Dick Cavett in the Digital Age

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — Everyone wants to ask Dick Cavett the same question, and it is a question that he never wants to answer: Of all today’s talk-show hosts, who is the “next Dick Cavett”?

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Dick Cavett in the Digital Age
Alex Williams
, New York Times

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — Everyone wants to ask Dick Cavett the same question, and it is a question that he never wants to answer: Of all today’s talk-show hosts, who is the “next Dick Cavett”?

“Well, that’s an awkward subject matter for me, because I know all of them,” Cavett, 81, said on a recent sunny Thursday afternoon at his sprawling country house in Connecticut. “I’m not addicted to talk shows. God knows, I’ve spent enough time on them.”

As in Cavett’s 1960s and ‘70s heyday, the country is in a period of turbulence, with racial tensions flaring, protests in the streets and a fundamental ideological fissure. The hosts who have emphasized substance, who have “gone political,” have been praised and nominated for Emmys.

But “the next Cavett”? Is such a thing possible?

If only.

For three decades, Cavett was the thinking person’s Johnny Carson, embodiment of an East Coast sophisticate. He wore smart turtlenecks and double-breasted blazers, had more cultural references than a Google server and laced martini-dry witticisms into lengthy, probing talks with 20th-century luminaries including Bette Davis, James Baldwin, Mick Jagger and Jean-Luc Godard.

A Renaissance salon in a rabbit-ears era, “The Dick Cavett Show” was woke some 50 years before the term came into vogue. Viewers tuned in to see Muhammad Ali spout off about the Vietnam War or to see Yoko Ono show her conceptual art in a 90-minute discussion with John Lennon.

Fans of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” would scarcely know what to make of the infamous and chaotic 1971 “Cavett” episode featuring Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, who had recently compared Mailer to Charles Manson in a New York Review of Books essay.

After Mailer accused Vidal of “intellectual pollution” and Cavett of being “smaller intellectually” than himself, Cavett suggested, in what was perhaps the original sick burn, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?”

In fact, “'intellectual’ was a word that always made me go up the wall, partly because I knew how the word is esteemed in the world of television,” Cavett said, sipping seltzer with orange and munching grapes in his sunroom. “I was called ‘intellectual,’ I guess, because I didn’t know any better than to read the guests’ books.”

Cavett redux

In the absence of anything like them, episodes of his show have gotten an unexpected second life: not only as boxed DVD sets on Amazon, but also as a nightly staple of the nostalgia-themed network Decades, as well as on YouTube, where Cavett’s interviews of Marlon Brando, Janis Joplin and Groucho Marx have been viewed millions of times.

“It’s the strangest sensation to be getting the same comments that I got decades ago: ‘I’m addicted to your show,’ or ‘I watch it every night,'” Cavett said. “I have virtually 3 percent memory of what I’m seeing on the screen. People I would have sworn I never had on — there they are, for 90 minutes.”

Although his last talk show, on CNBC, ended in 1996, he has stayed in public view: making cameos on “The Simpsons” and “Gossip Girl,” attending film premieres and doing guest appearances on late night.

He continues to write, including occasional columns for The New York Times and collaborating on the script for “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes,” a documentary film directed by Robert S. Bader making the festival rounds and scheduled to appear on HBO next year. The film explores Muhammad Ali’s transformation from cocky boxing upstart to outspoken political activist through his appearances — more than a dozen — on Cavett’s show.

Theirs was a close if unlikely friendship that lasted five decades. “Dick Cavett was the whitest of white guys in America,” the Rev. Al Sharpton says in the film. “But he gave blacks that had been considered outside of the mainstream like Ali a chance to be heard and a chance to say what they wanted to say unfiltered, which was rare.”

One night in the 1970s, Cavett recalled in the sunroom, the phone rang in his renowned summer house, Tick Hall. It was Cavett’s wife, actress Carrie Nye, who was at their place in the city.

“Darling?” she said.

“This ain’t ‘darling,'” said Ali, who had been invited for an impromptu visit and given the master bedroom. “This is the three-time heavyweight champion of the world, and I’m lying in your bed, watching your TV.”

Cavett is not watching as much TV himself these days. Unable or unwilling to stay up past midnight, he keeps up with the current late-night hosts’ monologues on YouTube or Twitter, a medium seemingly invented for his verbal parry and thrust. “A. Imagine Donald Trump’s library,” he wrote in one recent tweet. “B. You’d have to.” Ever ready to try new technology, he is thinking about starting a podcast. “Everybody seems to be doing one,” he said. He sent away for an genetic test and was surprised to find he had forebears in South Sudan.

But his new center of mental operations is here in Connecticut: Cavett, who has come to think of cocktail parties as “vertical agony,” is selling both his Central Park West apartment and Tick Hall, which is in Montauk, New York.

The asking price for Tick Hall, $62 million, may read like a misprint, but the house is a crown jewel of the South Fork’s, one of the architect Stanford White’s famed “Seven Sisters”: 7,000 shingle-style square feet on 20 acres of woodland with 975 feet of coastline on a private cove, rebuilt meticulously after being gutted in a 1997 fire.

