The recent publication of Dick Cavett‘s new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, is as good enough a reason as any for me to repost some of the Cavett stories I’ve written in the last few years. I’m also using the book’s release as an excuse to post some Cavett material I wrote that hasn’t appeared before on this blog. I’ve always admired this most adroit entertainer and I feel privileged that he’s granted me several interviews. With his new book out, I plan to interview him again. For me and a lot of Cavett admirers he’s never quite gotten the credit he deserves for raising the bar for talk shows, perhaps because almost no one followed his lead in making this television genre a forum for both serious and silly conversation. Cavett never quite caught on with the masses the way his talk-jock contemporaries did, and I’ve always thought it had something to do with his built-in contradiction of being both an egg-head and a stand-up comedian at the same time. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was based on a face-to-face interview I did with him in Lincoln, Neb. in 2009.
Being Dick Cavett
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Carson’s spirit was invoked during an Aug. 1 morning interview there with fellow Nebraska entertainer, Dick Cavett. That night Cavett did a program in its Howell Theatre recalling his own talk show days. Prompted by friend Ron Hull and excerpts from Cavett television interviews with show biz icons, the program found the urbane one doing what he does best — sharing witty observations.
The Manhattanphile’s appearance raised funds for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre housed in the Temple Building. The circa-1907 structure is purportedly haunted by a former dean. Who’s to say Carson, a UNL grad who cut his early chops there, doesn’t clatter around doing paranormal sketch comedy? His devotion to Nebraska was legendary. Only months before his 2005 passing he donated $5.4 million for renovations to the facility, whose primary academic program bears his name.
The salon-like lobby of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film is filled with Carsonia. A wall displays framed magazines – Time, Life, Look — on whose covers the portrait of J.C., Carson, not Christ, graced. Reminders of his immense fame.
A kiosk features large prints of Carson hosting the Oscars and presiding over The Tonight Show, mugging it up with David Letterman. In one of these blow-ups Carson interviews Cavett, just a pair of Nebraska-boys-made-good-on-network-TV enjoying a moment of comedy nirvana together.
It’s only apt Cavett should do a program at a place that meant so much to Carson. They were friends. Johnny, his senior by some years, made it big first. He hired Cavett as a writer. They remained close even when Cavett turned competitor, though posing no real threat. Cavett was arguably the better interviewer. Carson, the better comic.
They shared a deep affection for Nebraska. Carson starred in an NBC special filmed in his hometown of Norfolk. He donated generously to Norfolk causes. Cavett’s road trips to the Sand Hills remain a favorite pastime. Though not an alum, he’s lent his voice to UNL, and he’s given his time and talent to other in-state institutions.
Looking dapper and fit, Panama hat titled jauntily, Tom Wolfe-style, the always erudite Cavett spoke with The Reader about Carson, his own talk show career, his work as a New York Times columnist/blogger, but mostly comedy. In two-plus hours he did dead-on impressions of Johnny, Fred Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton. His grave voice and withering satire, intact. He dropped more names and recounted more anecdotes than Rex Reed has had facelifts. Walking from the UNL campus to his hotel he recreated a W.C. Fields bit.
He’s so ingrained as a talking head Cavett’s comedy resume gets lost: writing for Jack Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin; doing standup at Greenwich Village clubs with Lenny Bruce; befriending Groucho Marx. He hosted more talk shows than Carson had wives. He’s had more material published than any comic of his generation.
On the native smarts comedy requires, Cavett said, “comedy is complete intelligence.” He said the best comics “may not be able to quote Proust (you can bet the Yale-educated Cavett can), but there’s an order of genius there that sets them apart. There aren’t very many stupid, inept, dumb comics. There are ones that aren’t very talented and there are the greatly talented, but the comic gift is a real rare order. It doesn’t qualify you to do anything else but that.”
Good material and talent go a long way, but he concedes intangibles like charisma count, too. He said, “Thousands of comics have wondered why Bob Hope was better than they are. What’s he got? I’ve got gags, too.”
For Cavett, “Lack of any humor is the most mysterious human trait. You wonder what life must be like.” He appreciates the arrogance/courage required to take a bare stage alone with the expectation of making people laugh.
“Oh, the presumption. It’s not so bad if the house isn’t bare but that has happened to me too at a club called the Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village, where many of us so to speak worked for free on Grove Street. A great motherly woman named Jan Wallman ran this upstairs-one-flight little club with about seven tables. Joan Rivers worked there. Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Klein, Linda Lavin. Woody (Allen) worked out some material there early on.”
He knows, too, the agony of bombing and that moment when you realize, “I have walked into the brightest lit part of the room and presumed to entertain and make people laugh and I’m doing apparently the opposite.” A comic in those straits is bound to ask, “What made me do this?” The key is not taking yourself too seriously.
“If you can get amused by it that will save you, and I finally got to that point at The Hungry Eye,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because I’d played there for two weeks and been doing alright and then one night, nothing, zero. The same sound there would be if there was no one seated in the place. Line after line. It was just awful. You could see people at the nearest tables gaping up at you like carp in a pool, not comprehending, not laughing, not moving. And I finally just said, ‘Why don’t you all just get the hell out of here?’ It gave me a wonderful feeling.
