“I can’t believe he’s here now. I can’t believe he knows Groucho Marx. I can’t believe Groucho Marx exists.” An early iteration of Cavett’s legendary talk show.
And I’ve known him since I started working as a production assistant on his PBS series in 1979, but when his famous face popped up on my laptop 40 years later via Zoom, I was I confess that I feel almost the same.
“Look, Ron,” Cavett says in an instantly recognizable low-pitched humming version.
TV shows get canceled, but over the years, new Cavendish shows come to life again…and again, on PBS, ABC, USA, and CNBC, I tackled them all.
Our virtual reunion opportunity is “Groucho & Cavett”. american masters Airs December 27th on PBS. The show combines clips of Groucho’s many appearances on Cavett’s ABC late night show with commentary by Cavett, now 86.
What about Cavett seeing himself in his youth with Groucho?
“At the age I’m out there, it’s really nice to see yourself in something that happened a long time ago and realize how good you were,” Cavett says with a laugh. really means that, it often surprises me.”
Of course, Cavett is no surprise. That’s why the late critic Clive James wrote, “Cavett has reigned as the small screen’s most sophisticated talk show host since his early 1970s.”
When I was growing up, Cavett’s shows gave us a glimpse into a world where highly talented performers, authors, comics, and journalists were actually talking to each other every night. These impromptu exchanges, which I consider sophisticated versions of dialogue, were a large part of the show’s appeal.
I remember a show with the unlikely combination of Muhammad Ali, Edward Albee, George Carlin, and Jon Voight (years before Voight had a crush on Donald Trump). Even more memorable, of course, are Cavett’s conversations with Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Betty Davis, Fred Astaire, Richard Burton and many others, which are still fascinating thanks to YouTube. I can provide the night. And when Cavett takes on the role of a very witty referee, few scripted dramas can match the spectacle of Norman Mailer trading insults and almost fisticuffs with Gore Vidal.Anthony Burgess, Author clockwork orange “In New York back then, you had to be home by 11:30 to see who Cavett had on his show.”
Zooming into Cavett last weekend, I mentioned that I recently watched an episode of his ABC show on YouTube, where Bette Davis and British director/neurologist/comedian Jonathan Miller discuss method acting. .
“I have to find this,” Cavett tells me. “You made my day to come.”
Betty Davis’ story leads to the question I’ve always wanted to ask: Will he drink with Davis, or another Hollywood noblewoman, Katherine Hepburn, who gave Cavett her first television interview in 1973? If he chooses to drink with, who will he choose?
“Oh my god, it’s going to be hard. Each one has its own reward,” says Cavett. “I think I’m more comfortable with Bette Davis. I’m good friends with Hepburn. But there was something about Davis that made her a little more relatable.”
It was so accessible that Cavett asked Davis how he lost his virginity on air, and after the audience’s laughter subsided, Davis began to speak.
“It was a great moment. But I felt so comfortable with her. I probably wouldn’t have asked Mrs. Lyndon Johnson that question,” Cavett said, adding, “If she actually did. If you were
She tells Cavett that she always thought Hepburn was a little too autocratic.
“It’s true, it’s a shame. Yeah. Someone said about her — it could have been Gerson Kanin — she’s a great woman and everyone knows how great she is and so on. But , she gives that impression.
Then I’ll ask another question that has been on my mind for a long time. Why did rock and roll stars such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, David Bowie, and George Harrison perform at Cavett’s shows when Cavett himself was? Do you mean music devotees?
“Sometimes I wonder how that happened,” he says. “I wasn’t into rock music, but I hit it off with them.”
Cavett’s sessions with Joplin were particularly engaging. On one show, she announced that she was heading to her high school reunion soon.
“I’ll never forget that line,” Cavett said, quoting Joplin. “They kicked me out of school, kicked me out of town. Those people kicked me out of the state, and I’ll be back. And the audience knew exactly how to react to that.” .”
Cavett’s rock star guests went a long way in making his show a hipr version The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, with whom Cavett worked as a writer early in his career.
“I always liked Johnny a lot and he liked me too,” recalls Cavett.
How did Cavett define Carson’s nervous, electric energy?