Cavett vacationed there for more than 50 years, many of them with Nye, whom he had met as a theater student at Yale and who died in 2006.

In 2010, he married Martha Rogers, a marketing consultant and author from Florida and a longtime friend, who found the new place in Connecticut. “Part of it was to be nearer the city, nearer good medical stuff,” Cavett said with resignation. But his old summer haunt also now harbors tattoos and nightclubs. “Montauk is a ‘sleepy little fishing village’ no more,” he said. “Well, I guess, fish are still extracted from the sea. But it’s full of places for people who actually stand outside for God knows how long in order to get in and be deafened by music.”

He smiled tartly. “Do I sound old?”

Not in the slightest, actually.

Padding in bedroom slippers past a ballroom that seemed the next best thing to Mrs. Astor's, Cavett, always lean and diminutive, looked thinner now in his baggy khakis and plaid woodsman shirt, but still moved with the grace of the high school gymnastics champion he once was, back in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The house is still filled with boxes from the move, and the couple has yet to figure out exactly how many rooms it has. “Somewhere between 25 and 50, I guess,” Rogers said. “We found rooms in the basement about a month and a half ago that we didn’t know were there.”

The house, a 1912 Georgian, towers atop a leafy hilltop past an ornate iron gate. Cavett, who never knew a name not worth dropping, seems pleased at its celebrity lineage: film and television star Robert Vaughn and Harry Houdini's brother both lived there. Houdini, he said, “used to practice his underwater escapes in manacles and chains in the pool,” a fact that delights him because he was an avid magician as a child.

‘Don’t do interviews’

Back in the sunroom, an ornate Italian fountain was babbling just outside as Cavett sat in a wicker rocking chair with a serene smile.

As the light poured through three windows, beads of perspiration were beginning to form on his visitor’s face. Who would not be daunted by the task of interviewing the consummate interviewer?

“Jack Paar called me once,” Cavett said, referring to the early “Tonight Show” host who gave him his first gig. “He said, ‘Hey, kid, when you do your show, don’t do interviews.’ I thought, ‘Did I hear you right? Am I supposed to read to the guests?’ He said, ‘No, no, no, I mean “interviews,” Q. and A. Make it a conversation.'”

But in a late-night landscape rebuilt for clickable clips, unscripted moments seem increasingly rare. “If I were doing a show today,” Cavett said, “it would not include a nice actress who’s so ‘excited’ about her new movie, and so ‘excited’ about her director, and so ‘excited’ about the costumes. ‘Excited’ is a word that could easily be stricken from the show business vocabulary.”

“For the interviews that endure,” he said, “you don’t get the sense that, say, Katharine Hepburn did another talk show the next night. And then the next night she did another one. So many guests now are on a promotional tour.”

Stephen Colbert, with whom Cavett has lunched at the Yale Club, is perhaps most adept, Cavett said, at puncturing the celebrity bubble, “most deliciously when the guest doesn’t realize he’s puncturing it.” (Who else? “I’m crazy about him, I just think he’s really funny and good,” Cavett said of Seth Meyers. “But I fell into the trap! I swore I wouldn’t be talking about the late-night people.”)

Moreover, while today’s hosts enjoy certain freedoms unimaginable to his generation — like Samantha Bee swearing on air (“Samantha’s very funny,” he said) — Cavett had the leisurely airtime to explore ideas. He once did a full hour with Ingmar Bergman, the cerebral Swedish film director.

“When we got Orson Welles,” Cavett said, “I didn’t expect anyone to say, ‘Dick, don’t spend too much time with him, because we got Carmel Quinn, the Irish singer, and she is just in town for one day.’ ‘Well,’ I’d say, ‘she won’t spend any of it here.'”

It was clear from the first taping of “The Dick Cavett Show,” in 1968, that this would be a different kind of television entertainment. The guests included Vidal and Ali, blackballed from boxing because of his refusal to join the Army and fight in Vietnam. Naturally the topic came up.

“I innocently went backstage to be congratulated, and there was a suit from the network — not a human, just a suit — and the one thing I remember clearly were the words, ‘Nobody gives a” — bleep! — “what Muhammad Ali and Gore Vidal think of the Vietnam War.”

Cavett went over the executive’s head at the network, insisting that his show would not stoop to “this chicken-dribble,” and the episode ran, but not as the premiere.

Although Cavett’s show was provocative, his persona, balancing Ivy League erudition with unflappable Midwestern solidity, has rarely ruffled anyone. Early in his career, Groucho Marx wrote him a letter saying, “'I think you hit a mother lode with the idea of a bumpkin coming east to Yale, and you should mine that for all you can,'” he said. “And I did.” Cavett’s wide-eyed Everyman schtick worked wonders when introducing to a heartland audience a jittery, cane-wielding David Bowie in a 1974 show in which Bowie rattled on about “black noise,” a concept promoted by subversive novelist William Burroughs about a hypothetical sonic frequency that is effectively a “noise bomb,” with which “you can crack a city or people.”

