Richard Alva Cavett (/ˈkævɪt/; born November 19, 1936) is an American television personality, comedian and former talk show host notable for his conversational style and in-depth discussions. He appeared regularly on nationally broadcast television in the United States in five consecutive decades, the 1960s through the 2000s.
In later years, Cavett wrote a column for the online New York Times, promoted DVDs of his former shows as well as a book of his Times columns, and hosted replays of his TV interviews with Salvador Dalí, Groucho Marx, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, John Lennon and others on Turner Classic Movies.
Life and career
Cavett was born in Nebraska, but sources differ as to the specific town, locating his birthplace in either Gibbon, where his family lived, or nearby Kearney, the location of the nearest hospital. Cavett himself has stated that Gibbon was his birthplace. His mother, Erabel "Era" (née Richards), and his father, Alva B. Cavett, both worked as educators. When asked by Lucille Ball on his own show about his heritage, he said he was "Scottish, Irish, English, and possibly partly French, and [...] a dose of German." He also mentioned that one grandfather "came over" from England, and the other from Wales. Cavett's grandparents all lived in Grand Island, Nebraska. His paternal grandparents were Alva A. Cavett and Gertrude Pinsch. His paternal grandfather was from Diller, Nebraska and his paternal grandmother was an immigrant from Aachen, Germany. His maternal grandparents were the Rev. R.R. and Etta Mae Richards. The Rev. Richards was from Carmarthen, Wales, and was a Baptist minister who served parishes across central Nebraska. Cavett himself is an agnostic.
Cavett's parents taught in Comstock, Gibbon, and Grand Island, where Cavett started kindergarten at Wasmer Elementary School. Three years later, both of his parents landed teaching positions in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Cavett completed his education at Capitol, Prescott, and Irving schools and Lincoln High School. When Cavett was ten, his mother died of cancer at age 36. His father subsequently married Dorcas Deland, also an educator, originally from Alliance, Nebraska. On September 24, 1995, Lincoln Public Schools dedicated the new Dorcas C. and Alva B. Cavett Elementary School in their honor.
In eighth grade, Cavett directed a live Saturday-morning radio show sponsored by the Junior League and played the title role in The Winslow Boy. One of his high-school classmates was actress Sandy Dennis. Cavett was elected state president of the student council in high school, and was a gold medalist at the state gymnastics championship.
Before leaving for college, he worked as a caddie at the Lincoln Country Club. He also began performing magic shows for $35 a night under the tutelage of Gene Gloye. In 1952, Cavett attended the convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in St. Louis, Missouri, and won the Best New Performer trophy. Around the same time, he met fellow magician Johnny Carson, 11 years his senior, who was doing a magic act at a church in Lincoln.
While attending Yale University, Cavett played in and directed dramas on the campus radio station, WYBC, and appeared in Yale Drama productions. In his senior year, he changed his major from English to drama. He also took advantage of any opportunity to meet stars, routinely going to shows in New York to hang around stage doors or venture backstage. He would go so far as to carry a copy of Variety or an appropriate piece of company stationery in order to look inconspicuous while sneaking backstage or into a TV studio. Cavett took many odd jobs ranging from store detective to label typist for a Wall Street firm, and as a copyboy at Time Magazine.
The Tonight Show
In 1960, Cavett was living in a three-room, fifth-floor apartment on West 89th Street in Manhattan for $51 a month.
He was cast in a film by the Signal Corps, but further jobs were not forthcoming. He was an extra on The Phil Silvers Show in 1959, a TV remake of the film Body and Soul for the DuPont Show of the Month the same year, and Playhouse 90 ("The Hiding Place") in 1960. He briefly revived his magic act while working as a typist and as a mystery shopper in department stores. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and future wife Carrie Nye landed several Broadway roles.
Cavett was a copyboy (gofer) at Time magazine when he read a newspaper item about Jack Paar, then host of The Tonight Show. The article described Paar's concerns about his opening monologue and constant search for material. Cavett wrote some jokes, put them into a Time envelope, and went to the RCA Building. He ran into Paar in a hallway and handed him the envelope. He then went to sit in the studio audience. During the show, Paar worked in some of the lines Cavett had fed him. Afterward, Cavett got into an elevator with Paar, who invited him to contribute more jokes. Within weeks, Cavett was hired, originally as talent coordinator. Cavett wrote for Paar the famous line "Here they are, Jayne Mansfield" as an introduction for the buxom actress. Cavett appeared on the show in 1961, acting as interpreter for Miss Universe of 1961, Marlene Schmidt of Germany.
