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.

The Respectable Career of Mr. Torn: Why You’ll Never Feel Ripped Off Watching Him Perform

As another year comes to a close, I wanted to take the month of December to remember some of the amazing television stars who passed away in 2019. In previous blogs during 2019, we discussed Tim Conway, Katherine Helmond, Peggy Lipton, and Peter Tork. We’ll be learning about Valerie Harper’s career in January.

Photo: flashbackdallas.com

We start our tributes with Rip Torn, born Elmore Rual Torn Jr. in 1931 in Texas. Rip was a name that many men in his family used. Torn had an unlikely acting career path. He attended Texas A&M and the University of Texas where he majored in animal husbandry. During his time there, he did study acting with Shakespeare professor B. Iden Payne. His not-well-thought-out plan was to hitchhike to Hollywood, become a movie star, and retire after making enough money to buy a ranch. Although it was a dubious beginning, he would go on to a sixty-year career in the acting profession.

Photo: listal.com
The Cincinnati Kid

He made his movie debut in 1956 in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. In the same year, he married Ann Wedgeworth. They would remain married for five years until he divorced her to marry Geraldine Page. He and Geraldine were married until her death in 1987.

He worked a number of odd jobs and took several television roles. When he got serious about his acting, he moved to New York City to study under Lee Strasberg. Later a relative of his, cousin Sissy Spacek, would also study under Strasberg. Along with acting, Torn studied dance with Martha Graham during his early years in New York. He made his Broadway debut in “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1959 and was nominated for a Tony. He would continue to weave in and out of Broadway and Off-Broadway for the rest of his career. He didn’t limit himself, continuing to star in Broadway, movies, and television, winning two Obie awards for “The Deer Park” and “The Beard.” He later opened a stage company.

Photo: tumblr.com
The Man Who Fell to Earth

Torn never lacked work. His roles varied as lead, second lead, supporting, and character. He took on a variety of roles in his movies. In 1965 he was Slade in The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen. The part of George Hanson in Easy Rider, which was released in 1969, was written for Torn by Terry Southern. However, Rip did not get along with Dennis Hopper and withdrew from the film. Jack Nicholson took over the role, propelling his rise to stardom. Rip portrayed a country and western singer in Payday in 1972. In 1976, he joined David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was a politician 1979 in The Seduction of Joe Tynan with Alan Alda and Meryl Streep. In 1983 he was nominated for a best supporting Oscar for Cross Creek, the true story of how Marjorie Rawlings wrote The Yearling.

Photo: pinterest.com
Airplane II: The Sequel

Most of his performances were in dramas, but he could also tackle comedy. Torn accepted the role of airline executive in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) and as a tourist with John Candy in Summer Rental (1985).

In 1989 Torn would marry Amy Wright whom he was married to until his death this year when he passed away in July.

Photo: comicbook.com
Men in Black

Many younger fans associate him with his role in Men in Black and Men in Black II in the late ‘90s and early 2000s where he worked with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

Photo: myneatstuff.ca
The Man From UNCLE

Although Torn may be best known for his movie roles, he had a long and prolific television career. In the 1950s he appeared on the small screen eleven times, primarily in the drama and theater series so prevalent at that time. The 1960s found him in twenty series including The Man from UNCLE, Dr. Kildare, and Rawhide. In the 1970s, his television roles were primarily in crime shows with one appearance on Bonanza. While he did not appear in any series in the 1980s, he did show up in many made-for-tv-movies. During his career, he would appear in 32 tv movies and about a dozen mini-series.

Photo: newyorktimes.com
The Larry Sanders Show

As Artie, the television producer on The Larry Sanders Show, he was nominated six years in a row (1992-1998) for an Emmy, winning in 1996.In addition to his time on The Larry Sanders Show, he also accepted eight other tv roles in the 1990s, including an appearance on Columbo. After 2000, he would show up on television six more times, including a recurring role on Will and Grace. He had a recurring role on 30 Rock as the Chief Executive Officer of General Electric from 2007-2009.

Photo: usatoday.com
On 30 Rock

Unfortunately, he got into some trouble in 2010. He claimed that got him fired from 30 Rock, but no one at the show ever confirmed that. He was arrested after breaking into a bank office close to his residence. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a permit, carrying a firearm while intoxicated, trespassing, and criminal mischief. He said he broke in thinking the bank was his home. His lawyer told the judge Torn had a severe alcohol abuse problem. Torn was given a $100,000 bail and began treatment. One article I read cited that Torn was arrested three times for driving while intoxicated before this arrest.

I don’t know if he ever bought that ranch, but he earned the respect of generations of actors. He chose roles that interested him and didn’t worry if his part was the lead actor or a secondary role. He was not focused on whether a part would lead to a financial payday, choosing roles that were interesting or challenging to play. RIP Rip.

Photo: fandom.com
Will and Grace