“Let’s not give the instructions,” Cavett said, barely containing a smile.

Cavett’s unflappable demeanor was tested by a 1971 show featuring Jerome I. Rodale, the publisher and an organic-food guru, which fans continually tell him was unforgettable; strange, since it never aired.

Rodale appeared along with the writer Pete Hamill that day. Rodale, whom Cavett recalls “looking like Trotsky,” was in high spirits during the interview. He brought a dish of asparagus soaked in urine for Cavett to sample (“Anybody’s we know?” the host joked, before declining) and jauntily asserted that, with his healthy diet, he planned to live to 100.

Shortly after that segment ended, however, Cavett, who was interviewing Hamill, heard an eerie gurgle, or was it a snore? He may or may not have said, “Am I boring you?” (Cavett said he has a DVD of the episode, but he has not watched the footage for years). “This looks bad,” Hamill whispered.

Glancing over at Rodale, Cavett saw that he was stiff in his chair, his back arched, and unconscious.

“The scene shifts, instantly and unrealistically, to me standing at the edge of the stage saying, ‘Is there a doctor in the audience?'” Cavett recalled. Audience? “Why did I do that?”

Hepburn, he said, later explained to him that he knew “Is there a doctor in the house” would convulse the audience — though it was an appropriate ask, given that Rodale died on the set.

Politics and poetry

Although he could never match the ratings sizzle of Carson, a fellow Nebraskan, his show was where you went for the steak. At the height of Watergate, “The Dick Cavett Show” featured extensive interviews with key figures.

“People would always beat up on Johnny by saying, ‘When Cavett’s got Attorney General John Mitchell on, Johnny has Charo,'” Cavett said.

While Cavett said he loathed Nixon’s politics, he called him “a brilliant, brilliant man” and was cordial to him in person. Years after Watergate, he remembers seeing the former president and his wife, Pat, seated at an outdoor restaurant in Montauk, so he grabbed a menu and, posing as a waiter, began to list the specials: Yorba Linda cream pie, Whittier College soufflé.

“'Not your best material, Dick,'” Pat Nixon said.

The current president is perhaps the only celebrity over the age of 70 that Cavett has never met, other than being beaten by him to shrimp in a benefit buffet line years ago.

“I think all people who get to president of the United States must have something wonderful about them,” Cavett said in a mock-diplomatic tone.

“With that,” he added, “Cavett held a gun to his head and shot himself.”

As afternoon light began to grow golden over the pond that glistened at the base of the hill behind his house, he was showing no hurry to rise from his wicker chair.

“Do you know a poem by Philip Larkin?” Cavett said. “A strange name, ‘Aubade,’ it means a celebration of the morning. It’s got to be the best poem about death you could ever enjoy reading.” He began reciting:

I work all day and get half-drunk at night.Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s really always there, unresting death a whole day nearer now.

“I gave it to Woody Allen,” he said. “About a week after that, I ran into him, I guess, I said, ‘I hope it didn’t ruin your day. He said, ‘Not my day. … ‘”

Cavett and Allen have been close since their days on the New York comedy circuit in the early ‘60s. Cavett remains a supporter, despite the recent boycotts of Allen’s work by many in Hollywood over the allegations by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, now 33, that he sexually abused her when she was a child, which the filmmaker has vehemently denied, and never resulted in charges.

“How do these people decide who’s right in this?” Cavett said.

Friends like Allen and Marshall Brickman, the screenwriter, are still around, but the man who knew seemingly everyone finds it haunting that so many notables he was once close to “are no longer there.”

Watching his shows, Cavett said, “the odd sensation about it is there I am sitting with Lucille Ball or someone like that, and it is overlain by the thought ‘One of us is dead.'”

“So far,” Cavett said wryly, “it’s always the other one.” Because “you never think that will happen to you. That’s something you hear old folks talk about.” Despite the burdens of age, Cavett seems to be managing the bouts of depression that have dogged him since he was an undergraduate, when one day “I just couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to go to class, and I couldn’t read,” he said. “It seemed that all the color went out of everything.”

Years later, after breaking out in an agitated sweat shortly after boarding a Concorde for London in 1980, he was taken for electroconvulsive therapy at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, a treatment he called “miraculous.”

Success was no balm. “One thing you must never say to someone with depression is, ‘What reason have you got to have depression?'” he said. That’s like saying, ‘What reason have you got to have asthma?'” And even his brand of urbane fame, once a thrill, has taken on a different quality. “Sometimes you don’t want to be recognized and just enjoy a museum or an art gallery. And now, it’s always, ‘Can we take a selfie?'”

Cavett could tell his fans to stick their smartphones where the moon don’t shine, of course. But he usually complies.

“Or I say, ‘I thought you’d never ask,'” he said. “To make the people standing by laugh.”


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