After decades of deftly getting guests to spill it on his legendary talk show, Dick Cavett is only too happy to dish about his on-air life.
In a sweeping interview, Cavett, a first-rate conversationalist with an easygoing manner, demonstrates again and again the razor-sharp wit and in-depth interest that made Americans welcome him into their living rooms for almost two decades beginning in the late Sixties. Counter to today’s supersized, listen-to-me personalities ruling the airwaves (and he has a few opinions about some of them) he remains, as always, interested in what others have to say. So much so that a meet-up for coffee turns into a nearly two-hour affair — with a few card tricks thrown in for good measure. Though the sleight of hand presumably wasn’t quite as nimble as when Cavett, a trained magician, first met Johnny Carson, doing his own magic act in a Nebraska church in 1952.
Whether impersonating the gravelly Katharine Hepburn or the nasally Brooklynite who hired (and fingerprinted) him decades ago to be a mystery shopper, Cavett brings to life tales from his just-released book, “Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.” But the former host of “The Dick Cavett Show,” which aired on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and on public television from 1977 to 1982, hasn’t strayed from the spotlight entirely. He blogs for The New York Times and harvested some of those bimonthly columns for the just-released tome. The 74-year-old often sounds off on “Imus in the Morning” and other politico shows, and is even toying with the idea of a comeback.
“For years, I lived without being on five days a week. But it’s funny. I would not only be better now in some ways, because I know more and I’ve had more time to think about it, but I would enjoy doing a show now,” he says. “Do you think I could do it at least as well as Spitzer and what’s her name?”
The Emmy Award winner’s staying power should stave off naysayers, of which there were many when his first memoirs were published in 1974. “I think it was Graham Greene who said, ‘Anyone who has reached the age of 23 has enough material for at least four novels,’” says Cavett.
Having dragged his heels about doing a guest shot on that CNN show with Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker, Cavett says, “I wonder why they call it a guest shot? I guess because it could be lethal to your career.”
His own career soared thanks to sit-downs with Bette Davis, Richard Burton, Ingrid Bergman, Robert Mitchum, Woody Allen, Paul Newman, John Lennon, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and scads of other big guns — many of whom bid good-bye with “How you got me to talk about that I have no idea.” Ninety-minute shows will do that. “One of the great things about doing the show was when you’re watching one you wish the person on the screen would say this back to that person, and there you were — you could say it,” Cavett recalls. Leading the witness? “Or insulting the witness, as in, ‘I really think you’re full of crap,’ as I heard myself say in the third week of my television career to Timothy Leary.”
Remembering how housewives discovered his show by accident since ABC kept it a state secret by not promoting it, he says, “Every enterprise you work for — every company, every Web site, every publication, every industry — seems to have an amazing amount of ineptitude, incompetence and self-destructive behavior. I have no idea [why.] I am just amazed by it. I wish I knew so I could tell them how to be better.”
Seated in an Upper West Side cafe near his Central Park residence, a block and a half from his first New York address “a $51-a-month rat-infested, roach-riddled place,” Cavett traces his circuitous life. He mentions more than once how The Times has not exactly put out an A.P.B. about his blog. “Why the hell don’t they let people know?” he asks. And familiar as he is with Twitter, that prospect doesn’t exactly floor him. “I can’t imagine four people I would want to tell that my filling fell out and I am doing some of my own laundry,” he says.
Long before there was Gawker Stalker (an offhanded reference not lost on Cavett), he mastered the celebrity stakeout as a young man new to New York. After trailing Groucho Marx from a funeral, the comedian invited him to lunch. Another time after writing an unsolicited monologue for Jack Paar, Cavett snuck into what is now The Ed Sullivan Theater to hand it off to him. Paar used some of the material and soon after put Cavett to work.
“Yeah, I met a helluva lot of people. I should have in some ways done it more,” he says laughing. “As was the case with Katharine Hepburn, I was able to remind her we had met years before.”
