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.
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
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?