Posts Tagged ‘TV Talk Show Hosts’

Dick Cavett’s desk jockey déjà vu

Dick Cavett hasn’t hosted an actual talk show in a long time but occasionally he still settles behind a desk or a table to do a faux version for charity. A few years ago Turner Classic Movies featured him in a special tete-a-tete he did with Mel Brooks.  TCM’s also showed some of his classic interviews with Hollywood legends.  He also has DVDs out of his best programs with film and rock icons.  The following piece appeared before the TCM specials.  You’ll find several more stories by me about Cavett, whom I’ve had the chance to interview multiple times.







Dick Cavett’s desk jockey déjà vu 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


The Dick Cavett Show. Ladies and gentlemen, Dick Cavett …… ”

That intro, silent for a generation, is back, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. The cable channel (Cox 55) is presenting interviews the Nebraska native comic, author, actor and talk-show host did with screen giants on his ABC late-night  The Dick Cavett Show of the late 1960s, early 1970s. On Thursday nights this month and next, TCM resurrects these originals just as a new DVD is out with him and Hollywood legends.

In this spirit of revival, TCM’s produced an hour special, recreating Cavett’s old show. In it, he goes one-on-one with comic dynamo Mel Brooks before a live studio audience. The TCM special marks his desk jockey return of sorts. The Dick Cavett Show’s many incarnations over 30 years ranged from daytime and late-night runs on ABC to versions on CBS, PBS, USA and CNBC. A radio gig in 1998 was his last.

Cavett, born in Gibbon, raised in Lincoln, educated at Yale and schooled in comedy by some of the greats, displays the same ease and wit with Brooks as he did in his exchanges with Golden Age legends. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Robert Mitchum and Alfred Hitchcock headline the guests he adroitly draws out and trades barbs with in the TCM re-airs.

It must be surreal for the 69-year-old to relive his talk show past. Indeed, as he glides on stage for the special, wearing a perplexed face, the first thing he utters, with senatorial incredulity, is, “That was dééjàà …… something, all over again.” The timing’s just right. “It puts me right back stage at our studio on 58th in New York, right next to the Zip Your Fly sign,” he says, switching from highbrow to low.

A call to his place in Manhattan finds him begging off an interview for another hour. He explains it’s so he has time to finish a letter to the New York Times in which he chides a staffer for her “absolutely, unforgivably erroneous, mean-spirited crappy review” of the special. It’s not the first time he’s taken on a Times’ scribe. His last diatribe, he says, was “to my amazement, spread …… all over the front page of the Sunday entertainment section.”

On the call back, he’s ready to get nostalgic about Hollywood royalty. The thought of those full-blooded figures reminds him today’s stars are, by comparison, “almost entirely” devoid of gravity or grandiosity. “Who would be Tracy or Fonda or Mitchum today? Who do we have? They just aren’t there,” he says. “Cagney (James), there’s nothing like him around. De Niro is about it.” He can’t put his finger on what this means, except, “ …… that’s something gone wrong in the gene pool or something.”

The mention of his odd 1973 show with Marlon Brando, then fronting the American Indian Movement, reminds Cavett how dismissive the actor was of his own craft. “Yes, because of his silly notion he kept peddling all his life that acting was a kind of offhand profession that anybody could do,” he says. “I don’t know if it was on the show or off, but he said, ‘You know, when they ask — Did you pee on the toilet seat? You lie and say no, and that’s acting and that’s all acting is.’ I know I did say to him, ‘In other words, I could have been as good a Stanley Kowalski as you?’ That kind of stopped him for a moment.”

Mitchum, “his eyelids at half-mast,” affected similar disdain for acting, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Yeah, he talked about walking through parts. That it was not really a manly profession,” Cavett says, “but Mitchum was a superb actor and anybody who thinks he wasn’t let’s see them get up and do what he did. He could have done Macbeth. I had to use pliers virtually to get him to admit he wrote poetry. I saw some of it and it was wonderful. He wrote music for some other things as well …… the score to the first movie he produced himself, Thunder Road.”

Of his hero Groucho, whom he did several shows with, Cavett says, “I knew a lot about him going in, so I wasn’t surprised by much, except by how much he liked to read and he was virtually always funny.” Groucho’s perfect one-liners came so fast and often, he says, “somebody should have been around” to record them.

A highlight for Cavett was writing for Groucho, among many temp hosts of The Tonight Show after Paar quit and before Johnny took over. “Groucho was the thrill, of course, for us writers or ‘the Shakespeares’ as he called us.”

Cavett first met Groucho and Woody Allen only a day apart. At the time Cavett wrote and coordinated on-air talent for Paar. Woody was a standup in New York clubs. “I was sent by the Paar show to scout this young man who they said had written for Sid Caesar when he was 17. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to know this guy.’ We met at the Blue Angel where he was appearing and vomiting back stage from stage fright, the master [emcee] making him go on and the audience sitting there talking during his fledgling act. He was a dud. His material was the greatest I’d ever heard. Genius.”




For those who only know the guarded sophisticate filmmaker Allen is today, Cavett says they “will be amazed he was ever a standup comic, in a period of his life he hated, and went on talk shows. Pure gold.”

Cavett, whose sardonic tone and neurotic persona make him a kind of WASPish Woody, would have killed to have been a staff writer, as Allen and Brooks were, for Caesar, whose stable included Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. “By the time I got to New York, damnit, Show of Shows was no longer,” Cavett says. He expresses similar regret to Brooks on the special: “God, I wish I’d been in the room with those guys.” When Cavett tells Mel he imagines those writing sessions as times when “countless gems were flying around the room,” Brooks deflates him with, “They could be counted. A lot of bulls*** flew across the room.”

Brooks played a wild, 2,500-year-old brewmeister to Cavett’s deadpan reporter in Ballantine Beer radio spots that Cavett says showcased Brooks’ “God-given, outrageous, eccentric comic talent.” The crazy Jew and placid Gentile played off each other well. During the special, Brooks ribs the host for being “spectacularly Gentile. You should be in a wax museum as THE Gentile.”

Cavett says there are enough star segments from his old show for more DVD-TCM revivals. His interviews with jazz greats will be on a forthcoming DVD. Still mourning the July death of his wife of 40 years, actress Carrie Nye, Cavett busies himself as much as he can. There’s still that letter to get out and so he excuses himself with his trademark, “I’ll be seeing ya.” We’ll be seeing you, too, Dick.

Check for Cavett on TCM.

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 (


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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