Salvador Dalí Strolls onto The Dick Cavett Show with an Anteater, Then Talks About Dreams & Surrealism, the Golden Ratio & More (1970)

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?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Q: Sal­vador Dalí, Are You a Crack­pot? A: No, I’m Just Almost Crazy (1969)

When Sal­vador Dali Met Sig­mund Freud, and Changed Freud’s Mind About Sur­re­al­ism (1938)

Alfred Hitch­cock Recalls Work­ing with Sal­vador Dali on Spell­bound: “No, You Can’t Pour Live Ants All Over Ingrid Bergman!”

Alfred Hitch­cock Talks with Dick Cavett About Sab­o­tage, For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent & Lax­a­tives (1972)

Sal­vador Dalí Reveals the Secrets of His Trade­mark Mous­tache (1954)

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

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.

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