Dick Cavett

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Anthony Burgess, with Dick Cavett in 1971, thinking racial strife in London had been solved and discussing Shakespeare.

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Two more Robin Williams interviews, the first one with Dick Cavett in 1979, the second with David Frost in 1991. At the beginning of the Frost piece, the comic flawlessly recreates an early Shakespeare stand-up bit, “Two Dudes From Santa Monica.”

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Dick Cavett has the distinction of being the only talk-show host to land on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List.” His “crime”? He focused segments of his great ABC program on the President’s crimes (no quotation marks required). Here’s the trailer for Dick Cavett’s Watergate, which runs next month on PBS.

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Great Little Richard performance and interview on a 1970 Dick Cavett program.

If Eddie Murphy had ever played the often-androgynous music sensation in a drama as was rumored at times and not just in the SNL “Little Richard Simmons” mash-up, it would have likely been an incredible performance. Based on comments Murphy made back in the day, he was uncomfortable with the role because of the self-proclaimed Bronze Liberace’s homosexuality, though in retrospect it seems Murphy’s discomfort was largely with himself.

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Jim Henson and the Muppets entertain Dick Cavett on his 1971 Thanksgiving show. Missing is the section where Gore Vidal walked out and referred to them all as a bunch of crypto-fascist Nazis.

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Sid Caesar, a gigantic comedy talent from TV’s 1950s, who invented not only his amazing self but also the template for the Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live, is remembered in the most recent New York Times blog post by Dick Cavett, who takes a break from excoriating his bosses. Caesar, a complicated and troubled figure, spent all his talent and energy in one decade and never did anything close to that level again. He made nearly $4 million a year for most of that time, so he probably wasn’t hurting for money, though he was hurting. I don’t think you reach Caesar’s level of genius without natural gifts and without a difficult childhood. A rickety foundation allows for a lot of bounce in the legs but also inevitable falls.

Below is an excerpt from Cavett’s reminiscences and a short clip of the talk show host with the comic. Also very worthwhile is a tribute that Conan O’Brien (very influenced both verbally and physically by Caesar) did with one of the comedian’s Your Show of Shows writers, Mel Brooks. Watch here.

“It happens so often, the suffering from drug and alcohol addiction or other psychological problems of comic giants like Jonathan Winters, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, Buster Keaton … the comedy list only begins there. And those other afflicted giants: Garland, Barrymore, Robards, Burton, Taylor, Tracy et al. And the great writers, like … sorry, my space is limited.

We tend to think that having a skyrocketing talent and being able to exercise it before an adoring public would guarantee a happy life. Silly old us.

Sid’s autobiography Where Have I Been? is a horror story. A tale of such stuff as very bad dreams are made on. Suffering an alcoholism that seemed to match in size his talent, he lost whole years of his life while living them.

A striking instance from that book sticks hard in my mind. In the midst of one of his darkest periods, Sid learned to his surprise that he had recently made a feature movie in Australia! His total memory of those months consisted of the boarding of a plane and a single sunset.

Someone years ago wrote, in a stately article in The Partisan Review, that there seemed to be in humankind what he called ‘the law of negative compensation.’ That the gifted must also be the punished.”


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Dick Cavett, angrily defending Woody Allen from charges of child molestation, in an all-out offensive against Mia Farrow as well as one of his current places of employment, the New York Times, and his co-worker Nicholas Kristof. Articulate as always, he likely skirts litigious language, if barely. Should have mentioned he’s had relationships with Allen and Bob Weide, whose Daily Beast article he references. You can make the argument that his friendship with the former is well-known, but not the latter. Fireworks begin here at the 2:35 mark.

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Muhammad Ali, jaw wired shut after having it broken by Ken Norton in just his second professional defeat, still managing to talk to Dick Cavett in 1973. He looks sad and shaken here and apparently considered retiring. Ali wouldn’t be quite the same sports legend if he hadn’t continued his career and fought Frazier twice more and Foreman once, but he’d not have suffered nearly the same neurological damage. By the time Ali boxed Larry Holmes in 1980, it was criminal he was allowed in the ring, his sad fate sealed.

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!n 1968, Judy Garland visited Dick Cavett for the first time. The picture is very shaky and so, sadly, is she.

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Mae West, a great and dirty writer as well as a stage and screen icon, is visited by Dick Cavett on a Hollywood backlot in 1976.

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Muhammad Ali visits with Dick Cavett in 1978 in the wake of his loss to Leon Spinks. Ali, now slowed and beloved, would win a rematch in his final great moment as a boxer, but he really, really should have been retired for several years at this point. 

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When Dick Cavett was a TV talk-show host, he almost never sat behind a desk, which made it very difficult for him to hide his penis. The nation stared at the shame of his sex as it flopped about. Still, the show went on.

In Cavett’s New York Times blog and in culture critic Ken Tucker’s long, new Grantland article about the current late-night shuffling and scuffling, each man names the same host as his favorite in the ever-more-crowded yet ever-less-influential world of late-night television: Stephen Colbert. (His reign will continue until Donald Trump gets a talk show. He’s the best at everything.) An excerpt:

From Cavett: “And speaking of Dave’s presumably stepping aside some sad day, if CBS is smart, there is in full view a self-evident successor to The Big L. of Indiana.

The man I’m thinking of has pulled off a miraculous, sustained feat, against all predictions — descendants of those same wise heads who foresaw a truncated run for the Carson boy — of making a smashing success while conducting his show for years with a dual personality. And I don’t mean Rush Limbaugh (success without personality).

