Cavett's Conversations: 'When People Simply Talk'

Dick Cavett poses in his New York office in 1978.

Dick Cavett didn't do interviews -- he held conversations. And in the 1960s and '70s, he held conversations with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, John Lennon, Richard Nixon and Groucho Marx. Above, Cavett poses in his New York office in 1978. Carlos Rene Perez/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Rene Perez/AP

Dick Cavett wasn't your typical late-night talk show host — he quoted Shakespeare and Graham Greene, he knew his Bernstein from his Gershwin, and he landed guests who never went on TV. Once on The Dick Cavett Show, those guests sometimes gave him a hard time.

Katharine Hepburn and Dick Cavett pictured in 1973. i i

Movie star Katharine Hepburn made her first television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in October 1973. "You keep interrupting the long story of my life," she jokingly told Cavett. "If you'd just shut up..." ABC-TV/AP hide caption

itoggle caption ABC-TV/AP
Katharine Hepburn and Dick Cavett pictured in 1973.

Movie star Katharine Hepburn made her first television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in October 1973. "You keep interrupting the long story of my life," she jokingly told Cavett. "If you'd just shut up..."

ABC-TV/AP

"You keep interrupting the long story of my life," Katharine Hepburn told Cavett during a 1973 interview. "If you'd just shut up ..."

"I kicked her under the table," Cavett recalls with a laugh.

Guests on Cavett's 1970s show included John Lennon, Richard Nixon and Groucho Marx. And he let them talk. Cavett, now 74, looks back on it all in his new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.

Cavett got his start writing for the big TV guys of his day — Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin. Before Cavett launched his own show, Paar gave him some great advice: "Kid, don't come out and do interviews — that's dull," the veteran TV host told him. "That smacks of clipboards, and 'What's your favorite color?' That's junk. Just make it a conversation."

And that's exactly what Cavett did. TV-shy movie stars conversed with Cavett as if over the kitchen table.

Hepburn hemmed and hawed about coming on Cavett's show, but in 1973, she agreed to stop by "just to take a look at the set." Once there, Cavett recalls, Hepburn suddenly decided to take the plunge. At age 66, it was her first television appearance.

Talk Show
Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets
By Dick Cavett
Hardcover, 304 pages
Times Books
List price: $25

Read an Excerpt

"I saw her left cheek twitch a little," Cavett says, "and realized this woman — this woman with the guts of all time is nervous. That utterly relaxed me because all I could think of was: I have to help this poor kid get through the next couple of hours."

Cavett writes about his conversations with Hepburn, Olivier, Redford and Reagan. In 1971, he asked Bette Davis how she — unlike Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland — had managed to avoid being "victimized" by her career.

"It takes great discipline," she answered frankly. "I think I was very fortunate in my upbringing. I think my New England background ... was an extraordinary stabilizer."

Tough, strong woman like Davis and Hepburn just opened up to Cavett. Not only was he bright and engaging, but he was also young — late 30s, though he looked younger — and good looking.

But he was troubled, too. Cavett has been quite open about his struggles with depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks — to the surprise of many of his fans.

Cavett says people ask him, "What do you have to be depressed about?" But he says discussing his bouts with mental illness in public has ultimately been rewarding. "The greatest benefit of depression," he says, "is the fact that when I have talked about it, every so often someone comes up and says, 'You saved my dad's life.' "

It's hard to see hints of depression in the early Cavett. What you do see is the atmosphere he creates for his guests — attentive, respectful and quiet when he needs to be. Nobody's selling anything on the old Cavett shows. Except for Marlon Brando, who appeared with Cavett in 1973 — slim and gorgeous, before the rest of his life happened to him. Brando came on TV with an agenda — he'd appear only if he could speak about the miseries of Native American life. But Brando ended up talking about acting — a profession he'd always ridiculed.