“Two, what Lenny Bruce used to call diesel dikes sitting in the front row with their boots up on the stage, one of whose boots I kicked off the stage, taking my life in my hands, got up to leave. And as they got to the door I said, ‘There are no refunds,’ and one of them said, ‘We’ll take a chance.’ And she got a laugh. So they (the audience) were capable of laughing.”
He finished his set sans applause, the only noise the patter of his patent leathers retreating. Inexplicably, he said, “the next show went fine. Same stuff.” For Cavett it’s proof “there is such a thing as a bad audience or a bad something — a gestalt, that makes a room full of unfunnyness, and I don’t think it’s you. It might be something in you. Whatever it is, you’re unaware of its source, not its presence.”
Anxiety is the performer’s companion. It heightens senses. It gets a manic edge on.
“Whether you want it, you’re going to get some,” he said. “I can go into a club and perform without any nerves of any kind now. But if it isn’t there you want a little something, and there are ways you can get it. Like be a little late. Or I found with low grade depression, before diagnosed, not knowing what it was, I would do things like go back and rebrush my hair or put another shirt on. ‘This is dangerous, they’re going to be mad,’ I’d think. ‘But that’s alright somehow.’ I didn’t realize the somehow meant it’s giving me adrenalin that lifted the depressed seratonin level. It raises you a little bit above the level of a normal person standing talking to other normal people. It’s a recent realization. I’ve never told that before.”
Cavett was always struck by how Carson, the consummate showman, was so uptight outside that arena. “I’ve said it before, but he was maybe the most socially uncomfortable man I’ve ever known. At such odds with his skills. There are actors who can play geniuses that aren’t very smart seemingly when you talk to them, but whatever it is is in there and it comes out when they work. I have a sad feeling Johnny was happiest when on stage, out in front of an audience. I don’t know that it’s so sad. Most people are sad a lot of the time, but some don’t ever get the thrill of having an ovation every time they appear.”
“It’s funny for me to think there are people on this earth who have never stood in front of an audience or been in a play or gotten a laugh,” he said.
People who say they nearly die of nerves speaking in public reminds him he once did, too. “I had the added problem of every time I spoke everybody turned and looked at me because of my voice. It was always low. If I heard one more time ‘the little fellow with the big voice’ I thought I’d kick someone in the crotch.”
He said performers most at home on stage dread “having to go back to life. For many of them that means the gin bottle on the dresser in a hotel in Detroit. On stage, god-like. Off-stage, miserable.”
In Cavett’s eyes, Carson was a master craftsman.
“He could do no wrong on stage. I mean in monologue. He perfected that to the point where failure succeeded. If a joke died he made it funnier by doing what’s known in the trade as bomb takes — stepping backwards a foot, loosening his tie…’” Not that Carson didn’t stumble. “He had awkward moments while he was out there. Many of them in the beginning. My God, the talk in the business was this guy isn’t making it, he’s not going to last. It’s hard to think of that now. Merv Griffin began in the daytime the same day as Johnny on The Tonight Show. Merv got all the good reviews. He was the guy they said should have Tonight, and Merv really died when he didn’t get it.”
When the mercurial Paar walked off Tonight in ’62 NBC scrambled for a replacement. Griffin “was actually seemingly in line” but the network anointed Carson, then best known as a game show host. In what proved a shrewd move Carson didn’t start right away. Instead, guest hosts filled in during what Cavett refers to as “the summer stock period between Paar and Johnny. People don’t remember that. Everybody and his dog who thought he could host a talk show came out and most of them found out they couldn’t.” Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Leonard, Bob Cummings, Eva Gabor, Groucho. Some were serviceable, others a disaster.
Carson debuted months later to great anticipation and pressure. “At the beginning he was really uncomfortable, drinking a bit I think to ease the pain, and as one of my writer friends said, ‘with a wife on the ledge.’ It was a very, very hard time in his life to have all this happen” said Cavett, “and then he just developed and all this charm came out.”
Off-air is where Carson’s real problems lay. “Many a time I rescued him in the hall from tourists who accidentally cornered him on his way back to the dressing room after the show. They’d made the wrong turn to the elevators and decided to chat up Johnny, and he was just in agony.” The same scene played out at cocktail parties, where Carson hated the banter. It’s one of the ways the two were different. Said Cavett, “I don’t seek it but I don’t mind it. He couldn’t do it and he knew he couldn’t do it and it pained him.”
That vulnerability endeared Carson to Cavett. “I liked him so much. We had such a good thing going, Johnny and I. It dawned on me gradually how much he liked me. I mean, it was fine working for him and we got along well, and when I was doing an act at night he’d ask me how it went, and we’d laugh if a joke bombed. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you change it to this?’ He’d give me a better wording for it. I feel guilty for not seeing him the last 8 or 10 years of his life, though we spent evenings together. The staff couldn’t believe I ate at his house. ‘You were in the house?’ On the phone he was, ‘Richard’ — he always called me Richard, sort of nice – ‘you want to go to the Magic Castle?’ I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Johnny.’ And I would think somebody imitating him, even though I’d been around him a million times.”
