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Dick Cavett gets personal, still gets laughs


A celebrity I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a half-dozen times or so in the last decade, Dick Cavett, breezed through Omaha in June and I didn’t even know it or else I would have tried to arrange interviewing him again.  It never gets old.  Neither seemingly does he.  But I can solace in the fact that I did just happen to interview him by phone shortly before that in advance of his appearance at the Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb., the hometown of his late friend and fellow talk show host, Johnny Carson.  You can find my story on the festival, including some Cavett snippets, on this blog.  The story I’m posting here I wrote based on a public speaking appearance he gave here a half-dozen years ago or.  He addressed his battle with depression at a fund raiser for Community Alliance, a local mental health recovery organization.  He managed to tell his story and to be funny at the same time.  The blog also features the other Cavett stories I’ve completed over the years, including two major feature profiles.  I look forward to whenever our paths cross again.





Dick Cavett gets personal, still gets laughs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


On his recent Omaha visit, Dick Cavett revealed glimpses of himself as entertainer, raconteur, pundit and recovering clinical depression patient.

At the October 19 Omaha Press Club “Face on the Bar Room Floor” event, Cavett adroitly made with the quips and rejoinders that made him a talk show-meister from the late 1960s into the ‘90s. He only alluded to his depression. However, in a talk for the Community Alliance’s “Breaking the Silence” dinner the next night at the Holiday Inn Central, he described his odyssey with mental illness as “lots of pills” and “years on the couch.”

Amid the gloom, he said, “it’s so awful and so inexplicable and whatever you do to try and imagine it, you can’t. If there were a magic wand across the room on the table that would make you happy and give you everything you want, it would be too much trouble…to pick it up.”

His career as a host stalled after a manic-depressive episode prevented him from fulfilling a contract to front a radio program. He felt so low, he said, “that it became just too awful to get out of bed in that familiar way.”

His wife, actress Carrie Nye, has been a major support in his treatment and recovery. “She’s been very intuitive and very good about it. She’s the one who said, ‘You’ve got to turn yourself in,’ and because of that I did. It’s good to have somebody there.” Married since 1964, the couple has overseen the restoration of Tick Hall, their historic Montauk, Long Island home ravaged by fire in 1997.

In interviews, Cavett segues from anecdotes about his career to observations about his illness. He said depression poses many questions, is easily misunderstood, inflicts pain on others and takes a toll on the libido. Quoting Mort Sahl, he said, “Sex is great, if memory serves.”

It’s much how he was on his ABC show and later public-cable TV variations of it. He was the hip alternative to Johnny and Merv. While steeped in show biz history, the politically aware Cavett was more plugged into current events than his older counterparts. They favored small talk and shop talk to his substance and represented more middle-of-the-road mainstream views than his counterculture leanings.

Not that the former standup doesn’t cut up. His eloquent banter, filled with asides and non sequitirs, is not above the ribald. In what may be a first for an Omaha society speaking engagement, he ended his remarks, albeit as the punchline to a Groucho Marx joke, with, “f_ _ _ you.”

His ABC show was an eclectic melange of Vegas variety acts, extended interviews with serious artists and self-promoters hawking everything from faith to politics to pet projects. The sardonic Cavett wasn’t above name-dropping or gossip. Indeed, he still sprinkles his comments with juicy tidbits. Rare among TV personalities, he’s been willing to be himself or as close as TV allows. As he’s said, “It’s not you that does the show, it’s the show you that does it. When you go on, you take the show you with you, and when you go off, it’s the you-you, you take home.”

Wry, reflective and smart as hell, the ad-libber loves going off script, whether ruminating on “the anatomical roots” of Truman Capote’s “ridiculous voice” or the correct usages of forte or the unusual way Jack Benny stood while peeing. He’s also self-deprecating enough to acede a compulsion for trivia and minutae. “Annoying little things like that have me very unpopular in conversation,” he said.