“He was insecure. He felt he wasn’t intelligent enough. That’s for sure. And he had a way of stating something and saying ‘sometimes…’ He qualified a little, as if to say, “If I’m wrong about this…” he had I always wanted him to feel better than he did. God knows he had many victories and successes. I try to avoid using the word inferior.
But back to Groucho Marx…
Cavett’s respect for Groucho knows no bounds. “If Groucho didn’t exist, I would feel like I was missing a comedy world like the planets in our solar system that astronomers say should be there,” he once said.
Cavett’s friendship with Groucho began at the funeral of famous author George S. Kaufman. Cavett then introduced himself and the two were walking down her Fifth Avenue, when Groucho “insulted the doorman” on the way. Where did Marx’s impulse to throw the first word punch come from?
“Of course it was a big part of his style,” says Cavett. “Some are harmless, some shock people with no humor, some shock people with perhaps humor.”
The final wordplay in Cavett’s remark is typical of his conversational style, leading Cavett to one of his many favorite Groucho anecdotes.
“Grucho runs into a priest in an elevator,” explains Cavett. “And the priest says, ‘My mother is a big fan of yours,’ and Groucho says, ‘I didn’t know your fellows were allowed to have mothers.’ , Groucho said, “I didn’t know you guys had mothers,” and it got just as much laughter because of the active ingredient in Groucho’s voice, Groucho’s presence, which can make you laugh at just about anything.
of american masters The episode is full of these memorable Groucho lines, but I’ll just mention one more. After introducing his wife and daughter sitting in the front row of the audience at Cavett his show, Groucho says, “With a family like that, you wouldn’t think I would cheat.”
It’s obvious why Cavett was drawn to Groucho, but why was the old cartoon drawn to the young Yale man who approached him after the funeral?
“I don’t know,” says Cavett.
Groucho was an old man when he appeared with Cavett, so he asked if young Cavett wasn’t worried about how well his old friend would do on the air.
“I think I probably did because I was worried that a lot of the audience was too young to know who he was. I don’t think I ever have, I’m trying to imagine someone saying, ‘I can’t stand Groucho Marx,’ other than perhaps his ex-wife and unfortunately his two children. When Groucho was at his worst, say, when Groucho did bad things to his niece who gave Groucho a birthday present in a necktie he didn’t like, Cavett said: ”
Such a moment with Cavett is inconceivable. He never said an angry word to me, but I do remember a few instances where he was very angry.
One that immediately comes to mind is a showdown with a network executive. Cavett then asked me what his executives wanted. “Love him,” I said to Cavett. “If you pop into his office every six months to ask how he’s doing, and have lunch with him once a year, the problem will be solved.”
But we knew Cavett would never do that. He was haunted by his unwavering honesty, and perhaps that incorruptible nature, along with Cavett’s intelligence, keen sense of sarcasm, and irreverence, brought Groucho and Cavett together.
They also share a deep distrust of authority, which leads to Richard Nixon.
Cavett had many reasons to dislike Nixon. Cavett’s opposition to SST (supersonic transport) helped place him on Nixon’s “enemy list.” Anyone with access to the Internet can hear Nixon ask his Chief of Staff HR Haldeman if there is a way to “screw” Cavett.
Elsewhere, Nixon’s tape reveals the President of the United States asking an aide, “What is a Jewish Cavett?” This prompted Cavett to later say, “I always feel sorry for Nixon because he died not knowing if I was Jewish.”
On Zoom, Cavett recalled running into Nixon in Montauk. Is this who Cavett hates more, Nixon or Trump?
“It’s like the difference between someone who likes Clark Gable and someone who likes Hitler,” he says. “The contrast is so good that I would say Nixon wasn’t too bad. By comparison, Nixon is doing better. Smarter, much more.”
So, is Cavett optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
“I’m amazed at how many people are wrong, how many people are dumb, how many people are crazy.” said to
And finally, ask your old boss, an old friend, how he’s been coping with the pandemic.
“I wish I could have done without it,” he says. “I’m not afraid to say it.”
With that silly answer, that dry wit, I can’t help but think that America was better off when Dick Cavett was on the air five nights a week.