How Dick Cavett Brought Sophistication to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Classic Interviews Online

Just as the avun­cu­lar pres­ence of Ed Sul­li­van helped ease mid­dle Amer­i­ca into accept­ing Elvis Pres­ley and The Bea­t­les, the aw-shucks mid­west­ern charm of Dick Cavett made Wood­stock hip­pies seem down­right cud­dly when he had Jef­fer­son Air­plane, David Cros­by, and Joni Mitchell on just after the leg­endary music fes­ti­val in 1969. He had a way of mak­ing every­one around him com­fort­able enough to reveal just a lit­tle more than they might oth­er­wise. (See Jimi Hen­drix talk about his Nation­al Anthem per­for­mance, below.)

Born in Nebras­ka in 1937, “the only per­sona [Cavett] both­ered to, or need­ed to, devel­op for work­ing on cam­era was of a boy from Nebras­ka daz­zled by the bright lights of New York,” as Clive James writes in an appre­ci­a­tion of the TV host. As he inter­viewed the biggest stars of late six­ties, sev­en­ties, and eight­ies on the long-run­ning Dick Cavett Show, Cavett’s easy­go­ing Mid­west­ern demeanor dis­armed both his guests and audi­ences. He kept them engaged with his eru­di­tion, quick wit, and breadth of cul­tur­al knowl­edge.

Cavett, writes James, was “the most dis­tin­guished talk-show host in Amer­i­ca… a true sophis­ti­cate with a daunt­ing intel­lec­tu­al range.” He was also an empath­ic inter­view­er who could lead his guests beyond the stock respons­es they were used to giv­ing in TV inter­views. (David Bowie, below, reveals how he was influ­enced by his fans.)

A trained gym­nast and self-taught magician—Cavett met fel­low magi­cian John­ny Car­son in the ear­ly 50s at a mag­ic convention—the talk-show host left Nebras­ka for Yale and nev­er looked back. (He once joked, quot­ing Abe Bur­rows, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the farm?”) After col­lege, he moved to New York to pur­sue act­ing. There, he got his first com­e­dy writ­ing job, when he hand­ed some of his jokes to Tonight Show host Jack Paar in an ele­va­tor. He befriend­ed Stan Lau­rel, Grou­cho Marx, and all the biggest names in com­e­dy, and wrote for Jer­ry Lewis and Merv Grif­fin.

Once he had his own late-night talk show, how­ev­er, which ran oppo­site John­ny Carson’s Tonight Show, it became clear that he was doing some­thing very dif­fer­ent. “Cavett nev­er mugged, nev­er whooped it up for the audi­ence, rarely told a for­mal­ly con­struct­ed joke, and lis­tened to the guest,” writes James. He became “famous enough not to be able to go out except in dis­guise,” but “his style did not suit a mass audi­ence.” This is what made—and still makes—Cavett worth watch­ing.

He had Bri­an de Pal­ma and Mar­tin Scors­ese on to talk about how they’re each other’s best crit­ics, and Scors­ese revealed that he did addi­tion­al shoot­ing for The Last Waltz after De Pal­ma saw it.

Robin Williams came on to demon­strate his devel­op­ing Pop­eye voice dur­ing the shoot­ing of the Robert Alt­man film in 1979. In the clip above, he talks about feel­ing like “a mon­key on a string” and work­ing through his depres­sion.

Lucille Ball told the sto­ry of her ear­ly years in show busi­ness, and her time work­ing as a mod­el, and Dick Van Dyke talked frankly about his alco­holism and the stig­ma sur­round­ing addic­tion.

These are just a few of the 270+ sur­pris­ing clips you’ll find on the Dick Cavett Show YouTube chan­nel, where George Car­lin, Muham­mad Ali, Mar­lon Bran­do, George Har­ri­son, John Lennon, Ian McK­ellen, Julie Andrews, and too many more stars to name say things they rarely said any­where else, as Cavett draws them out and keeps them talk­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dick Cavett’s Wide-Rang­ing TV Inter­view with Ing­mar Bergman and Lead Actress Bibi Ander­s­son (1971)

George Har­ri­son in the Spot­light: The Dick Cavett Show (1971)

John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Two Appear­ances on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971 and 72

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Joel Kweskin says:

    Josh, I just fin­ished read­ing Cavet­t’s “Brief Encoun­ters,” a col­lec­tion of his essays for the New York Times; please allow my decid­ed view in the minor­i­ty: this guy is a pompous, self-indul­gent, pre­ten­tious, name drop­ping, for­eign lan­guage phras­es pol­li­nat­ing, preen­ing poseur. Who, by the way, is clear­ly obsessed with let­ting the world know, at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, that he went to, nay grad­u­at­ed from, Yale. He incon­gru­ous­ly recounts being prac­ti­cal­ly BFFs with Muhammed Ali (yeah, right) and, also incon­gru­ous­ly, being pur­sued by Mar­lene Diet­rich and ingra­ti­at­ing him­self to Grou­cho and Woody and John­ny, et al., all the while drop­ping bon mots and “wit­ty” ripostes that he has­tens to add always got “bof­fo” respons­es (laughs). His vaunt­ed intel­lec­tu­al­ism is the rai­son d’e­tre of a sim­ple dil­letan­tish show off, like­ly a defense mech­a­nism for a short, only mild­ly(!) clever ego­ist. The acco­lades, plau­dits and ver­bal gen­u­flec­tion this guy has got­ten through the years is, to my sen­si­bil­i­ties, tru­ly and astound­ing­ly head scratch­inh.
    By the way, did you know he went to Yale?

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