"'Conversation' - that's the key word," says Dick Cavett, the legendary TV talk show host who brought smart conversation to late-night through ABC's The Dick Cavett Show, as we sit down at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. The 80-year-old Nebraska-born New Yorker was in town to attend the TCM Classic Film Festival, where, appropriately enough, he participated in an hourlong conversation about his life and career before signing copies of his latest book, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks. And, Cavett said, he was enjoying the warm reception he was receiving during this rare return to the spotlight: "I do love it when people come up and say how much the show meant to them."
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 130+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Emma Stone, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Taraji P. Henson, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Justin Timberlake, Brie Larson, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Vikander, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Isabelle Huppert, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Michael Moore, Lily Collins and Denzel Washington.)
Over the course of our conversation, Cavett opens up about his intimidating move from the Corn Belt to New England to attend Yale University, and then to New York City, where he pursued his childhood dream of a career in show business. In the Big Apple, he struggled to find work as an actor, and instead wound up toiling as a Time magazine copy boy - and then spending many hours in front of his TV, especially late at night, when he became "neurotically fascinated with Jack Paar and his show," The Tonight Show on New York-based NBC.
Upon reading in a newspaper that Paar spent much of every day struggling to craft his nightly monologue, Cavett took it upon himself to write one for him, which he hand-delivered to Paar in a Time envelope. Paar used some of the lines during that night's show and subsequently invited Cavett to work for him, first as a talent coordinator, and later as a full-fledged member of the writing staff - a capacity in which Cavett remained after Paar left the show, through a series of guest hosts and eventually into the tenure of Paar's permanent successor, Cavett's fellow Nebraskan Johnny Carson. In the course of writing for all of these different voices and watching all of these different shows, Cavett says, "I absorbed a lot."
After a few years as a writer for late-night, Cavett ventured into stand-up comedy, which led to him returning to the talk show circuit - as a guest. His wit and wisdom during these appearances - and his telegenic participation in a small part on a short-lived narrative TV series - caught the eye of suits at the third-place network ABC, who hired him to host a morning show, This Morning (which proved a smash and soon was renamed Dick). Within a year, that show was moved to the primetime lineup, and within a year after that it was shifted into late-night, specifically into the 11:30 p.m. slot previously occupied by The Joey Bishop Show. It was there that Cavett made his biggest mark over a period spanning from the end of 1969 through the beginning of 1975.
As much as Cavett disliked being labeled an "intellectual," he was one, and this - along with his fast and wry humor - defined his tenure at ABC. (Other incarnations of The Dick Cavett Show subsequently emerged on CBS, PBS, USA, CNBC and TCM.) He became known not just for his monologue and gimmicks - then and now staples of late-night - but also for orchestrating engaging and enlightening conversation with people from all walks of life, from Groucho Marx and Katharine Hepburn to Muhammad Ali and Satchel Paige to, perhaps most infamously, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal (see here). Paar had encouraged him, "Don't do interviews ... make it a conversation," and doing that set him apart - and set him up for a limited audience, which ultimately led ABC to cancel the show. (Cavett says he was relieved when the plug was pulled.)
In recent years, Cavett - whose first wife, actress Carrie Nye, died in 2006, and who married his second, marketing consultant Martha Rogers, in 2010 - has written numerous books, spearheaded DVD collections of his greatest episodes and become a leader in the effort to destigmatize depression, "a horrible, ghastly ailment" with which he has been afflicted for most of his life. He enjoys monitoring today's late-night offerings - "I don't watch anything late at night, but since I know all the people doing those shows, I do catch up in the morning," he says, adding, "I love [The Late Show host] Stephen Colbert ... he is so smart, so intelligent, so articulate, so educated and so funny." But he's happy to be off the air himself. "You're not really yourself on television," he explains. "You look like, you sound like and you use things that are yourself, but there's a bit of a mask that you take off when you go home. You have to shed that show."