While at Time, Cavett wrote a letter to film comedian Arthur Jefferson, better known as Stan Laurel of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy. The two soon met at Laurel's Hollywood apartment. On the evening of that first visit, Cavett wrote a tribute to him that Paar read on his show. Laurel saw the broadcast which he deeply appreciated. Cavett visited the legendary comedian several times. Their final time together came three weeks prior to Laurel's death in 1965.
In his capacity as talent coordinator for The Tonight Show, Cavett was sent to the Blue Angel nightclub to see Woody Allen's act, and immediately afterward struck up a friendship. The very next day, the funeral of playwright George S. Kaufman was held at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home. Allen could not attend, but Cavett did, where he met Groucho Marx in an anteroom. From the funeral, Cavett followed Marx (who later told Cavett that Kaufman was "his personal god") three blocks up Fifth Avenue to the Plaza Hotel, where Marx invited him to lunch. Years later, Cavett gave the introduction to Marx's one-man show, An Evening with Groucho Marx at Carnegie Hall, and began by saying, "I can't believe that I know Groucho Marx."
Cavett continued with The Tonight Show as a writer after Johnny Carson assumed hosting duties. For Carson he wrote the line "Having your taste criticized by Dorothy Kilgallen is like having your clothes criticized by Emmett Kelly." He even appeared on the show once, to do a gymnastics routine on the pommel horse. After departing The Tonight Show, Cavett wrote for Jerry Lewis's ill-fated talk show, for three times the money. He returned to The Tonight Show, however, when Marx was interim host for Carson in July 1964.
Cavett began a brief career as a stand-up comic in 1964 at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. His manager was Jack Rollins, who later became the producer of nearly all of Woody Allen's films. One of his jokes from this period was:
He also played Mr. Kelly's in Chicago and the Hungry i in San Francisco. In San Francisco, he met Lenny Bruce, about whom he said "I liked him and wish I had known him better...but most of what has been written about him is a waste of good ink, and his most zealous adherents and hardest-core devotees are to be avoided, even if it means working your way around the world in the hold of a goat transport."
In 1965 Cavett did some commercial voiceovers, including a series of mock interviews with Mel Brooks for Ballantine beer. In the next couple of years he appeared on game shows, including What's My Line. He wrote for Merv Griffin and appeared on Griffin's talk show several times, and then on The Ed Sullivan Show. In the late 1960s or early 1970s, he narrated a National Association of Broadcasters PSA featuring A Boy Wandering Around A Forest.
In 1968, after the premiere of the international film Candy (1968), Cavett went to a party at the Americana Hotel, where those who had just seen the film were being interviewed for TV. He later said "When the interviewer, Pat Paulsen, got to me, he asked what I thought the critics would say about Candy. I said I didn't think it would be reviewed by the regular critics, that they would have to reconvene the Nuremberg Trials to do it justice. He laughed and asked what I had liked, and I said I liked the lady who showed me the nearest exit so that I would not be forced to vomit indoors."
After doing The Star and the Story, a rejected television pilot with Van Johnson, Cavett hosted a special, Where It's At, for Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear.
In 1968 Cavett was hired by ABC to host This Morning, According to a New Yorker article, the show was too sophisticated for a morning audience, and ABC first moved the show to prime time, and subsequently to a late-night slot opposite Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show,
Cavett once related an anecdote that he and Marlon Brando were having dinner at a restaurant when a female fan approached the two men and made an advance. The men almost partook in a threesome with the fan, but Cavett decided against it because they had not finished their soup.
The Dick Cavett Show
Intermittently since 1968, Cavett has been host of his own talk show, in various formats and on various television and radio networks:
- ABC (1968–1974)
- CBS (1975)
- PBS (1977–1982)
- USA Network (1985–1986)
- Olympia Broadcasting (syndicated radio show, 1985–1989)
- ABC (1986–1987)
- CNBC (1989–1996)
- Turner Classic Movies (2006–2007)
Cavett has been nominated for at least 10 Emmy Awards and has won three. In 1970, he co-hosted the Emmy Awards Show (from Carnegie Hall in New York) with Bill Cosby (from Century Plaza in Los Angeles). His most popular talk show was his ABC program, which ran from 1969 to 1974. From 1962 to 1992, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was arguably the most popular late night variety and talk show. Unlike many contemporary shows, Cavett managed to remain on the air for five years. Although his shows did not attract a wide audience, remaining in third place in the ratings behind Carson and Merv Griffin, he earned a reputation as "the thinking man's talk show host" and received favorable reviews from critics. As a talk show host, Cavett has been noted for his ability to listen to his guests and engage them in intellectual conversation. Clive James described Cavett "as a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range" and "the most distinguished talk-show host in America." He is also known for his ability to remain calm and mediate between contentious guests, and for his deep, raspy voice, unusual for a man of his stature (5'7").