Something Brando once told Cavett — “Because of Nebraska I feel a foolish kinship with you” — applied to Cavett and Carson.
Cavett realized a dream of hosting his own show in ’68 (ABC). In ’69 he went from prime time to late night. A writer supplied a favorite line: “‘Hi, I’m Dick Cavett, I have my own television show, and so all the girls that wouldn’t go out with me in high school — neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah.’ It got one of the biggest laughs. Johnny liked it.”
Getting more than the usual canned ham from guests was a Cavett gift. Solid research helped.
“I often did too much. I’d worry, ‘Oh, God, I’m not going to get to the first, let alone the 12 things I wrote down. Or. ‘I’ve lost the thread again.’ Only to find often the best shows I did had nothing I’d prepared in it. The best advice I ever got, which Jack Paar gave me, was, ‘Kid, don’t ever do an interview, make conversation.’ That’s what Jack did.” A quick wit helps.
At its best TV Talk is a free-flowing seduction. For viewers it’s like peeking in on a private conversation. “Very much so,” he said. “You’d think that can’t be possible because there are lights and bystanders and an audience, and it’s being recorded, and yet I remember often a feeling of breakthrough, almost like clouds clearing. ‘We’re really talking here. I can say anything I want .’”
With superstar celebs like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and his “favorite,” Groucho, Cavett revealed his fandom but grounded it with keen instincts and insights. “That did help. I could see on their faces sometimes, Oh, you knew that about me? I guess I have to confess to a knack of some sort that many people commented about: ‘How did you get me to say those things?’”
He said viewing the boxed-set DVDs of his conversations with Hollywood Greats and Rock Greats reveals “there was a time when nobody plugged anything” on TV. Then everyone became a pimp. “When first it happened it was rare. Then it was joked about,” he said, “and then it got so it was universal — that’s the reason you go on.”
Today’s new social media landscape has him “a bit baffled and bewildered.”
“I have wondered at times what all has changed, what’s so different. It did occur to me the other day looking at the Hollywood Greats DVD — who would be the 15 counterparts today of these people. I might be able to think of three. And that’s not just every generation thinks everything is better in the past than it is now. I know one thing you could start with is the single act that propelled me here — the fact I was able to enter the RCA Building via the 6th Ave. escalators, which were unguarded, and walk up knowing where Paar’s office was, and go to it.”
He not only found Paar but handed him jokes the star used that night on air, netting Cavett a staff writing job. “No career will start that way today,” he said. Then again, some creatives are being discovered via Facebook and YouTube.
In terms of the talk genre, he said, “it doesn’t mean as much to get a big name guest anymore. They’re cheap currency now,” whereas getting Hepburn and Brando “was unthinkable.” He’s dismayed by “how much crap” is on virtually every channel.” He disdains “wretched reality shows” and wonders “what it’s done to the mind or the image people have of themselves that allows them to think they’re still private in ways they’re not anymore.”
Comedy Central is a mixed bag in his opinion. “I like very little of the standup. I don’t see much good stuff. They all are interchangeable to me. They all hold the mike the same and they all say motherfucker the same. You just feel like I may have seen them before or I may not have. And I don’t believe in the old farts of comedy saying ‘we didn’t need to resort to filthy language’ and ‘they don’t even dress well.’ That’s boring, too.”
Cavett’s done “a kind of AARP comedy tour” with Bill Dana, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Dick Gregory. “It was pretty good.” But he’s about more than comedy nostalgia. He enjoys contemporary topical comics Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, about whom he said, “he gives as good as he gets and gets as good as he gives.” He’s fine not having a TV forum anymore: “I’ve lived without it and I got what I wanted mostly I guess in so many ways.” Besides, who needs it when you’re a featured Times’ blogger?
“Yeah, I like that, although it can be penal servitude to meet a deadline.”
His commentaries range from reminiscences to takes on current events/figures. His writing’s smart, acerbic, whimsical, anecdotal. He enjoys the feedback his work elicits. “My God, they’re falling in love with Richard Burton,” he said of reader/viewer reactions to a ditty on the Mad Welshman’s charms. He covers Cheever-Updike to Sarah Palin. “My Palin piece broke the New York Times’ records for distributions, responses, forwarding. The two from that column most quoted about her: ‘She seems to have no first language’ and ‘I felt sorry for John McCain because he aimed low and missed.’ Many, many people extracted those two.”
He said Times Books wants to do a book of the columns.
When his handler came to say our allotted 90 minutes were up, he quipped, “Oh, God, it went by as if it were only 85.” And then, “I’ve got a show tonight but I said everything. Biga has had my best.” Before leaving he asked his picture be taken beside the Cavett-Carson repro. Two Kings of Comedy together again.
