It may be a stretch to refer to most entertainers as a national treasure, but with Dick Cavett, the title seems to stick. Cavett forever altered both prime-time television and American culture as we know it, interviewing world-shakers like Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix, Alfred Hitchcock, Salvador Dali, and John Lennon over the course of his celebrated talk show, which ran for nearly three decades. In the process, he injected a touch of culture and civility into the medium.
Amidst all these massive names, its no surprise Cavett became a rather big one himself, with documentaries, four books, three Emmys, a syndicated show, and a devoted following all in tow. On March 23, Cavett will stop by The Ridgefield Playhouse, where he takes the stage with Blythe Danner in a heart-to-heart conversation about Danner’s life and work. Unsurprisingly, this is not the first time their paths have crossed.
Left: Cavett with Marlon Brando, right: Cavett with Jack Paar
“Blythe and I first met at Williamstown, Massachusetts, probably in the late ’50s. We both spent summers at the Williamstown Theatre, and that’s where we first got together,” recalls Cavett. “On the first day, when we were sitting together outdoors, waiting for rehearsals to begin, we sang German songs. I know that sounds strange, but I had German rammed into me at Yale in a class that ran nine times a week, and we both sang Marlene Dietrich’s “Ich Bin Von Kopf Bis Fuss,” which cemented our friendship.”
Today, Cavett is still adjusting to his new role as an American icon whose shows are syndicated on CBS’ digital channel Decades and whose segments are viewed by the tens of millions on YouTube for their edifying glimpses into great minds. “Its sort of strange, because on Decades, where they have been running the show, you get people who have been watching it before. Then young people will say to me: ‘You are the guy my parents always told me it’s too bad I didn’t see’ or ‘made me see.’ I guess they view me as some kind of educator, something I never saw myself as, but that is probably to the good.”
Left: Cavett with Muhammad Ali; right: Cavett with and Katharine Hepburn
Cavett is hoping to bring his world-class conversational skills to an even wider audience with a new podcast. “I have been asked about doing a podcast, and I am actually dealing with some of it today,” he notes. “The subject matter would be interesting, and I could see having a good time with it. I don’t know what the drawbacks are — I know some people have found [podcasts] not to their taste and dropped out — but this may eventuate, as Jerry Lewis would say.”
Cavett recently found himself back in the spotlight after the 2018 documentary about his relationship with Muhammad Ali, Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, garnered wide acclaim. Cavett himself remains somewhat mystified by the deep friendship he forged with The Champ. “I can’t figure it out myself,” shares Cavett. “We became good friends the way you become good friends with normal people who aren’t the three-time heavyweight champion of the world. It started right away. You meet some people and you want to keep meeting them, which was easy in our case because [Ali] was on the show maybe 18 or 20 times. But off-camera, when we would meet, we were like two chums.”
“I have been asked about doing a podcast, and I am actually dealing with some of it today. The subject matter would be interesting, and I could see having a good time with it.”
As for how he managed to ingratiate himself with virtually every individual who appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, the comedian, writer, and host chalks a lot of it up to empathy. “Once I got into doing the show and not worrying every moment, I began to realize that people relaxed with me who weren’t relaxed at the beginning or, in some cases, claimed they had never been relaxed on television,” notes Cavett. “I think a lot of it has to do with that fact that I had been on talk shows. I’d worked on talk shows as a writer, and I’d been on with Johnny [Carson] and Merv [Griffin], and I knew how they worked. I know how it felt to sit there; I know how it felt to hope the host would come in because you are stuck for a moment.”
While it may seem that Cavett has interviewed every public figure in existence, there are a few who got away. “The two main ones are Frank Sinatra — I know we would have had a good time — and [famed director] Mike Nichols, who at one point said, ‘I am going to London, but maybe when I get back home I will be in the mood to share and share.’” However, when Cavett thinks back on the monumental figures with whom he has conversed he is, above all, thankful.
“Somebody once examined a DVD set I own called Hollywood Greats, which has on it the ones you’d think: Hepburn, Davis, Brando, Astaire,” recalls Cavett. “They made the comment, looking at that list of names, ‘You know, you had the redwoods.’ And I didn’t get it immediately, but then I got the idea: that there were greater people once.”