Dick Cavett's Conversations: 'When People Simply Talk' 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. Cavett reflects on his long television career in his new book, Talk Show.
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Cavett's Conversations: 'When People Simply Talk'

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Cavett's Conversations: 'When People Simply Talk'

Cavett's Conversations: 'When People Simply Talk'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the 1970s, Dick Cavett hosted a late-night TV talk show that was like nothing seen before - or since. His guests included John Lennon, Richard Nixon, Groucho Marx. And he let them talk, at length. In his new book "Talk Show," Dick Cavett writes about those TV days as well as the occasional online columns he writes for the New York Times.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has more.

(Soundbite of theme music, "The Dick Cavett Show")

Unidentified Man: "The Dick Cavett Show."

SUSAN STAMBERG: Dick Cavett was the smartest talk show host ever. He quoted Shakespeare and Graham Greene. He knew his Bernstein from his Gershwin, and landed guests who never went on TV and gave him a hard time - like Katharine Hepburn, in 1973.

Ms. KATHARINE HEPBURN (Actor): You keep interrupting the long story of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEPBURN: If you'd just shut up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICK CAVETT (Former Talk Show Host/Author, "Talk Show"): Yeah, I kicked her under the table.

STAMBERG: She was 66 then, her first appearance on television.

Mr. CAVETT: Yep.

STAMBERG: She was so nervous. Here's what she said.

Ms. HEPBURN: It terrifies anybody who is intelligent, to do anything. I think I've been absolutely petrified all my life.

STAMBERG: Katharine Hepburn had hemmed and hawed about doing Cavett's show; agreed to stop by just to look at the set.

Mr. CAVETT: That day when she just said, well, why don't we just do it now? I froze for a moment. But then when she started, and I saw her left cheek twitch a little 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 this next couple hours.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Dick Cavett writes about Hepburn and Olivier, Redford, Reagan. His writing voice is like his nasalish speaking voice; it's wry and more than a little adenoidal.

Would you...

Mr. CAVETT: Well, I count on you for originality and fresh insights, and no one has ever accused me of being adenoidal before. But I'm a little soldier, and I'm just going to try and take it.

STAMBERG: Seventy-four years old, mostly from Lincoln, Nebraska, Richard Alva Cavett began 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.

Mr. CAVETT: Kid - you know - don't come out and do interviews. That's dull, interviews. I mean, that smacks of clipboards and whats your favorite color, and that's junk. Just, you know, make it a conversation.

STAMBERG: And so he did. And TV-shy movie stars conversed with Cavett as if over the kitchen table.

Bette Davis, 1971.

Mr. CAVETT: Why haven't you been victimized by your career? I mean, when you think of the people who have been - like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland and the people like that - can you figure out what it is that...

Ms. BETTE DAVIS (Actor): Well, it takes great discipline. And I think I was very fortunate in my upbringing. I think my New England background, for the work I went into, was - extraordinary stabilizer.

STAMBERG: Tough, strong women - like Davis and Hepburn - just opened up to Cavett. Good thing he was not only bright and engaging, but also young - late 30s, though he looked younger - and cute.

Mr. CAVETT: Adenoids and cute, both?

STAMBERG: Both, indeed. Also, manic-depressive; he's been quite public about having had clinical depression, anxiety attacks, to the surprise of many.

Mr. CAVETT: It's like if you have depression, people say: What do you - got to be depressed about? And something almost envious in the universe seems to come in, and smite them low.

STAMBERG: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAVETT: The greatest benefit of depression is the fact that when I have talked about it, every so often someone comes up and says, you saved my dad's life.

STAMBERG: You can't see any inklings 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 is selling anything on the old Cavett shows, except for Marlon Brando - slim and gorgeous in 1973, before the rest of his life happened to him.

Brando came on Cavett 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 had always ridiculed.

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): We couldn't survive a second if we weren't able to act - that acting is a survival mechanism, and it's a social unguent - and that's a lubricant. And we act to save our lives, actually, every day. People lie constantly, every day, by not saying something that they think, or saying something that they don't think, or showing something that they don't feel, or trying to give the appearance of feeling something they don't - well, actually, I said that, didn't I?

Mr. CAVETT: Yeah, but that's not acting.

Mr. BRANDO: That is acting.

STAMBERG: Dick Cavett remembers that show very well. But he says he has no memory of 61 percent of what he did on television. Luckily, many of his shows have been collected on DVD. In fact, minutes after he'd record a program, he couldn't remember it.

Mr. CAVETT: I came home one night from a one-person, 90-minute show taping. The people department said, how did it go? I said, fine. They said, who was it? I said, it was - uh, um, ah. I could not come up it sat right there - um, oh. Twenty minutes later, out came the obscure name: Lucille Ball.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVETT: Now, what does that tell you? It tells me this: The person who does the show is not the one who is home later. And 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 - and they are not necessarily totally connected.

STAMBERG: So he was acting, too. Dick Cavett. In his new book, he 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.

And he goes on to write: Feel free to pass this on to anyone about to do a talk show.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: And you can hear Dick Cavett recite a Shakespeare sonnet and read an excerpt from his memoir, "Talk Show," at our Web site, NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of applause and music)

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