- Cavett’s Conversations: ‘When People Simply Talk’ (npr.org)
- Tamar Abrams: Dick Cavett: Get This Man a Show! (huffingtonpost.com)
- ‘Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,’ Hour-Long Special Reuniting Comedy Greats Debuts Sept. 9 on HBO (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- “Looking at the Louds: A video supplement to ‘Cinema Verite’ and ‘An American Family’” and related posts (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- The First Shall Be Last – Or, Anyway, Second (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
Homecoming is Always Sweet for Dick Cavett, the Entertainment Legend Whose Dreams of Show Biz Success were Fired in Nebraska
In his new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, irrepressible Dick Cavett reminds us that though he hasn’t hosted a talk show in a very long time he has much to say about this television genre, one he gave his own distinctive spin to as a writer and host. A wordsmith at heart, his new work also reminds us how gifted he is at turning a phrase. Because Cavett is making the rounds this fall and winter to promote his book, he is very much in the entertainment news again, which is why I am reposting a couple Cavett articles I wrote a few years ago and why I am posting for the first time some other Cavett material I wrote. He’s been very generous with me in terms of granting me ample time for my interviewing him over the years. To be honest, I didn’t even know about this book until a friend mentioned it. Now that I’m onto it, I will request a new interview with him and I know he will be accommodating again. As he likes to say, he’s always a good guest, and in this case, a good interview. The following piece, which traces his career, originally appeared in the New Horizons newspaper in Omaha, Neb.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Dick Cavett’s longing to be “under the lights” burned so hot as a boy in post-World War II Nebraska that nothing seemed more enticing than the prospect of far-off glamour in New York. Then, as now, the Big Apple loomed as the center of all things, certainly of show biz, which the young Cavett saw as his future.
“Always the shot of the New York skyline spoke to me where it didn’t to others my age,” the 70-year-old comic and former talk show host said by phone from his historic coastal retreat, Tick Hall, on Montauk, Long Island. The 19th-century, Stanford White-designed home is where Cavett and his late wife Carrie Nye spent time away from the tumult of New York. The house burned down in 1997 and over three years time the couple had it reconstructed to historic specifications, an epic project that is the subject of a documentary, From the Ashes.
The house hasn’t been the same since Nye died from cancer last July. She had a way of filling any room she was in with her bright spirit and hearty, Southern drawl-tinged laugh. She and Cavett were married 42 years.
Today, when not at the beach, he stays at the Manhattan apartment the couple shared. This son of career educators lives a life steeped in culture — books, the theater, films, fine dining. He writes letters and op-ed pieces. His ability to engage in literature, history, gossip, trivia and one-liners sets him apart from some entertainers. Words fascinate him. He loves finding just the right one with which to prick or prod or parry. Exposing grammatical errors is a hobby, nigh-compulsion.
Cavett, the forever puckish wit, was born in Gibbon, Neb. and raised in Grand Island and Lincoln. Precociously bright, he got laughs from an early age, when he’d surprise others with his large vocabulary, double entendres, confident delivery and deep voice. His humor’s never left him, not even in his grief. Since Nye’s death, however, he has grown more reflective than usual about his Nebraska upbringing and the close ties he’s kept here throughout his nearly half-century career.
Nebraska is where he came back only three months after Nye, a noted actress, passed. He headed out alone by car to its far western reaches, a road trip he’s made many times over the years as a kind of pilgrimage. When things get too oppressive back East, Nebraska is his escape. Here, away from the glare, the noise, the crowd, he can unwind and breath under the clear, open, quiet skies.
“Yeah, it is that in a way,” he said, “especially when I do almost my favorite thing in the world to do, which is get in a car and go out into the Sand Hills. I remember one great teacher I had in high school, after I had just been to the Sand Hills, said, ‘Oh, it’s just heaven. Aren’t you glad the tourists haven’t found it?’ A lot of the tourists wouldn’t dig it or get it. But the idea you could take the family car as I did and drive 416 miles on the 4th of July for however many hours and hours it took and see just four other cars on those old roads…,” he said, his golden voice trailing off, choked with the wonder of the memory.
When he’s back, he stops in on old friends like Dannebrog’s Roger Welsch, the folklorist-author, and Lincoln’s Ron Hull, the avuncular Nebraska Educational Television legend. He visits his stepmother, Dorcas, now 90 but still sharp as a whip.
“So I went up to our bedroom where my wife Linda had already gone to bed and said, ‘Uuuuuuuh, Linda…Dick Cavett says he’s going to come visit us sometime. ‘Did he say when?’ she said sleepily. ‘Yeah….in about five minutes.’ She never did forgive me…or Dick…for that one.”
Hull said Cavett’s affinity for Nebraska is “genuine. There’s not a phony bone in his body. He’s a very, very honest person.” Cavett often comes back at Hull’s request to emcee benefits or to lend his famous face and voice to a documentary or spot. “He’s never turned me down,” Hull said admiringly. “He’s a very generous guy. He’s always come through. And he’s always done it pro bono, just as a friend. He’s been a very good friend of Nebraska. That’s one of the things I like about him — he didn’t forget his roots. He is proud of those roots. He never lost touch with that.”
Whether at work in the studio or at play over dinner, Hull said Cavett’s “so much fun to be with. He is curious about everything. He listens. He has this marvelous, retentive mind. He’s so good at words. Don’t ever play Scrabble with him.”
