Dick Cavett: A Master of Intelligent Conversation

dick cavett

For over half a century, Dick Cavett has built a reputation for interviewing complex guests with engaging and well-reasoned questions.  His extensive knowledge and quick wit allowed him to attract unique people to his shows.  And this has led to an enduring legacy of archival discussions:  John Lennon on why The Beatles ended, Jim Hendrix about his performance at Woodstock, as the last person to interview Janis Joplin, and J.I. Rodale, head of a health and wellness conglomerate, who died during the taping of the show (which never aired).

Cavett, now 86, grew up in Nebraska.  Both his parents worked as teachers.  His grandparents moved to the US from Wales and Germany, enabling him to speak fluent German.  He was drawn to performing at a young age, spending his time perfecting a magic show. Ironically, at some of the more notable magic competitions he ran into Johnny Carson, older than Cavett, who also was trying his hand at prestidigitation. They would later become good friends.

Cavett eventually attended Yale, switching his major from English to Drama, and was fascinated by movie and TV stars. He attempted a career in acting and while he was cast in several supporting roles on shows like Playhouse 90 and The Phil Silvers Show, he found himself too short to win any particularly interesting leading roles.  After reading that Jack Paar (the Tonight Show host prior to Johnny Carson) was struggling to find good jokes for his opening monologue, Cavett wrote some and sent them to Parr, who hired him right away.

Working with the Tonight Show as a talent coordinator gave Dick Cavett access to a variety of stars.  He became very good friends with Groucho Marx, with whom he established a long relationship both on and off camera.  Cavett also tried his hand at standup comedy, playing in a variety of venues and even meeting Lenny Bruce.  When this was not as successful as he had hoped, he continued to find work writing for other talk shows such as Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan.

In 1968, he was finally given his own morning show, which was moved into an evening primetime slot, and eventually into late-night time, competing with The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.  While Cavett never came close to unseating Johnny Carson as the king of late night, there was mutual respect between the two, with Carson inviting Cavett to appear multiple times.

The Dick Cavett Show, ran for 35 years starting in 1968, and lasted through a variety of incarnations, airing across many networks throughout that time, including ABC where it started, then CBS, PBS, USA, and even CNBC networks. He was often able to secure an audience with reclusive stars, including:

  • Multiple interviews with members of the Beatles, including John Lennon (with and without Yoko) and George Harrison, who rarely gave interviews. Cavett asked Harrison if he felt a responsibility for talking about drugs and the impression it might be making on youngsters. The audience booed Cavett, at which point he turned to the audience and said “shut up.”

  • A debate on the Vietnam War between anti-war John Kerry and pro-war John E. O’Neill, which troubled then-President Nixon enough to request that someone try to find a way to discredit Cavett.
  • A contentious interview between Gore Vidal (writer) and Norman Mailer (playwriter, novelist, actor), who admitted that he had been drinking prior to the show. As Mailer become more agitated with Vidal, who had written a poor review of Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex, he turned his irritation to Cavett, attempting to goad him into an argument. When Mailer asked Cavett “Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?”Cavett famously responded, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?”
  • Marlon Brando, in 1973, who never gave interviews and who had most recently rejected his Academy Award and appeared on Cavett’s show with Native Americans to discuss their unfair treatment.
  • A sobering discussion with Robin Williams about his battles with depression.

All of these interviews and many others are preserved on various platforms, have been released on DVDs, and can often be found in part or full on YouTube.

Cavett has appeared in a variety of films and television episodes through the years, often playing himself.  He has written several successful books including Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, Talk Show, Cavett, and Why I’m An Only Child and Other Slightly Naughty Plains Folktales (with Roger Welsch).  And his unique vocal pacing and speech style has made him an effective narrator of audiobooks.

With the proliferation of the Internet, Cavett has found a resurging interest in his old show and interviews.  He is on Twitter (@TheDickCavett) and has a YouTube channel (The Dick Cavett Show).  PBS’ American Masters recently created a wonderful and fascinating episode based solely on the repeat appearances of Groucho Marx, “Groucho and Cavett.”  All these tributes and others are a great chance to experience a master who gave us unique insight into some of the most influential people of the last 50 years – and who is still contributing smart cultural commentary today.

-Will Wills

Photo: Dick Cavett (Public Domain)

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3 comments on “Dick Cavett: A Master of Intelligent Conversation

  1. Joe Wirtel

    Has Cavett been honoured by the Kennedy Center? If not, he deserves it more than most primarily for making TV more than a narcotic; a way to amuse oneself to death. Its very hard to be existentially committed and entertaining at once. Cavett negotiated this balance between profundity and buffoonery with the sill of an accomplished gymnast, which he was in real life. And that’s what Cavett was all about- Real life, but not a stuffy Uber serious BBC version of life; that approach would have bored the audience. No Cavett used his comedic gifts economically and with stealth precision. The wonderful horrible Vidal/ Mailer debacle is Dick Cavett’s masterpiece. And so is the man: an American masterpiece of a man.

    • His interview with Jimi Hendrix is very lame and uncomfortable. Other than that he is good

    • Joe, he has not been honored by the Kennedy Center but really should be, while he’s still around. He was nominated for and won numerous Emmys. I’ve always found him to be smart and quick witted. Watching some of his interviews, he’s so good at listening intently and making sure to politely ask about interesting backstories. Even today at 86 years old, he hasn’t lost much of a step. Thank you for the comment! Fun article to write.

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