Dick Cavett i i

"A conversation does not have to be scintillating in order to be memorable," Cavett writes in Talk Show. Barbara Friedman hide caption

itoggle caption Barbara Friedman
Dick Cavett

"A conversation does not have to be scintillating in order to be memorable," Cavett writes in Talk Show.

Barbara Friedman

"We couldn't survive a second if we weren't able to act," Brando said. "Acting is a survival mechanism. It's a social unguent and it's a lubricant. We act to save our lives, actually, every day. People lie constantly every day by not saying something that they think, or [by] saying something that they didn't think."

"That's not acting," Cavett countered.

"That is acting," Brando insisted.

Though he remembers Brando's appearance very well, Cavett says he has no memory of "61 percent" of what he did on television. (Luckily for the rest of us, many of his shows are now available on DVD.)  And it's not just that memories have faded with time. Mere minutes after he had recorded a program, he would have trouble recalling it. (He says it once took him 20 minutes to remember that he had just spent 90 minutes interviewing Lucille Ball.)

"The person who does the show is not the one who is home later," Cavett says. "You resume being that person when you get back to the studio and into your clothes and out on the set and into your makeup. They are not necessarily totally connected."

So Cavett was acting, too. In his new book, Cavett defines what he did on TV this way: "Conversation is when people simply talk; not take a test on the air with Q and A. It's when something said spontaneously prompts a thought and a reply in someone else."

He goes on to write, "feel free to pass this on to anyone about to do a talk show."

Excerpt: 'Talk Show'

Talk Show
Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets
By Dick Cavett
Hardcover, 304 pages
Times Books
List price: $25

Introduction

Do you want to try it?

Always a provocative question, in any context. And one containing an implicit dare.

It was an inquiry from the New York Times about writing an opinion column, online. The phrase "penal servitude" leapt to mind, spoken by a friend who was driven just short of the madhouse by agreeing to turn out a punishing number of newspaper columns at painfully close intervals. Increasing insomnia and alcohol intake forced him to quit and take up gardening.

Given pause by his experience, I asked how often. Two a week. This sounded deceptively easy, having endured and survived the writing of five-days-a-week monologue material for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin for years.

Not wishing to appear gutless (to myself), I decided to accept the challenge. And it was only for the month of February.

Most anybody, I should think, has at least eight interesting subjects inside him. Hadn't a famous writer — Graham Greene, perhaps — said anyone who has reached the age of twenty-five has material in him for at least four novels? I used to quote that when my book Cavett was published and I was asked by interviewers if age thirty-seven wasn't a little early for an autobiography.

The first few columns came easily. The fourth, harder. At five I sensed desperation, but managed to squeeze out the remaining three. I had done it and, in fact, found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Once they were completed, looking back on that first eight seemed like a piece of angel food cake, and I was glad to have added "journalist" to my image. Then the Times proposed that I sign on for a year. I began to sweat. A whole year.

The order, now, was down to one a week. In my dreams, the number 52 began to occur, made of concrete four stories high and marching toward me. A man I consider a real writer said, "I don't envy you. I tried thirty columns a year once and nearly perished." Was this going to kill me?

I couldn't think what the next column would be, let alone the required string of them, stretching far into the future. What else did I know? I felt written out.

Somehow, after three years, I'm still at it. Looking at that fact, like Shakespeare's Hermia, I am amazed and know not what to say.

Early on, I learned one thing. Writing lines to be spoken by famous comedians and writing for John (and Jane) Q. Public requires different sets of muscles.

Writing for Groucho Marx, or Johnny Carson, or Jack Benny, or any comic with a strong, familiar voice requires being able to turn them on in your head, so that what comes out is in their words and nobody else's. A misplaced or omitted certainly or at any rate or y'know will make the line wrong. For them. "You could have fooled me" is less Groucho than "Well, you certainly could have fooled me."

When Groucho guest-hosted The Tonight Show way back, the first laugh I got for him was an aside I wrote: "But enough of this bridled hilarity…" In Groucho's voice it got a laugh well out of proportion to its merits.