“He is a pleasant soul,” Welsch said. “It’s hard not to like Cavett. His visits here are…definitely not an exercise in royalty visiting the peasants. Yes, he talks about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks…while I talk about my pal Bondo, the auto body repairman, or Dan the plumber, but somehow there isn’t a feeling of inequity. He appreciates the humor I find in ordinary people out here and in turn shows me the ordinary side of the notables in whom he finds his humor. I really don’t consider Dick Cavett to be a famous person who is a friend of mine; to us he is a friend…and oh yes, I guess he’s also famous. Perhaps the best part is that even as a world-famous star and intellect, he is still, through and through, a Nebraskan.”
Cavett’s love for the wide open spaces, solitude and history of Nebraska was implanted early on, via road trips his family made out West when he was a boy. Book, film and museum images of Plains Indians fixated him. As an adult he immersed himself more deeply in the land and legacy of its native peoples, familiarizing himself and the nation with the works of John Neihardt, Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. He’s proud of the remarkable figures Nebraska’s produced and will name, without any prodding, some of the great film, theater, literary and athletic icons from here.
Whenever someone suggests there’s a characteristic that describes a typical Nebraskan, he’s quick to point out that personalities as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Darryl Zanuck, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Malcolm X, Sandy Dennis and Johnny Rodgers emerged from this same terra cotta.
For the book Eye on Cavett he wrote of returning a celeb to his Lincoln High class reunion. He and Welsch were classmates and bandmates, not buds. Cavett suspects Welsch thought he was “one of the fancy people.” Welsch confirms as much, but adds, “I admired him…He was always one of the stars at the talent shows, theater productions, and that kind of thing, and yet he was never an arrogant pain in the ass…just a nice guy who had a lot of talent.” They both coveted luminous Sandy Dennis, another classmate bound for fame, but neither had the guts to ask her out, much less speak to her. Cavett later got to know her in New York.
Nebraska is where Cavett’s heart is. New York’s where the action is. Even as a boy, he felt the pull of that place. How could it not beckon a starstruck kid like him? Especially after he nearly committed to memory the classic book, The Empire City, an anthology of great stories about New York by great writers.
“It’s just wonderful. Every famous writer who ever wrote anything about New York is in there,” he said, “from E.B. White to Groucho (Marx) to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht. And I would read that thing and then read it again. I knew more about New York then, sitting on the glider on the porch reading that book than most New Yorkers did. I could describe Chinatown and how to get to it and around it and in it,” without having been there. In the book Cavett he co-authored with friend Christopher Porterfield the entertainer calls New York “a siren call.” Made all the more alluring by anecdotes of it told by his parents’ friends or the genuine New York actors he shared the stage with one season of summer stock in Lincoln.
For him, the future was a New York or bust deal. He wasn’t sure what path would take him there — “I had no idea how you got there” — but he knew his destiny lay in the crackle and glow of theater marquees, not the scraping of chairs on floors and chalk on backboards. His late parents, and stepmother, were all public school teachers and while he suspects he too would have excelled at it, he would be dissatisfied knowing he’d missed out on his dream.
“I think I could have enjoyed being a teacher a great deal,” he said. “They would have liked me. I would have been funny and all the things you didn’t associate with most teachers.” Like his dad. “My father was always the most popular teacher anyone in Lincoln ever had,” he said. “My father always attracted the most forlorn types…and made them feel better and gave them confidence and all these things. He gave them meaning. He didn’t mean to do that, but it just happened.”
One of those the elder Cavett tried reaching out to was the garbage man on their block, a young, sullen, self-made rebel named Charlie Starkweather, an obscure boy and striking name soon to strike fear on the Great Plains.
Cavett’s “toyed with the idea” of what might have been if he hadn’t left Nebraska. “Would I go nuts? Probably not. But I certainly wouldn’t have had what I wanted and at times got more than enough of later on. Let’s just say I can’t imagine contributing a covered dish to the picnic of the neighborhood,” he said dryly.
As “drawn” to show biz as he was, he said, “I can’t think of ever wanting anything else. It wasn’t as though, If I can’t become a comedian or a magician I’ll become a lawyer or a plumber and I’ll be happy doing that. Noooo…” That didn’t stop some from trying to dissuade him. “I didn’t have any interest in dental college, one of several things — it seems so humorous now — my father tried to interest me in. And of course his pitch was. ‘You’re talented, but you know a lot of people don’t make much of a living in your business, You really ought to think about something that’s going to be steady.’ I just nodded and let it pass.”
Once bit by the bug, no appeal to practicality could change his mind. “Yeah, because in effect you don’t really have any choice,” he said. “The thought of trying to go to law school was not even in question. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.” The death of his mother from cancer when he was 10 only made him retreat more into the world of make believe. On the whole he counts his childhood a happy one, but the trauma of his mother’s death still stings.
“The worst part of that was not only watching her dying,” he said, “but no other kid I ever heard of lost a parent. Nobody.” He said his wife’s death made him relive the pain of his mother’s death and elicited “the resentment of, Screw this — I have to do it again? That was awful.”
There were also molestations he suffered at the hands of strangers, once at a Lincoln movie theater. He doubts the abuse triggered the depression he struggled with for many years, although he doesn’t discount the possibility.
