There was a time when you could flip on the TV in the evening, tune in to a major network’s late-night talk show, and see Salvador Dalí walking an anteater. That time was the early 1970s, the network was ABC, and the talk show’s host was Dick Cavett, who dared to converse on camera, and at length, with everyone from Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen to Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to David Bowie and Janis Joplin, and John Lennon with Yoko Ono. Whether they went smoothly or bumpily, Cavett’s conversations played out like no others on television, then or now. Dalí’s March 1970 appearance above makes for a case in point: not only does he come on with his anteater, he wastes little time tossing it into the lap of another of the evening’s guests, silent-film star Lillian Gish.
Dalí praises anteaters to Cavett as the sole “angelic” animal, a quality that has something to go with their tongues. He goes on to explain his admiration for the mathematical properties of rhinoceroses, whose proportions agree with the “golden ratio” he tended to incorporate into his art.
Other subjects to arise during Dalí’s twenty minutes on set include the razor blade and the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou; the vivid, irrational, and “liliputitian” images that come to life in the mind “ten minutes or fifteen minutes before you fall [asleep]”; and the artist’s maintenance of his famous mustache (which he‘d previously discussed, sixteen years before, on The Name’s the Same). At one point Gish asks Dalí if his work has “a message to give to the people that we, perhaps, don’t understand.” His unhesitating reply: “No message.” Cavett, of course, has a smooth follow-up: “Could you invent one?”
In his show’s 1970s prime, Cavett demonstrated an unmatched ability to make entertainment out of difficult guests — not by making fun of them, exactly, but by cracking jokes that revealed a certain self-awareness about the form of the talk show itself. “Am I alone in finding you somewhat to difficult to follow in terms of what your theories are?” he asks Dalí amid all the talk of anteaters and eyeballs, dreams and mathematics. And the difficulty wasn’t just conceptual: “Is it my imagination,” Cavett asks later on, “or are you speaking a mixture of languages?” But Dalí’s deliberately idiosyncratic English, ideas, and personality all came of a piece, and at the end of the night Cavett admits his own admiration for the artist’s work, even going so far as to request an autograph on air. The viewers of America must have come away from Dalí’s TV appearances with more questions than answers. But for us watching today, one is particularly salient: what on Earth must Satchel Paige have thought of all this?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.