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 (www.thereader.com)
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 tunerclassicmovies.com for Cavett on TCM.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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