But mostly he looks back fondly at a solid rearing. While his folks were far from bohemians, they were no squares, either. His mom and dad were intelligent, culturally astute people. As is his stepmother. His dad and step-mom co-founded a high brow social club, the C.A.s, whose name was a closely guarded secret. Critics Anonymous brought together a group of like-minded adults, plus Dick, for celebrations and excoriations of different subjects or themes. Sometimes, a country’s music, food, literature and customs came under scrutiny.
All the talk of exotic places only fueled his fire to see the larger world.
Like the boy who runs away with the circus, Cavett heeded the call of the lights, only gradually, in small measures. While growing up here he did some magic, some acting, some announcing. Even his favorite athletic pursuit, gymnastics, put him out front, under the lights. He studied the great comics, absorbing their stances, their inflections, their timing. His models were as near as Johnny Carson, then a popular magician on the Chautauqua circuit and, later, a dashing television-radio personality in Omaha, and as distant as the greats he glimpsed in the movies or on TV.
He once saw a young Johnny’s Great Carsoni act, and it left an impression. Perhaps, he thought, he could emulate a fellow Nebraskan’s success on stage. And once in awhile one of those bigger-than-life legends, as Bob Hope did, would come to perform in Lincoln or Omaha, giving him a first-person dose of show biz magic.
On those occasions, Cavett would, through sheer pluck, wend his way backstage before and after the show, something he continued doing once he finally made it to New York, becoming a habitue of the club-theater-network TV district, all the better to run into celebs. Just seeing Hope in the flesh was enough to feed his imagination and project himself into that rarefied company.
Besides Hope, long a hero of his, Cavett’s star gazing in Nebraska found him finagling seats and trading backstage banter with the likes of Charles Laughton, Basil Rathbone, Phil Silvers and Spike Jones. Each encounter only intoxicated him more with the idea that he belonged “in that world” with them.
Still, the stars were ethereal enough that even his “wildest dream could not convince me I would one day have Hope as a guest on my own show.” But he did.
After one of those head-in-the-cloud nights in Lincoln, enraptured by the sight of his idols and the exchange of a few words with them, his return to dreary Earth felt like defeat. “To go to school the next day was just murder,” he said. I thought, ‘I belong with them (the stars)’” as they set off by train for the next stop under the lights. Wanderlust ran in the family. His maternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher who immigrated from Wales and evangelized his way across the Great Plains. “My hell-for-leather Uncle Paul, as my father always called him,” was a rover who rode the freight rails. A young Cavett was captivated by their experiences of setting off for distant spots. “Oh, yeah, they had dramatic adventures in faraway places,” he said. “But I didn’t want to be T.E. Lawrence or Frank Buck. I didn’t see myself in jungles or deserts, though I’ve been to both…” He said he was like this character from a long-forgotten novel who startles her parents when they ask — ‘What do you want to be, a nurse or a school teacher?’ — by saying, and my wife used to quote this, ‘I want the fast cars, the bright lights and the men in tuxedos.’” Only substitute women in cocktail dresses for men in tuxes.
Cavett was spotted early on as a talent to be watched, even if he didn’t know exactly what talent might send him on his way. As a teen he acted in and eventually directed, too, a Lincoln Junior League Theater program, Storytime Playhouse, on popular radio station KFOR, the same station Carson used to launch his career. Cavett once did a 15-minute Macbeth.
“One day out on the street I run into Bob Johnson, who was of course this huge celebrity in Lincoln because he was a longtime announcer on KFOR. He did Bob Johnson’s Musical Clock and Bob Johnson’s this-and-that. We were both heading for the studio and he said, ‘Let’s walk around the block,’ as if he was about to bring up something sensitive and didn’t quite know how to. So we made small talk and then he said, ‘You know, Dick, I have a feeling about you — you’re going to get up and out of here the way Johnny did.’ And 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 faced up to that, but you and Johnny, well…
“I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to say. I kind of hoped he was right, but I didn’t know how Johnny did. I can’t imagine what we said for the last half-block.”
Johnny was of course Johnny Carson. “Johnny was 10-12 years older than I was,” Cavett said. “He was doing his television show (The Squirrel’s Nest) in Omaha and soon going on to New York for various things, He hadn’t utterly ‘made it’ yet, but as far as anyone in Lincoln was concerned he had.” Cavett’s since wondered what might have happened if they had bumped into each other then to discuss their nascent show biz dreams. He’s sure they would have recognized in themselves then what kindred spirits they were.
As it was, they both made it big time, their careers following nearly parallel courses. Cavett was a talent coordinator and writer for Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, the slot Carson, who’d hosted TV game shows and written for Red Skelton, inherited when Paar retired. Carson made Tonight an even more popular and lucrative brand name for NBC. Cavett joined Carson’s staff of writers before getting his own talk show.
“I guess I just always had this sort of pull, as I think he (Carson) must have, to go where the action is. Mingle with Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball and maybe Groucho if you were really lucky.”
Cavett’s opportunity to leave Nebraska for the bright lights came courtesy of a family friend, another older man who saw in him the hunger and potential to excel.
“A friend of my parents by the name of Frank Rice taught at Omaha Central. Frank sort of looked like Vincent Price. He had a Whitney Fellowship, I think it was called, at Yale for a year. He came back and said, ‘Dick should apply at Yale.’ Nobody took this very seriously and Frank insisted. And somehow that came about.”