Cavett, an English teacher’s son who can never read enough, was cool on a current form of media fast food. “Thank you for not asking me about reality shows,” he says, which like much of what is on TV does not interest him in the least. “I’ve seen one or two before. All I have to hear is the word ‘reality’ and my set switches channels. I guess that covers that.”
Once the boob tube made its way to his home state of Nebraska (days before the Army-McCarthy trials aired), Cavett would tune in for six or seven hours a day; now he might only watch that much in a week. “I sadly have concluded that I don’t necessarily associate TV with entertainment any more. That’s a bit extreme but my God — the liveness of it — when you knew it was live, and that at any moment whatever happened was going to happen, whether they wanted it to or not,” he says.
As for the current brigade of talking heads, when prompted, Cavett doles out kudos to soon-to-be talk show host Anderson Cooper, former Newsweeker Jon Meacham on “Need to Know” and Jimmy Fallon. Craig Ferguson is “splendid” and “to have two guys as intelligent as [Stephen] Colbert and Jon Stewart in your lifetime is a nice thing.”
Though not long ago an inaccurate write-up about Cavett’s appearance on “The Daily Show” left him reeling. “I had said, ‘When did we have sanity? When we voted for Al Gore and got George Bush? Mission accomplished. Attacked by a country and retaliating immediately by attacking a different country? When did we have sanity?’” Cavett says, “The nitwit who wrote the article had it, ‘When did he have sanity?’ Not we the country, he — Stewart. And you know you can never expunge those things. I wrote him a note and sent the link to prove it. The secretary said that she gave it to him.”
CNN’s incoming Larry King successor, Piers Morgan, is a “total unknown quantity” to Cavett. “What makes things last these days?” he asks. “I probably have never seen anything so universally dispraised than the reaction to the Spitzer show. Spitzer-Parker — did his management lose out in the billing?”
The Nebraska native knows firsthand how nothing is certain in celluloid. Landing Hepburn for her first TV appearance in 1973 almost didn’t happen. Cavett recalls trying to line it up on the phone. “She said to me, ‘Well, if we don’t like what we do, we’ll just burn the tapes, won’t we?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yes,’ envisioning greenbacks winging their way out the window in the thousands.” When the actress came into the studio to scout out the set, not to do the show, Cavett suggested to the producer they tape the visit, “thinking she might not know what the red light means” and if she didn’t wind up doing the show, they would have a Katharine Hepburn tape as a souvenir. She not only did it, but famously rearranged the furniture to her discriminating eye.
What viewers might have missed was her nervousness, as evidenced by her twitching left cheek. “Nothing can relax you, the host, more than if you can see that the guest is worried especially if they are illustrious,” Cavett says. “And I thought, ‘Oh this poor little woman needs me to help her through this show.’”
That is not to imply Cavett made his mark with softball questions — far from it. His interviews were laced with hard-hitting ones and often unexpected ones. During a chat with the notoriously private Bette Davis, he asked her why she had agreed to a sit-down and she told him in effect that it was because he was a gentleman. So he asked the only question he could, “How did you lose your virginity?”
The insincere appeared to fare better, at least to the audience. “That bulls–t about the TV camera is like an X-ray — it shows everything, it shows up a phony. It never showed up a phony in its life. I’ve sat there with the biggest phonies in the world thinking, ‘Surely, the audience can see what a phony this person is,’ and on the show they would look OK,” Cavett said. “But one of the pleasures was realizing that and then pointing out how phony they were on the air.”
More recently, he crossed swords with the Times over the word “faggoty,” which Cavett said he used merely to quote an exchange with Richard Burton. The actor used the word to describe Paul Scofield’s eccentric gait from “undertucked deformed toes.” Asked if newspapers are right to try to maintain some decorum, Cavett says, “I think you should be able to print anything. But I lost it for a time with that [Times] thing because it ruined a good anecdote — there was more to it. You know people are f—ing and sh–ting all over The New Yorker and the Times is still written for grandmothers. Prudish ones. There are some hip grandmothers. And then I calmed down.”