In the 1960s and '70s, Dick Cavett
was the thinking person's talk-show host. His well-received daytime program on ABC led to a late-night stint that lasted five years. The Dick Cavett Show
never challenged NBC's Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
in the ratings, but its high-profile guests often generated plenty of buzz. Luckily, many of his most memorable chats are available on DVD. The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats
, featuring interviews with Alfred Hitchcock
, Groucho Marx
, Robert Mitchum
, Katharine Hepburn
and others, will be released on Sept. 12, and starting that month you can also catch reruns on Turner Classic Movies. Cavett has also re-created his old show in a new hourlong special with Mel Brooks
, which airs Sept. 7 on the cable channel. Cavett recently talked with the Biz about his gift for gab.
TVGuide.com: We've heard stories about how tapes of the first 10 years of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson were erased for reuse. How were your shows preserved? You own them, right?
Dick Cavett: The late-night shows, yes. It was after I learned they were erasing the daytime shows, right after I had Groucho Marx or somebody who never appeared on television. They were using the tapes to tape Let's Make a Deal. Some lawyer or someone was supposed to [preserve them] and failed to do so. Little bits of daytime shows exist through the early days of home video recording. You had to thread it through like a reel to reel.
TVGuide.com: I thought Bob Crane was the only person who had one of those machines back then.
Cavett: He may have been. He was apparently watching something else.
TVGuide.com: But how did you end up owning the late-night shows?
Cavett: I don't know how that happened, but it did. Even then we hadn't learned completely. Some ABC lawyer sent over a memo that said, "Do you want to save any of these? You can have them for $60 each." I said, "Jesus that's a lot of money." A guy on my staff tried to pick the ones that he thought were the most savable. Every so often one has been requested, and they find it wasn't saved.
TVGuide.com: On the new TCM show you taped with Mel Brooks, you talk about how J.I. Rodale, the founder of Prevention magazine, died on your late-night show.
Cavett: Yes. If the Guinness Book of Records has a category of Talk-Show Host Who Had a Guest Die, I'm the only entry. I don't think it's ever happened to anyone else.... What's really weird is that people come up to me all the time and say, "I'll never forget the look on your face when that guy dropped dead on your show." Then I'm stuck with having to say, "Yeah it was amazing," or "You know it never aired." They think they saw it. When we played the tape back — it was month before we could look at it — Rodale said in an earlier segment, "I plan to live to be a 100," and "I never felt better in my life." I mean, who is writing these lines?
TVGuide.com: How were you able to get such legendary stars to come on your show and be so relaxed? Were celebrities just less controlled and less careful about what they would say on TV?
Cavett: I've tried to come to conclusions about that, but I haven't. I do know that one of my gifts — to be as immodest as possible — was that guests would say afterwards, "My god, that was the easiest talk show I ever did. I forgot I was on television."
TVGuide.com: What was it like taping the new TCM show with Mel Brooks, using the same music and a re-creation of your old set?
Cavett: I wasn't prepared for what the music would do for me. Hundreds of images flashed through my mind just then. I thought, "I've got shows to do." It was very peculiar and not entirely pleasant because it created a bit of anxiety because whenever I heard those notes I wouldn't know how that night's show was going to go. I got nervous this time, but not for long.
TVGuide.com: Who was the most memorable guest of all those shows?
Cavett: Everybody had wanted Katharine Hepburn. When she comes over to check out the set a few days before we were supposed to tape, we had the cameras going. I thought maybe we'd get something great. Well, it became the opening of the show. It was wonderful seeing Hepburn not knowing she was on.
TVGuide.com: She was OK with that?
Cavett: The next gulp was — how do we tell her? I called her, and she said, "Well, that sounds like a hell of a bad idea, but it might be good, I'll send somebody over to look at it. Somebody came over to ABC and looked at it — somebody about her height wearing a babushka that hid the face.
TVGuide.com: It was her?
TVGuide.com: You once did some writing for Groucho Marx, right?
Cavett: He did The Tonight Show for a couple of weeks in the interval between Johnny Carson and Jack Paar. I said, "Groucho, I'm a big fan." He said, "If it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan." And that was the beginning of our relationship.
TVGuide.com: What was Hitchcock like to interview?
Cavett: Very easy. He was hip to every part of the media. He knew how to sit and talk. He knew how to play to the audience. He knew how to get laughs. He knew how to mention something that he would follow up on later. That was the show that cleared up the accusation that he said actors are cattle. I asked him about it, and he said, "I would never say such an insensitive thing. What I said was they should be treated as cattle."
TVGuide.com: There was some sort of big moment in the Bette Davis interview, as well.
Cavett: I said, "Bette you just don't do this kind of thing. Why are you here? And she said, "Well, you're a gentleman, Richard, and I know I'm in good hands." What else could I say after that but, "How did you lose your virginity, Bette?" It got a laugh like an atomic bomb. As the laugh came down she said, "I'll tell you. I waited until I married, and it nearly killed me. I don't recommend it. I think the kids today have the right idea. We married for sex."