By Jim Horan, ©Omaha Press Club



Then there’s his mellifluous bass voice. He uses it to underline the ironic musings and quips he delivers as the studied sophisticate and the mischevious brat that are equal parts of him. His dulcet tones can also resound with warm regard and sage insight, as in the University of Nebraska TV/radio spots he’s lent his voice to for years.

Vulnerable, if not as confessional as Jack Paar, who gave him his big TV break, Cavett’s unafraid to expose his serious and silly sides, often in the same monologue or interview. He doesn’t treat interviews as bits to hurry through, funny-up or dumb-down. As an emcee, he had conversations with guests, engaging them and, by extension, audiences, with exchanges that probed, grated, charmed and cajoled.

He negotiated answers with squirrely Marlon Brando. He told LSD prophet Timothy Leary “You’re full of crap.” He put Norman Mailer’s ego in its place with “Would you like another chair to contain your giant intellect?”He waxed poetic with John Neihardt. He never could draw out Spiro Agnew.

When not challenging taking public figures, the forever star struck Cavett bowed in the presence of their brilliance. One of his many booking coups was getting a reluctant Kate Hepburn for a studio interview, minus an audience. His nerves calmed when he noted “a slight tremor in her down stage cheek.” To his relief, “she was nervous as hell,” too.

A childhood molestation may have “chased” him into emotional distress. His depression first manifested itself at Yale. As a pro, he recalled the inexplicable apathy he felt on the eve of a Laurence Olivier interview, which he struggled through. “I just wanted to go home and get under my bed.” A curious thing about depression, he said, is its affective symptoms overwhelm the victim, but largely remain unseen. “It doesn’t look nearly as bad as you think it does.” That masking can obscure detection.

The gravity that earned Cavett an egg-head label explains why he never resonated with the masses the way fellow Nebraskan Johnny Carson did.

“I hated it whenever it came up and I wanted to say, If anyone thinks I’m an intellectual than the country’s in a very sad state. When people would say, ‘You’re trying to do a more literary show, aren’t you?’ — I’d say, ‘Oh, Jesus, no — I’m trying to do an entertainment show.’”

His comic persona is a complex of Bob Hope’s topical wisecracks, Jack Benny’s relaxed delivery, Paar’s anxious energy, Woody Allen’s neurotic analysis and Groucho’s irreverent bombast. There’s also a lot of Carson in him. Cavett was inspired by Carson, 10 years his senior, from the time he saw the Great Carsoni’s magic act. He followed a similar path as Carson, for whom he became a joke writer.

Their careers paralleled each other’s. He recalled a venerable on-air radio talent at Lincoln’s KFOR saying, ‘You know, Dick, you’re going to get up and out of here the way Johnny did.’ It was a poignant moment because it was a man in his middle-age saying, ‘I’m as far as I’m going to get and I have faced up to that, but you and Johnny…’ I didn’t know what to say.”




Cavett, who as a boy saw Hope perform at the Lincoln Colisieum, couldn’t imagine one day having the icon on his own show. Or being an intimate of Groucho’s. Or joining Carson as a TV desk jockey. Perhaps it was their shared background, but Carson had “a tremendous affection for me,” he said, “and it took someone else to point it out to me. It embarrased me.” Two Nebraskans hosting competing network talk shows, yet Cavett said, “I don’t think we ever did discuss how curious it was. I wish we had.”

Well aware they head “The List” of Nebraskans to find fame as TV performers, he speculates there’s “something about the place” to account for so many legends, but can’t pin it down.

Sharing Carson’s fondness for Nebraska, Cavett often returns. He re-enacted his talk show on stage one night last April for a Lincoln Public Library fundraiser. He’s long made driveabouts through the Sand Hills as a kind of pilgrimmage. “It’s one of the most gorgeous places in the world and it’s a blessing tourists don’t know about it or just don’t get it.”

As folklorist Roger Welsch roasted his old friend and classmate at the Press Club, Cavett interjected, in his best Jack Benny, “Now cut that out” and “Please tell at least one true story.“When Welsch ended with, “He left Nebraska, but he’s never gotten over it and Nebraska’s never gotten over you,” Cavett replied, “Now that’s more like it.”

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