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.

Mr. Hospitality: Mike Douglas Hosted 30,000 Guests

For the month of July we are taking a look at some of the innovative talk shows of the past. With only three channels to choose from in the sixties, almost everyone tuned into The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.  However, talk shows were also popular during the day.

The Mike Douglas Show began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. It had light banter with guests and featured musical performers daily, although more serious interviews were also conducted from time to time.  In 1963, the show was expanded to Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

In 1965, the show moved to Philadelphia and went into national syndication that same year. One final move was made in 1978 when it relocated to Hollywood. For 1980, Douglas handed the show over to John Davidson to host. It went through some changes and replaced about one-third of the staff, but the ratings continued to plummet and it was officially cancelled in November of 1981 with more than 6000 shows and 30,000 guests.

Douglas was born in Chicago in 1925 and became a teenage singer, entertaining on the radio and in supper clubs. He sang a lot of big band numbers and became the staff singer at WKY in Oklahoma City before joining the Navy in WWII. He had two hits in the fifties, “Old Lamplighter” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” but his career was not going anywhere, so he decided to turn to television.

Photo: eyesofageneration.com

Douglas had a different celebrity co-host every week, and they interviewed a variety of entertainers. The show was very popular and had high ratings.  Douglas had a fun personality .  In 1976, Match Game received higher ratings, so Douglas made an unscheduled appearance on the game show to congratulate Gene Rayburn on having the number 1 daytime show on the air.

Photo: muppetwikifandom.com

I could literally fill pages with the guest stars and musical performers who appeared on the show. Some of the more interesting ones included two-year-old Tiger Woods who showed off his golf swing for Bob Hope and James Stewart.

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Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and a very young Tiger Woods Photo: pinterest.com

A Who’s Who listing of guests also included Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Angela Davis, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Malcom X, Mother Teresa, the Muppets, Ralph Nader, Richard Nixon, Vincent Price, and John Wayne.

The “Supreme” music guests Photo: pinterest.com

A variety of musical genres were represented with performers including ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cher, Sam Cooke, Electric Light Orchestra, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, The Jacksons, Jefferson Airplane, Elton John, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, The Mills Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, The Supremes, and Frank Zappa.

With Gene Simmons and Cher Photo: vintage.com

Critics also liked the show. It received its first Emmy in 1967 and would go on to win four more.

Tom Kelly, who co-authored with Douglas on his memoir, revealed why he thought Mike was so successful: “One big key to his great success was he had his ego in check. He always let the guest have the limelight. He was a fine performer. He could sing, he could do comedy, he did it all, but he always gave the guest the spotlight.”

Photo: wikipedia.com

I can remember my mother watching Mike Douglas most days while I played with my toys.  Here we are sixty years later and afternoon talk shows like Ellen DeGeneres and Kelly Clarkson are still going strong thanks to pioneers like Mike Douglas who showed us the classy way to be a host.

“Oh, he was a nice, nice man.”

With all the research I have done, I have discovered a lot of nice folks in the entertainment industry (as well as a few not so nice people), but I have never read about anyone more liked than Howard McNear.  Everyone went out of their way to say what a kind and caring man he was.

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McNear was born in Los Angeles in 1905. He studied at the Oatman School of Theater and then joined a stock company in San Diego. During World War II, he enlisted as a private in the US Army Air Corps. He went on to a career in radio, films, and television. In the mid-1960s, he had a stroke and died from complications of pneumonia in 1969. Parley Baer, a life-long friend, delivered his eulogy. He was buried in Los Angeles, completing his California life cycle.

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Howard began working in the radio industry in the 1930s. He was featured in many radio shows, including The Adventures of Bill Lance – a detective drama starring John McIntire as Lance. McNear played the part of Ulysses Higgins, a friend and assistant to Lance. He also filled the role of Clint Barlow on Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police. Some of the other shows he often appeared on included Suspense, Lux Radio Theater, Escape, CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theater, Let George Do It, The Adventures of Masie, Fort Laramie, Wild Bill Hickock, and Richard Diamond, Private Eye. He and Parley Baer were part of the cast of The Count of Monte Cristo, a drama. He continued to work often Baer they both voiced characters frequently on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. He played congressmen, hotel managers, French detectives, and occasionally the villain.

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He was still working with Baer when they both created their most famous radio characters—Baer as Chester and McNear as Doc Charles Adams—in Gunsmoke which was on the air from 1952-1956. Baer would later show up in Mayberry as the mayor.

McNear made his film debut in the 1951 sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He followed that up with Escape from Fort Bravo. In 1959 he played Dr. Dompierre in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Some of his most famous films were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and two Elvis flicks, Blue Hawaii and Follow That Dream. He was also featured in three Billy Wilder comedies: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie.

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Overall, he appeared in more than 100 films and television shows. He transitioned into television in the 1950s, appearing The Jack Benny Show and the Burns and Allen Show. He appeared in comedies such as I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, December Bride, The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He also showed up in dramas like The Thin Man, Playhouse 90, Richard Diamond, The Twilight ZoneThe Zane Grey Show, Maverick, and Alfred Hitchcock. Ironically, he had a role as a barber in Leave It to Beaver.