His show often focused on controversial people or subjects, often pairing guests with opposing views on social or political issues, such as Jim Brown and Lester Maddox.
On February 11, 1970 Cavett hosted a tribute to the life and works of Sir Noël Coward, who had just been knighted in December 1969. Along with Coward, the other guests were Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Tammy Grimes, and Brian Bedford (who were enjoying a successful run on Broadway in the revival of Coward's play Private Lives). In reviewing the show for The New York Times, television critic Jack Gould said "The age of youth? Balder dash! The over‐70 set walked off yesterday morning with a television program that combined the engaging qualities of lightly recalled nostalgia, the sophisticated stiletto, and a demonstration of genuine affection that had more substance than adolescent wails on how love will save the world. Sir Noel Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, friends of a lifetime, met on Dick Cavett's show on the American Broadcasting Company network. They exchanged quips, pleasantries and thoughts about the theater with the beguiling charm of talented luminaries. Mr. Cavett was clearly overawed, and for once, the ad libs frequently went over his head. It was an enchanting show…and the badinage was warm and delightful...a fun night, and to take out of context a line or here or there could not convey the whole. To go to bed with a chuckle provided by gifted and nice people, onstage as off, is review enough." (Jack Gould, The New York Times, February 12, 1970, p. 59)
One show from June 1971 featured a debate between future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry and fellow veteran John O'Neill over the Vietnam War. O'Neill had been approached by the Nixon administration to work through the Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace to counter Kerry's influence on the public. The debate went poorly for the pro-war side, so angering President Nixon that he is heard discussing the incident on the Watergate tapes, saying, "Well, is there any way we can screw him [Cavett]? That's what I mean. There must be ways." H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff, answered, "We've been trying to."
Cavett also hosted many popular musicians, both in interview and performance, such as David Bowie, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Several of his Emmy Award nominations and one Emmy Award were for Outstanding Musical or Variety Series, and in 2005 Shout Factory released a selection of performances and interviews on a three-DVD set, The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons, showcasing interviews of and performances by musicians who appeared on the Dick Cavett show from 1969 to 1974.
Clips from his TV shows (actual or enacted for the occasion) have been used in films, for example Annie Hall (1977), Forrest Gump (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), and Frequency (2000).
Cavett was surprised at footage from his TV show appearing in Apollo 13. He said at the time of the film's release, "I'm happily enjoying a movie, and suddenly I'm in it."
Cavett has co-authored two books with Christopher Porterfield: Cavett (1974), his autobiography, and Eye on Cavett (1983). Cavett currently writes a blog, published by The New York Times, entitled "Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again."
Cavett has appeared as himself in various other television shows, including episodes of The Odd Couple, Cheers, Kate & Allie, and The Simpsons episode "Homie the Clown" and in Robert Altman's HealtH (1980). He also appeared in a cameo in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) as part of a dream sequence, turning into Freddy Krueger and coming after his guest, Zsa Zsa Gabor, halfway through. In Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, he played a rare bit part as a character other than himself. Cavett often appeared on television quiz and game shows; he appeared on What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth, Password, The $25,000 Pyramid and made a special appearance on Wheel of Fortune in 1988 during their week of shows at Radio City Music Hall, walking on stage after someone solved the puzzle "DICK CAVETT." In 1974, Cavett's company, Daphne Productions, co-produced with Don Lipp Productions a short-lived ABC game show, The Money Maze, although Cavett's name did not appear on the credits. In 1987, he appeared with Vanessa Williams, Betty White, and Bert Convy on Super Password.
Cavett narrated the HBO documentary series Time Was. Each episode covered a decade, ranging from the 1920s to the 1970s. The show originally aired in November 1979 and ran for six months.
Cavett also hosted a documentary series for HBO in the early 1980s titled Remember When... that examined changes in American culture over time, as well as HBO's monthly review series HBO Magazine.