I found it relatively easy to write for others. It's not always easy to identify your own voice. It comes with time.

Before I ever sat down and tried to host a talk show, I had a call from Jack Paar. He had given me my first job as a comedy writer when I was still in my early twenties.

Jack was a hero of mine, more of an obsession really, and I rarely missed The Tonight Show when he was its host. When I got the job writing for Jack I thought that if there is a heaven, it will be an anticlimax. The fact that I was handsomely paid — think of it, $360 a week, and every week — barely occurred to me. I was there. On the inside of The Tonight Show. I watched the show as it was taped every night and then watched it again at home.

I think Jack sensed my obsession. He called me aside one night after the show and said, "Kid, you shouldn't hang around here through the show. It'll ruin your life. Go home." After that I watched the show from a part of the studio where he couldn't see me.

Years passed and the chance for me to host a talk show came along. This had never, ever been my ambition. My highest goal in this regard was to some day, maybe, be a guest on talk shows. Hosting was not even a dream. That was for the giants of my time: Steve Allen, Jack, and Johnny.

When the non-dream came true and I was about to do my own show, a call came from Jack. It bore the single best piece of advice I or anyone doing such a show could get: "Kid, I've only got one piece of counseling for you. Don't do interviews."

What could Jack mean? To do the whole show myself? Show movies? Read to the viewers? That exciting, nervous, famous voice continued: "I mean don't just do interviews, pal. You know. 'Interview' smacks of Q-and-A and David Frost and his clipboard and 'What's your favorite color?' and crap like 'most embarrassing moments.' Don't do any of that. Make it a conversation."

In a way, it's the whole secret. Conversation is when people simply talk; not take a test on the air with Q-and-A. It's when something said spontaneously prompts a thought and a reply in someone else. When several people's talk moves around a subject, changes directions, and produces spontaneous and entertaining comments and unexpected insights, and takes surprising turns.

How right he was. You could do a whole good show without that tired old "Let me ask you this . . ."

Feel free to pass this on to anyone about to do a talk show.

A conversation does not have to be scintillating in order to be memorable. I once met a president of the United States, and his second sentence to me was about knees.

Back when I was still persona grata at the Nixon White House — a period of time that proved of short duration — I met Richard Nixon in a reception line. It so happened that on a recent trip to England, Nixon had been told that the greatest Hamlet yet was Nicol Williamson, currently playing the Dane on the London stage. But duty called in Washington, and Nixon had to return without seeing the play; so he invited Williamson for an evening of Shakespeare at the White House. Somehow, I was invited.

Tuxedoed, I moved along the reception line until I was nose-to-nose with the president.

NIXON: Who's doing your show tonight?

CAVETT: Joe Namath.

NIXON (with a look of solemn concern): How are his knees?

Part of the psychological makeup of Yorba Linda's most famous native son was his obsession with masculinity. So-and-so was a real man, he would say. And real men knew football.

It would not be long before I stopped receiving invitations to the White House. My lack of popularity with the Great Unindicted Co-conspirator came when I testified for John Lennon — after he and Yoko Ono had been twice on my ABC show — to support the case that John should not be deported by the Nixon administration. On one of the Nixon tapes, the president's henchman and lickspittle H. R. Haldeman can be heard educating his boss — who was minimally knowledgeable of popular culture — about Lennon's vast popularity, with the words "This guy could sway an election."

It was not long ago that I learned of another Nixon tape, on which the president can be heard saying to Haldeman, "Cavett — How can we screw him?" A little disconcerting to hear yourself thus discussed by the leader of the allegedly free world. (Doubters may yet find this on YouTube.)

It was not long thereafter that my entire staff was tax audited, all but ruinously for some of them. Nixon enjoyed using the IRS — illegally, of course — to punish those his paranoia perceived as enemies.

Excerpted from Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets by Dick Cavett. Copyright 2010 by Dick Cavett. Excerpted by permission of Times Books, a division of Macmillan.

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