Although McNear had a long career on radio and in films, he will forever be remembered for his memorable and scene-stealing portrayal of chatty and naïve Floyd the Barber in the long-running The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS). Don Knotts once said that playing Floyd wasn’t much of a stretch for McNear, as his real personality was pretty much like Floyd to begin with.

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The first episode of TAGS to feature Floyd did not star McNear; Walter Baldwin was Floyd Lawson. After that episode, McNear took over and made the role his own. On his first appearance he was Floyd Colby, but the next time his name was mentioned it had become Floyd Lawson. Floyd’s shop was where the Mayberry men gathered to gossip and play checkers, and they occasionally got haircuts.

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We usually see Floyd wearing his well-groomed mustache, thick glasses, and his white barber coat. We learned several things about Floyd during the course of the show. He is a widower. His wife was named Melva and they had two children, a son and a daughter. His son Norman plays the saxophone and baseball. When he retired he moved in with his daughter and her family. Floyd had a niece in town named Virginia Lee who entered the Miss Mayberry Pageant. He was also Warren Ferguson’s uncle; Ferguson would replace Barney as deputy when he moved from Mayberry to the big city.

Floyd often (incorrectly) attributed famous quotes to Calvin Coolidge. Floyd had a dog named Sam and raised pansies. He typically drank coffee but enjoyed a Nectarine Crush or a Huckleberry Smash soda now and then, and he thought Wally had the best pop in town.

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Floyd liked to write. He wrote the song for the Miss Mayberry Pageant: “Hail to thee, Miss Mayberry; All hail to thee, all hail; Your loveliness, your majesty; Brings joy to every male; All hail, all hail, all hail; All hail, all hail, all hail.” He even tried to write a novel but had writer’s block after creating a brilliant first sentence: “The sun is dropping lazily down behind the purple hills in the western skies.”

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In the middle of the show’s run, McNear suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving half his body paralyzed. He took some time off to recover. Andy asked him to come back, and the production crew went to great lengths to make things comfortable for him. Although he could not walk or stand, he was seen sitting outside on a bench. There was a special platform built so he could cut hair looking like he was standing while sitting.  Often a he holds a prop with his left hand, using his right hand as he spoke his lines. In 1967, he left the series for good when he could not remember his lines.

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My two favorite Floyd episodes were “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver” and “Convicts At Large.”

In “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver,” Floyd has been corresponding with a wealthy pen pal, a widow. She wants to visit Mayberry which gets him frustrated. He wants to meet her, but he has painted himself as an equally wealthy man. Andy helps him maintain the ruse by using a mansion of a man who is out of town. Eventually, Floyd realizes that the widow was not the wealthy woman she made herself out to be either.

In “Convicts At Large,” the normally excitable Floyd displays a calm demeanor after he and Barney are taken hostage by three escapees from the women’s prison–Big Maude, Naomi, and Sally. When they go into town to buy food, Andy realizes that there is something fishy going on and recaptures the women.

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The cast members who worked with McNear can best describe the type of man he was. In Richard Kelly’s book, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith, Jack Dodson, and Richard Linke share their memories of Howard McNear. It seems fitting to let them have the last words of this blog.

Andy Griffith:

Howard, first of all, was a leading man in the San Diego theatre years ago. He never was in New York in his life. He developed this comic character, I believe, on The Jack Benny Show. Howard was a nervous man and he became that man, Floyd.

Then Howard had a stroke and was bad off for a long time. He was out of our show for about a year and three-quarters. We did a lot of soft shows, that is, those that were not hard on comedy — stories about the boy or the aunt. But we needed comedy scenes to break up things.

We were working on a script one day, and Aaron [Ruben] said, `Boy do I wish we had Howard.’ And one of us said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get him.’ So right then we called up Howard’s house and we got his wife, Helen. ‘Oh,’ she said, `it would be a godsend.’

Well, we wrote him a little scene. He was paralyzed all down his left side and so we couldn’t show him walking. We had him sitting or we built a stand that supported him. He could then stand behind the barber chair and use one hand. Most of the time, however, we had him sitting. His mind was not affected at all. He was with us about two years after that before he died. Finally poor Howard died. I’m sorry because there was never anyone like him. Kind, kind man.

Jack Dodson:

Unfortunately, I didn’t know Howard before his stroke. Even after his stroke he was just a wonderful human being and a splendid actor. Sadly, it was during the playing of a scene with Howard that we realized he couldn’t go on anymore.

It was the segment where I wanted to raise the rent on the barbershop. The characters had a great falling out and then, at the end of the show, they were brought back together in the courthouse. Howard had a little difficulty with that segment. We had to change our shooting schedules a little so that his days were not quite so long as they had been. And then, finally, we had a very simple scene of reconciliation. He couldn’t remember it. He went over it and over it, frustrated with himself. Seeing his despair and anxiety was the most painful experience that I’ve ever had. And then he didn’t come back after that.

Richard Linke:

We went to the funeral, and I have to say that it was the only funeral I’ve ever been to where the laughs exceeded the tears. There were a couple of people who knew him well. They spoke in the form of a eulogy — I guess you could call it that. Oh, but it was funny. They related Howard McNear stories from the pulpit. It was something else. Really, it made a nice thing. I think Hal Smith, who played Otis, got up there. It was something else, those stories. And yet, it was all done with dignity. Oh, he was a nice man.