The Dick Cavett Show: Television’s Classiest Talk Show Host

Dick Cavett made a career of being a talk show host. He began on ABC in March of 1968 and ended on TCM in 2007. In between, he showed up during the day, in prime time, late at night, on PBS, in syndication, and on CNBC. The Dick Cavett Show seems to refer to all the shows as a collected whole, so that’s how I will present it in my blog.

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Photo: chicagotribune.com

If you have ever seen Cavett in action, he has such a smooth, polite manner that sometimes you forget he may be asking an invasive question. Some of the most memorable shows were conversations with Christine Jorgenson (who walked off the show in 1968); Groucho Marx (1969); Jimi Hendrix (1969); The Woodstock Show (1969); Eric Clapton (1970); Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Noel Coward (1970); Orson Welles (1970); Salvador Dali (1971); John Kerry debating on Vietnam (1971); Watergate and Beyond (1974); Angela Davis (1972); Jackie Robinson (1972); Marlon Brando (1973); Katharine Hepburn (1973); Carol Burnett (1974); and  Mohammad Ali (several shows). As you can see, in addition to entertainers, Cavett interviewed influential authors, politicians, athletes, and newsmakers.

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Talking to the Great One: Ali Photo: latimes.com

Cavett often had several guests on each show, but sometimes he devoted the entire night to one person such as Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Janis Joplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Gloria Swanson, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, and David Bowie.

Politics were often covered by Cavett, and over the years, he interviewed many including political guests including Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Walter Cronkite, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater, Henry Kissinger, and G. Gordon Liddy.

In various interviews of his own, Cavett mentioned different shows that were memorable or brought in a lot of mail. Early in the show’s history, Cavett was interviewing Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes about a movie they were in. Cassavetes was so drunk and incoherent, Cavett walked off the stage.

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Laughing with Katharine Hepburn Photo: dangerousminds.com

Georgia governor Lester Maddox appeared in a panel with Truman Capote and Jim Brown about segregation. Cavett made a reference to “bigots” who supported Maddox. When Maddox demanded an apology, Cavett apologized to Georgians who supported him without being a bigot. Maddox left the studio. However, later Maddox relented and made another appearance, and Cavett walked off the set as a joke.

One memorable episode was something no host wants to encounter. Publisher J. I. Rodale was on the show. Cavett was talking to another guest when Rodale seemed to be snoring, but everyone soon realized something was wrong. He actually died there on the set. The audience didn’t even realize it until Cavett called for a doctor. The program was taped but not aired.

Director Ingmar Bergman did few television interviews and no US interviews, but he made an exception for Dick Cavett.

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With David Bowie Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

So, what types of things might you have learned from Cavett’s show? Well, Hitchcock explained how some of his most ingenious special effects worked.  Gale Sayers talked about the movie Brian’s Song (maybe he could have given me a hint how not to cry every single time I see the movie.).  BB King revealed what his name stands for. Jack Benny demonstrated how to play the violin. Melba Moore told what it was like to open at the Apollo Theater. James Garner explained how he accidentally broke co-star Doris Day’s ribs, and Jacques Cousteau discussed the mystery of manatees.

And finally, I had to find out who was Cavett’s favorite interview, and who were the ones that got away? The two he never got to interview but always wished he had was an easier answer to find: Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.

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Photo: WBUR

It was a lot harder to answer the first question.  If you read the other three blogs in this series, you know the other talk show hosts (Mike Douglas, Phil Donahue, and Tom Snyder) began careers in Ohio. I was hoping to find an Ohio link for Dick, and that’s when I found the answer to my question of his favorite interviewee.  Cavett landed in Cleveland at the end of his career, which seems fitting since he is ending this series.

He was talking about an upcoming show at The Nightclub in Cleveland and mentioned Jack Paar was his mentor. (Cavett wrote for The Tonight Show when Paar hosted it, and Paar began his career in Canton, Ohio; I know it’s one coincidence after another.) Jack told him he didn’t need humor, singing, or anything except a desire to have a conversation. Then Cavett said, “I watch clips from the shows when I’m invited to give a talk and they show them, and I’m always surprised by the number of little delightful moments I’ve forgotten. I watched a moment the other night when Groucho was on the show with [zoologist] Jim Fowler. And Fowler brought a sloth on the stage, and Groucho said, ‘That’s the lousiest-looking dog I’ve ever seen.’ I’d forgotten that. That was the same night Groucho proposed marriage to Truman Capote. . . .’I love to do Q&A with the audience, but there’s only one forbidden question, and it doesn’t have anything to do with sex or politics,’ he said. ‘The forbidden question is, Who has been your most interesting guest?’ . . . But then he went on to say that ‘If pushed to the wall, I have to admit that Groucho was the guest who meant the most to me.’ Cavett said that ‘In a letter from Miriam, Groucho’s daughter, she wrote, ‘My father thought the world of you.’ It gets me even now when I say that out loud.’”

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The unique Groucho Marx Photo: pinterest.com

In 2005 several box sets were released of some of Cavett’s shows. They are collected by theme of the interviewee such as The Rock Icons, etc. The network Decades, which recently went off the air, broadcast these shows also. Before the network was disbanded, I was able to watch about ten of these episodes, and they were as good as I had hoped for.

I have really enjoyed reviewing these talk show hosts and their guest interviews this month.  It makes me want to invite a bunch of friends over, one at a time, for coffee and conversation.  Just be forewarned, if I invite you over, I may have a list of questions I’ll want to be asking you.

2 thoughts on “The Dick Cavett Show: Television’s Classiest Talk Show Host

  1. I had no idea there were so many talk shows out there that didn’t involve the late time slots. He sounds like he had a long and memorable career. It would be very interesting to talk to such a wide variety of people from different walks of life. I imagine just preparing for the interviews would be interesting and keep you well rounded.

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