“I remember Frank saying, ‘You’ll like it at Yale, if you’re lucky enough to get in, because the Shubert Theatre is right across the street from your freshmen campus. Every week or two a new Broadway show comes through on its way to New York.’’ Broadway show? I didn’t even care it would cost me a dollar-forty to sit in the front row of the second balcony.”
This was it — his entree to the glimmer of New York theater and culture. If he could get in. And then one day, as he tells it, he was “on the same glider on the porch that I was probably readingThe Empire City on” when the mailman brought a letter from Yale that said, ‘You have been accepted in the Class of 1954.’ And the whole world just swam for a moment. ‘What will all this mean? God, what could happen from this? It’s hard to say. Damn near anything.’ I walked around in a daze.”
By the time he headed east he was a certified TV junkie, so much so he said that when his family got their first set in the mid-’50s “I did almost nothing but watch it. Sundays, my God, I got out graham crackers and peanut butter and started with ‘Super Circus, live from Chicago, and went all the way through the evening, including Mr. Peepers, What’s My Line?, Ed Sullivan, The Web…I made the mistake of getting a date once on a Saturday night and she did not want to watch Show of Shows, so that was the end of that relationship.
“When I thought of going away to college I wondered, Will they let me watch all my television?”
Yale let him have his catho ray tube fix, although with only one set in the dorm he couldn’t always watch his favorite shows. More importantly, New Haven, Conn. put him within easy reach of where it all happens. With such close access to New York, his idea of a good time was far different than most of his fellow red-blooded Yalies, who had scoring girls on their mind.
“Instead of going to girls schools on the weekends, Wellesley, Smith, Vassar, I went down to New York. I thought, How can you be so dumb as to want to go there when you can go to New York…see a play with the Lunts, Paul Muni or Bette Davis, and sneak into the Jackie Gleason Show and What’s My Line?,” a show he ended up guesting on.
As he did in Lincoln, he gushed to classmates about the stars and shows he saw and that he sometimes talked to. There were more all the time. Now that he was an Ivy Leaguer and a big city sophisticate, he wanted to go home “to parade around” in his Oxford blue shirt and tweed, three-button jacket from Saks and regale everyone with where he’d been and whom he’d seen.
“That was everything I’ve lived for — to come back and cause amazement,” he said. It was also a case of homesickness. But as he found nothing stays the same.
“My first trip from Yale back to Nebraska I couldn’t wait to get to Grand Island and as soon as I got around the corner to see where we used to live, it was gone,” he said. “There was a Safeway there. They had obliterated the Christian church, my best friend Mary Huston’s house, our house, the whole block. And it was one of the most devastating things that’s happened to me. How could they raze this without my permission? A horrible feeling. It hurts me right now.”
He was near finishing up Yale when walking on campus one day in 1957 he heard the news stand jockey hawking papers, Cavett recalled, with “the words ‘murder in Nebraska.” An incredulous Cavett remarked to the man, “It sounded like you said murder in Nebraska.” He confirmed he had. “There in the Journal American, now defunct, in big letters just short of what you put War Declared in, it said, ‘Ghastly Murders, Lincoln, Nebraska.” The headline referred to Charlie Starkweather’s killing spree. It gave Cavett the creeps.
“I don’t know now if I thought, I hope nobody I know was murdered. I guess you wouldn’t necessarily assume it. Had I known and glanced down at the name Starkweather I could have had a horrible moment recalling if my father said, ‘That’s our garbage guy.’ My father said he always seemed like a kind of forlorn kid. He seemed nice enough. My dad made people seem nice enough that weren’t anywhere but in his presence. Though I suppose I doubt if my father was anyone he toyed with as a victim.”
Even that incidental connection to a serial killer was enough for Cavett to closely follow the Starkweather manhunt, capture, trial and eventual execution.
By the time the notorious case became a sensation, Cavett was taking courses at Yale School of Drama and that’s when he met the woman who would become his life partner. Carrie Nye was her theatrical name but also her full first name. When Cavett met her her surname was McGeoy. She was flamboyantly Southern. Brilliant. Funny. Serious about her craft. Independent. Opinionated. An original.
The Greenwood, Miss. native attended Stephens College where, Cavett said, she “probably had the record number of violations there of books not returned, walking on the grass, smoking behind the lockers…”
His reaction upon first setting eyes on her? “I didn’t like her very much…I said ‘God, who the hell is that? She looks affected,’ or something like that to one of the guys at the drama school and he said, ‘But have you met her?’ I said, ‘No.’ When I did I saw what he meant. She was not like anything or anybody I ever met before. No one could ever say, ‘She’s just like Carrie Nye.’”
Their drama mates included, at one time or another, Paul Newman and Julie Harris. Cavett and Nye performed at Yale and in summer stock at Williamstown, Mass. They were soon an item, marrying in 1962. For a time, her career overshadowed his. When things broke for him, they broke big. Working for Paar, Carson, Jerry Lewis. Doing his own standup comedy act. Guesting on panel/game shows. Hosting his own late night network TV show, followed by TV desk-jock stints on PBS, then cable. Prime time specials. Commercials. Voice-overs. Films. Plays. She enjoyed success in regional theater and on Broadway, also taking occasional small and big screen parts. Their marriage survived the ups and downs of their respective careers.