I can testify, as can anyone who’s met him and seen him as himself, how much more there is to Stephen Colbert than the genius job he does in his ‘role’ on The Colbert Report. Everything about him — as himself — qualifies him for that chair at the Ed Sullivan Theater that Letterman has so deftly and expertly warmed for so long. Colbert is, among other virtues, endowed with a first-rate mind, a great ad-lib wit, skilled comic movement and gesture, fine education, seemingly unlimited knowledge of affairs and events and, from delightful occasional evidence, those things called The Liberal Arts — I’ll bet you he could name the author of Peregrine Pickle. And on top of that largess of qualities (and I hope he won’t take me the wrong way here), good looks.

Should such a day come, don’t blow it, CBS.”

From Tucker: “Stephen Colbert is, for me, working on a whole different level from anyone else, and is currently the most consistent, deeply satisfying late-night host. Colbert’s ability to joke and conduct interviews on The Colbert Report while inhabiting a persona antithetical to what is probably a profoundly decent person beneath that smirk ‘n’ makeup is the most sustained piece of performance art ever. I’m not saying he’s greater than Letterman was (and still can be) at his best, but that they both inhabit roles (for Dave, the ironic rube; for Stephen, the cheerfully evil asshole) as utterly as Daniel Day-Lewis.”

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A 1991 clip of Conan O’Brien and Letterman’s early and great head writer Steve O’Donnell being interviewed by talk show royalty Dick Cavett. Conan was still a comedy writer, not a host, at the time.

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For a special 1972 episode, Dick Cavett moved his talk show to Madison Square Garden to interview members of the Rolling Stones and show the group in performance.

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A 1980 episode of a post-ABC Dick Cavett talk show, in which he interviews Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in their suite at the Wyndham Hotel. Crappy video quality, but obviously worth it.

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Just a minute (sadly) of James Baldwin discussing race on Dick Cavett’s show.

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Dick Cavett and Eddie Murphy discussing the use of the N-word in Huckleberry Finn, both freely saying the whole word repeatedly. I would assume this is the Cavett show iteration that aired on USA cable in 1985-86, but it looks as if it could have been shot in his garage in front of hobos. Lousy audio but worth it.

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Even though Joni Mitchell wrote the most famous song about Woodstock, she had to skip the festival because her managers were afraid she might get stuck in traffic and not make it back to Manhattan in time for her scheduled performance the next day on the Dick Cavett Show. This is that performance.

At the 6:00 mark:

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Dick Cavett interviewing Ingmar Bergman in 1971, before the filmmaker put himself on an island, literally and figuratively. Bibi Andersson joins the latter half of the discussion.

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Noël Coward (three years before his death), Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne visit Dick Cavett, 1970.

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Walter Winchell wielded a fearsome power from the 1930s through the 1950s, via his newspaper gossip column and radio show, and often used his influence poorly and viciously. He was immensely famous during his prime and nearly completely forgotten by his death in 1972. Winchell appeared on What’s My Line? in 1952. At the 18-minute mark. 

Dick Cavett recalled spending an evening with the late-life Winchell, in the New York Times“Winchell had fear-induced influence most everywhere, and in his heyday had acquired from his cop friends the sort of official police car radio forbidden to ordinary citizens, allowing him to habitually cruise the night and, upon hearing of a crime in progress, speed there for a column item.

‘They never give me a ticket for speeding,’ he boasted to me. A moment too soon. Minutes later, we got one. Somewhere on lower Park Avenue, while responding to a police call.

To his chagrin, my companion of the night’s name and visage cut no ice with the young rookie.

Despite the lives he purportedly ruined when at his peak — careers made and destroyed with a few words in his column or on the air — it was still sad to see the old lion now toothless. At one precinct we’d visited earlier, where in better times a chorus of, ‘Hey, Walter!’ would have gone up, only an ancient sergeant knew who he was. Walter devoured the scrap.

To the young cops, he was a cipher. My knowledge of his past victims — said, even, to include a few suicides — at that moment didn’t matter. That evening, as I accompanied him on his nightly prowl, I felt like quietly paying someone to say, ‘Hey, ain’t you Walter Winchell?’

And then it happened. At one precinct, a young gendarme with a good ear suddenly said, ‘Hey, Pop. Say something else! Talk again.’ He did.

‘Oh, my God! I know who you are!’

W.W. beamed.

‘You’re the announcer on The Untouchables!

Someone had been smart enough to cast the uniquely voiced Winchell — an excellent actor with, once, the most instantly identified voice in America — to narrate The Untouchables, the then popular T.V. crime series about the tough cop Eliot Ness in Prohibition Chicago. Winchell’s staccato delivery was perfect for the intermittent narration bits.

At the moment of recognition, Winchell grinned and seemed to visibly drop 20 years. To almost anyone not a victim of his past predations, it would be hard not to be moved by that moment, seeing the effect on the old fellow. Fame — though vastly reduced to a voice-over — had administered a craved injection.

Delighted, the former giant grabbed a pen and, eagerly and gratefully — although it had not been sought — signed an autograph.”

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Elsa Lanchester, most famously Frankenstein’s bride in 1935, chatting up Dick Cavett in 1970. Her longtime husband, Charles Laughton, was famously childish in his recreational tastes, often dragging people, including Ray Bradbury, to Disneyland, one of his favorite places.

Woman notices streak of gray in hair, settles for brain-dead douchebag with bolts in neck:

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One of John and Yoko’s odder gambits for world peace, Bagism, 1969.

Recalling the origins of Bagism with Dick Cavett, 1971 (at 2:28):

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Anthony Burgess, Jerzy Kosinski, and Barbara Howar turn the tables on Dick Cavett, 1974. Nice socks, Tony.

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Muhammad Ali sassing Dick Cavett in a boxing gym, 1973.

More Muhammad Ali posts:

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