“Do you suppose that any of Houdini’s DNA is still in my pool?”
Not the kind of question that pops up every day. But just part of the natural flow when the speaker is Dick Cavett.
At a time when brand shills on social media are deemed “influencers,” talking with the man who’s been called “the last intellectual talk show host” is like encountering a truffle in a platter of chicken nuggets.
Now 82, Dick Cavett — whose droll wit, quiet, reassuring manner and boyish grin won the trust even of interview phobics like Marlon Brando and Katherine Hepburn — still deflects compliments with a chuckle and a self-deprecating comment. But after more than 50 years in show biz, the Nebraska native doesn’t pretend to be jaded about them.
People “need never apologize” for declaring themselves his fans, he joked in a recent phone interview occasioned by “Dick Cavett Presents,” a series of interviews at The Ridgefield Playhouse set to kick off with actress Blythe Danner on March 23.
He and Danner “go way back — it almost seems like to our childhoods — to summers at the Williamstown [Theater Festival],” Cavett says. “Blythe is a hell of an actress,” he adds, mentioning her “thrilling,” Tony-nominated 1988 performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She’s also, he confirms, an engaging conversationalist.
Unsurprisingly, that word comes up a lot in articles about Cavett, who attributes his talk-show success in part to taking the advice of Jack Parr, the “Tonight Show” host who was Cavett’s first show-business boss: Don’t do interviews; have conversations. That style, as opposed to the common gag- or plug-driven approach, requires screening out guests who, however talented or brilliant, “can’t talk,” Cavett observes. “Otherwise, you’re sitting on air feeling like the hands of the clock have been welded together,” struggling to fill the remaining time.
That rarely seemed an issue for Cavett, who drew devoted viewers and critical praise, if not always the highest ratings, starting with his first evening talk show on ABC in 1968. Amid a television environment famously declared a “vast wasteland” by FCC Commissioner Newton Minnow, “The Dick Cavett Show” was a proverbial oasis of intelligent, sometimes controversial (the Vietnam War, Watergate, racism) discussion.
That remained true through all of his talk shows, which aired on a half-dozen networks over three decades. But as new generations are discovering, thanks to the original shows’ revival on the Decades network and YouTube, the eclectic roster of guests and offbeat pairings (think Muhammed Ali and author/intellectual provocateur Gore Vidal) were a key part of the draw.
Guests included playwright Arthur Miller, chess master Bobby Fischer, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, jazz great Miles Davis, film auteur/raconteur Orson Welles (“the dream talk-show guest,” says Cavett) and a slew of renowned authors: Kurt Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, John Updike, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer among them.
The arrogant Mailer managed to elicit a rare flash of anger from the remarkably polite and patient host, who suggested that the author “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.” That’s “always misquoted — people think I said ‘stick it,’ but that would be crude,” observes Cavett. “I don’t know where [that riposte] came from…some Nebraska tribal memory?”
In the YouTube age, Cavett may be better known for his interviews with iconic rock stars, including Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon (and Yoko Ono), George Harrison and Jim Morrison. But the videos are also introducing young people to film legends like Bette Davis and Hepburn. Hepburn “was very nervous at first, but after we talked for a while, I almost couldn’t get rid of her,” Cavett laughs. “We did two 90-minute interviews, with 25 minutes of tape left over.”
Weirdest guest? The surrealist artist Salvadore Dalí, who during a show threw a live anteater into the lap of silent film legend Lillian Gish. (Gish, who had done her own stunt work in life-threatening scenes for director D.W. Griffith, again proved unflappable, petting the animal and scolding Dalí: “This little thing is frightened.”)Asked about other guests who proved surprising, Cavett cites actor Robert Mitchum — an “amazing” person who discomfited some viewers and “mesmerized” others. “You couldn’t name anything he hadn’t read,” says Cavett, who also managed to get the seemingly laconic Mitchum to admit that he wrote poetry and composed music, including an oratorio.Then there’s Cavett’s idol, Groucho Marx. Long after the two became friends, Cavett began an introduction of the comic genius by saying, “I can’t believe I know Groucho Marx.” He also says that to his mind, a show during which Groucho faux-proposed marriage to Capote ranks among the funniest."