In April 1981, Cavett traveled to Stockholm, Sweden to interview pop group ABBA on the occasion of their tenth anniversary as a group. The special, titled Dick Cavett Meets ABBA, was taped by the Swedish TV network SVT and was broadcast mainly in Europe.
In the mid 1980s, Cavett took over for Jack Carney as host of The Comedy Show, syndicated from KMOX in St. Louis.
From November 2000 to January 2002, he played the narrator in a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show. He also had a brief stint as the narrator/old man in the Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods.
Cavett is featured in the 2003 documentary From the Ashes: The Life and Times of Tick Hall about the fire that destroyed his home in Montauk, New York and his effort to rebuild it.
Cavett's signature tune has long been a trumpet version of the vocalise "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide. The tune was first played at the midpoint of his ABC show, and later became the theme of his PBS show. The tune is also played as he walks on stage during guest appearances on other talk shows.
Cavett was present when actor Marlon Brando broke the jaw of paparazzo photographer Ron Galella on June 12, 1973. Galella had followed Cavett and Brando to a restaurant after the taping of The Dick Cavett Show in New York City.
In 2008, Cavett entered an Iraq war dispute with a New York Times blog entry criticizing General David Petraeus, stating "I can't look at Petraeus—his uniform ornamented like a Christmas tree with honors, medals, and ribbons—without thinking of the great Mort Sahlat the peak of his brilliance." Cavett went on to recall Sahl's expressed contempt of General Westmoreland's display of medals, and criticized Petraeus for not speaking in plain language.
In December 2012, for their annual birthday celebration to "The Master," The Noel Coward Society invited Cavett as the guest celebrity to lay flowers in front of Coward's statue at New York's Gershwin Theatre, commemorating the 113th birthday of Sir Noel. Coward had made an appearance on Cavett's ABC late-night television show in 1970 after having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in December 1969.
On November 21, 2012, Cavett appeared on the TBS series Are We There Yet? in a season 3 episode entitled "The Spelling Bee Episode".
Cavett starred in Hellman v. McCarthy (Literary Legends Declare War!) in New York City's Abingdon Theatre. Cavett re-enacted his show of January 25, 1980, when literary critic Mary McCarthy appeared as a guest, and declared every word playwright Lillian Hellmanwrote was a lie, including 'and' and 'the'. Hellman later sued McCarthy for libel. The suit spanned more than four years. Cavett's off-Broadway play opened March 14, 2014, and closed April 13, 2014, in its limited run.
While taking a class at Yale School of Drama as an undergraduate, Cavett met his future wife, Caroline Nye McGeoy (known professionally as Carrie Nye), a native of Greenwood, Mississippi. After graduation, the two acted in summer theater in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and Cavett worked for two weeks in a local lumberyard to be able to buy an engagement ring. On June 4, 1964, they were married in New York. They remained married until Nye's death in 2006.
In 2010, Cavett married author Martha Rogers in New Orleans, Louisiana. From this marriage, Cavett has two step-children. Rogers and Cavett live in Montauk, New York.
Cavett has openly discussed his bouts of clinical depression, an illness that first affected him during his freshman year at Yale. According to an interview published in a 1992 issue of Peoplemagazine, Cavett contacted Dr. Nathan Kline in 1975 seeking treatment. Kline prescribed antidepressant medication, which according to Cavett was successful in treating his depression.
In 1980 Cavett experienced what he characterized as his "biggest depressive episode". While on board a Concorde before take off, Cavett broke out into a sweat and became agitated. After he was removed from the plane, Cavett was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where he later underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Regarding this method of treatment, Cavett is quoted as saying, "In my case, ECT was miraculous. My wife was dubious, but when she came into my room afterward, I sat up and said, 'Look who's back among the living.' It was like a magic wand."
He was also the subject of a 1993 video produced by the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association called A Patient's Perspective.
In 1997 Cavett was sued by producer James Moskovitz for breach of contract after failing to show up for a nationally syndicated radio program (also called The Dick Cavett Show). Cavett's lawyer, Melvyn Leventhal, asserted at the time that Cavett left because of a manic-depressive episode. The case was later dropped.
In an interview with Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano for The Dinner Party Download, Cavett revealed his talent for creating anagrams out of names. He gave two examples, Alec Guinness = "Genuine Class" and Spiro Agnew = "Grow a Penis." On his show, he revealed that he found an anagram for his own name (Richard Cavett): "Catch it, rare VD."