“Do you suppose that any of Houdini’s DNA is still in my pool?”
Not the kind of question that pops up every day. But just part of the natural flow when the speaker is Dick Cavett.
At a time when brand shills on social media are deemed “influencers,” talking with the man who’s been called “the last intellectual talk show host” is like encountering a truffle in a platter of chicken nuggets.
Now 82, Dick Cavett — whose droll wit, quiet, reassuring manner and boyish grin won the trust even of interview phobics like Marlon Brando and Katherine Hepburn — still deflects compliments with a chuckle and a self-deprecating comment. But after more than 50 years in show biz, the Nebraska native doesn’t pretend to be jaded about them.
People “need never apologize” for declaring themselves his fans, he joked in a recent phone interview occasioned by “Dick Cavett Presents,” a series of interviews at The Ridgefield Playhouse set to kick off with actress Blythe Danner on March 23.
He and Danner “go way back — it almost seems like to our childhoods — to summers at the Williamstown [Theater Festival],” Cavett says. “Blythe is a hell of an actress,” he adds, mentioning her “thrilling,” Tony-nominated 1988 performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She’s also, he confirms, an engaging conversationalist.
Unsurprisingly, that word comes up a lot in articles about Cavett, who attributes his talk-show success in part to taking the advice of Jack Parr, the “Tonight Show” host who was Cavett’s first show-business boss: Don’t do interviews; have conversations. That style, as opposed to the common gag- or plug-driven approach, requires screening out guests who, however talented or brilliant, “can’t talk,” Cavett observes. “Otherwise, you’re sitting on air feeling like the hands of the clock have been welded together,” struggling to fill the remaining time.
That rarely seemed an issue for Cavett, who drew devoted viewers and critical praise, if not always the highest ratings, starting with his first evening talk show on ABC in 1968. Amid a television environment famously declared a “vast wasteland” by FCC Commissioner Newton Minnow, “The Dick Cavett Show” was a proverbial oasis of intelligent, sometimes controversial (the Vietnam War, Watergate, racism) discussion.
That remained true through all of his talk shows, which aired on a half-dozen networks over three decades. But as new generations are discovering, thanks to the original shows’ revival on the Decades network and YouTube, the eclectic roster of guests and offbeat pairings (think Muhammed Ali and author/intellectual provocateur Gore Vidal) were a key part of the draw.
Guests included playwright Arthur Miller, chess master Bobby Fischer, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, jazz great Miles Davis, film auteur/raconteur Orson Welles (“the dream talk-show guest,” says Cavett) and a slew of renowned authors: Kurt Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, John Updike, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer among them.
The arrogant Mailer managed to elicit a rare flash of anger from the remarkably polite and patient host, who suggested that the author “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.” That’s “always misquoted — people think I said ‘stick it,’ but that would be crude,” observes Cavett. “I don’t know where [that riposte] came from…some Nebraska tribal memory?”
In the YouTube age, Cavett may be better known for his interviews with iconic rock stars, including Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon (and Yoko Ono), George Harrison and Jim Morrison. But the videos are also introducing young people to film legends like Bette Davis and Hepburn. Hepburn “was very nervous at first, but after we talked for a while, I almost couldn’t get rid of her,” Cavett laughs. “We did two 90-minute interviews, with 25 minutes of tape left over.”
Weirdest guest? The surrealist artist Salvadore Dalí, who during a show threw a live anteater into the lap of silent film legend Lillian Gish. (Gish, who had done her own stunt work in life-threatening scenes for director D.W. Griffith, again proved unflappable, petting the animal and scolding Dalí: “This little thing is frightened.”)Asked about other guests who proved surprising, Cavett cites actor Robert Mitchum — an “amazing” person who discomfited some viewers and “mesmerized” others. “You couldn’t name anything he hadn’t read,” says Cavett, who also managed to get the seemingly laconic Mitchum to admit that he wrote poetry and composed music, including an oratorio.Then there’s Cavett’s idol, Groucho Marx. Long after the two became friends, Cavett began an introduction of the comic genius by saying, “I can’t believe I know Groucho Marx.” He also says that to his mind, a show during which Groucho faux-proposed marriage to Capote ranks among the funniest.”
Does he think that today’s attention span-challenged audience would embrace a long-format interview show?
“It’s hard to say,” he muses. “People old enough to be seeing the shows for the second time (in reruns) say it reminds them that nobody’s doing what I was doing back then, though I’m not sure what they mean by that. … And young folks who’ve probably never heard of World War II, never mind the Marx Brothers, say ‘You’re the one my parents told me it was too bad I missed.’ I will say that it’s a mixed blessing seeing yourself (on video) decades earlier.”
While another TV revival may not be in the cards, discussions about launching a podcast are underway, he reports. “I’ve thought about what rich opportunities there are. … And I love radio.”
Yes, Cavett has done radio … and written several books, and blogged for The New York Times. And while the Yale School of Drama alum’s acting career never took off, he’s managed to appear in more than 40 movies (including “Annie Hall” and “Forrest Gump”) and TV shows over the years through cameos and the occasional character role.
Connecticut fans can also now claim him as a Nutmegger.Having resided in one of Long Island’s most prestigious homes — Montauk’s Tick Hall, designed by Stanford White — Cavett and his wife, noted business consultant and bestselling author Martha Rogers, chose 18 months ago to adopt another property on the National Register of Historic Places: Ridgefield’s Sunset Hall.Built in 1912, the Gatsbyesque Georgian mansion is situated on one of Fairfield County’s highest points, with views of the Catskill Mountains and the Manhattan skyline. It boasts 22 rooms, a ballroom…and the previously alluded-to 65-foot pool where Houdini practiced his famed underwater escapes while visiting his brother, who owned Sunset Hall for a time. Cavett says this quirky history was more a “bonus” than a deciding factor in buying the estate, but he’s clearly tickled by it. “How many people are lucky enough to say that Houdini was in their house?” he enthuses. The connection isn’t hard to, um, fathom: While in high school, Cavett became an accomplished magician. (In an uncanny coincidence, he also first met Johnny Carson — for whom he later wrote jokes — while Carson was performing magic at a church in Nebraska.) Ridgefield’s closer proximity to Manhattan was among the practicalities that persuaded Cavett and Rogers to give up Tick Hall — which had been a retreat for more than 40 years for Cavett and first wife actress Carrie Nye, who died in 2006.In another (literal) alignment of the stars, Sunset Hall had also been home to actor Robert Vaughn and his wife. “We were quite good friends,” Cavett says of Vaughn, who died in 2016. “We made one of the world’s worst movies together. I’ve made a point of not remembering the name.” (It was 2012’s “Excuse Me For Living,” a rom-com that scored “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes.)Ridgefield is “a wonderful place with great character” — and residents so polite that they “let you go ahead in your car when there’s a long line,” Cavett marvels. “Imagine somebody doing that in New York City?””
“Dick Cavett Presents,” four interviews planned for The Ridgefield Playhouse’s current season, are the latest events in the theater’s ongoing, Hearst Connecticut Media-sponsored, “Entertaining Conversations” series.