers can keep a conversation going, and he has novelists on his show, and acts as if he genuinely likes to meet them; he comes closest to doing what Cavett did, but his show is still more about the comedy bits.
Cavett gave air time to film and television stars, directors, rock stars, novelists, critics, Golden Age Hollywood legends, politicians, comedians, and anybody might have something interesting to say. He’d mix them together on the same couch, which you know I love, and sometimes he’d go deep in conversation with one guest for an hour or more.
He had John Wayne profess his love of the work of Noël Coward. And in one of my favorite episodes, Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, friends for a lifetime, got together on Cavett’s show where they exchanged quips and thoughts about the theater with the beguiling charm of talented luminaries. Cavett was clearly overawed, and for once the ad-libs went over his head.
Cavett maybe diminutive, but he was no scaredy-cat. He told tough guy Norman Mailer, on national television:
Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?
Yet, he always made the chat the star of the show. Because loose talk among smart people can be unpredictable, unplanned moments used to break out on his show all the time. I’m certain no one was expecting things to get lively when the show booked Medical Center star Chad Everett, who so pissed-off Lily Tomlin with his sexist comments that she walked off the set.
In September 1970, John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara had been drinking before the show, leading the host to say: “Are you guys all smashed?”
In December 1974, three months before Young Americans was released, David Bowie stopped by The Dick Cavett Show for a half-hour chat and performance looking mighty thin and apparently loaded on white powder.
Jerome Rodale, a pioneer of organic gardening and founder of Prevention magazine, died of a heart attack while being interviewed on Cavett’s show in 1971. Cavett at first thought his guest had dozed off to sleep. During the interview, Rodale stated his intention to live to be 100. He only made it to 72.
Cavett could get television-reluctant movie stars to converse as if they were sitting in their living room. Hepburn hemmed and hawed about coming on Cavett’s show, but in 1973, she agreed to stop by “just to take a look at the set.” Once there, Hepburn suddenly decided she wanted to gab. At 66-years-old, it was her first television appearance. She stayed for two hours.
I saw her left cheek twitch a little, and realized this woman, this woman with the guts of all time is nervous. That utterly relaxed me because all I could think of was: I have to help this poor kid get through the next couple of hours.
In 1971, he asked Bette Davis how she, unlike Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland had managed to avoid being “victimized” by her career. Davis:
It takes great discipline. I think I was very fortunate in my upbringing. I think my New England background … was an extraordinary stabilizer.
Who could blame these strong women, not only was Cavett sharp and engaging, but he was also young, late 30s, and cute.
I love watching YouTube clips of those early shows when I am researching for #BornThisDay. Nobody’s selling anything on the old Cavett shows. Except for Marlon Brando, who in 1973 was still slim and beautiful when he appeared on the show. Brando came with an agenda: he’d appear only if he could speak about the miseries about Native American life. But, Brando ended up talking about acting, a profession he’d always ridiculed.
We couldn’t survive a second if we weren’t able to act. Acting is a survival mechanism. It’s a social unguent and it’s a lubricant. We act to save our lives, actually, every day. People lie constantly every day by not saying something that they think, or by saying something that they didn’t think.
Cavett countered: “That’s not acting“. “That is acting“, Brando insisted.
Cavett defines what he did on his show as:
Conversation is when people simply talk; not take a test on the air with Q and A. It’s when something said spontaneously prompts a thought and a reply in someone else. Feel free to pass this on to anyone about to do a talk show.
After Cavett’s contract with ABC sputtered out early in 1975, he briefly had a summer show on CBS, then moved to PBS from 1977 to 1982. His longest-running gig was on CNBC, with a regular half-hour of primetime from 1989 until 1996. Many of the shows from his PBS era, where he was granted creative control and freedom from commercial constraints in exchange for lower public profile and production values are classics. It was then that he fought for conversation as entertainment, before cable and podcasts.
Cavett has been quite open about his struggles with depression and anxiety attacks. Cavett:
The greatest benefit of depression is the fact that when I have talked about it, every so often someone comes up and says, ‘You saved my life’.