It’s been awhile since Cavett’s had a talk-show gig. He laid to rest any question of whether he’s still “got it” with his 2000-2002 role as the narrator in the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and his 2006 appearances on Turner Classic Movies, which revived some of his late night ABC shows with Hollywood greats. For a new TCM special he taped with Mel Brooks, Cavett proved his quick wit and verbal acuity are still intact. The Hollywood shows are out on DVD, as is a rock icon collection. A new DVD set featuring him with jazz-blues legends is planned.par
It’s interesting to note that even after all the dreaming he’d done of New York and all the trips he made there from New Haven to cozy up to the stars, Cavett still hadn’t made plans to move there after graduating Yale. He was doing summer stock when, he said, a fellow actor remarked, “‘Well, I guess you’ll be heading for New York, looking for an apartment.’ But to that point I hadn’t thought very far beyond the edge of the season. I really hadn’t thought it out. I figured I’d probably trip back to Nebraska. But as soon as I heard ‘you’ll be going to New York,’ I did.”
Cavett lived the life of a struggling young hopeful, making the rounds in casting offices, taking bit parts here and there, working all kinds of side jobs to keep himself alive. He was a copy boy atTime Magazine when he screwed up the nerve to go to the RCA Building with a batch of jokes he’d written for Paar, the king of late night. His plan? To somehow bump into the Great Man, slip him the material, and be discovered for the brilliant comic mind he is. Amazingly, it all came true.
He still marvels at “the sheer chance of taking the monologue to Jack Paar,” running into him in a hallway, Paar accepting the envelope containing jokes penned by a unknown, then sitting back in the live studio audience to hear hisone-liners go out over the airwaves from the mouth of a star; and later, backstage being thanked by the star and encouraged to feed him more jokes. It all led to Cavett being hired on staff. The surreal experience was just one of “the phenomenal breaks, coincidences and other such things” that helped launch his career.
Cavett found his niche as a writer. “Once I get an idea I can go with it,” he said. “That was true as a monologue writer. If Jack or Johnny would give a subject, then I could be very fast and, to the irritation of the other writers, the first one to Johnny’s desk. Not that it mattered, because the first was not always the best.” He gets a high from writing that’s akin to the buzz he gets from ab libbing. Some, like old friend Ron Hull, suggest the entertainer could be a serious writer. “Yeah, I’m reasonably certain I could have made a living that way,” Cavett agrees.
While the two never talked about it, Cavett said he and Carson understood they shared a special connection. Like Carson did, Cavett’s given back to his home state.
He recalled one of the rare times the intensely private and supposedly cold Carson invited him out to dinner in L.A.
“That night we were sitting in a booth, just two guys from Nebraska in California, and he described the special (Johnny Goes Home) he’d just done in Norfolk and he said ‘there was this moment when I opened the door at the school building and there were all my teachers.’ And it was astounding because he was moved and he stuttered, and I thought, Oh, if people who think he has a ramrod up his ass and he treats people horribly could see this…He wasn’t a bit embarrassed by the emotion.
“He had a tremendous affection for me, and it took somebody to point it out. ‘Do you notice Johnny’s a different man when you’re on his show?’ one of his staff told me. ‘We wish you’d come on all the time. Johnny’s so easy to get along with when you’re on.’ It almost embarrassed me.”
Johnny’ gone. Cavett’s beloved Carrie Nye, a woman Ron Hull called “a perfect complement” to his friend, for her brilliance, humor and taste, is gone now, too, leaving “a void” no amount of quips can fill.
Given Cavett’s comic bent, her humor may be what he misses most. “The obit man at the Times spoke to me and said, ‘I feel I know your wife a bit,’ because he had talked to her twice on the phone about people who had died she had worked with, like Ruth Gordon. He said, ‘I remember those two conversations as the funnest experiences of my life and I wish I’d recorded them.’” To which Cavett can only concur, saying, “She was just vastly entertaining in the way nobody else was.”
Even in her absence he finds himself thinking of things to amuse her with — “Oh, wait till she hears about this” — or moving things lest she trip. Then he catches himself with the stark realization, “Oh, you’re talking about someone who ain’t there no more.” He recently shared his feelings with writer and friend Calvin Trillin, whose wife Alice died five years ago.
Yes, Dick Cavett is hurting, but he knows he always has Nebraska to return to. Here, amidst the wide expanse of land and sky, and the warm embrace of its people, he knows he’s back home. Back to where his dreams first took hold.
- Tamar Abrams: Dick Cavett: Get This Man a Show! (huffingtonpost.com)
- Dick Cavett’s chat with Mel Brooks may be put on video for posterity (hollywoodnews.com)
- ‘Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,’ Hour-Long Special Reuniting Comedy Greats Debuts Sept. 9 on HBO (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- I Owe William Jennings Bryan an Apology (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Pete Duel on Dick Cavett (peteduel.wordpress.com)
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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