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Dick Cavett: Still Curious After All These Years

Originally Posted: May 21, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Dick Cavett on the steps of Tick Hall, Montauk. Photo by Barbara Friedman

I first met Dick Cavett in 1995 at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. I was the General Manager at the time and Dick had stopped in, perhaps en route from Manhattan to Montauk, for a quick drink. Before leaving he told me, "I'll be in real trouble if I come home without some limes," as he looked longingly at the fruit that filled the base of the large pewter wine cuvee on the end of the bar. I handed him three limes, which he proceeded to put in his floppy tennis hat. He thanked me and headed home to Montauk and his late wife Carrie Nye, whom I assumed was patiently waiting with a limeless gin and tonic.

At the time, although almost 20 years my senior, he could have passed for my kid brother. A few weeks ago we met again at an event I was covering at The Players Club in Manhattan for Hamptons.com, and after lunching with him for this interview I am now certain he is hiding an aging self-portrait in his attic. It is either that or the healthy ocean air that blows across Montauk, which the timeless Cavett has called home in the East End since the early 1960s.

MAKING A PITCH: At Artists and Writers Annual Softball Game, Herrick Park, East Hampton. Photo courtesy of Daphine Productions

He was working as a writer for Jack Paar when he and six friends rented a house in East Hampton, even though he had been advised by his college professor, Williamstown Playhouse Artistic Director Nikos Psacharopoulos, to "Rent the Tweed house in Montauk," which at the time was more of a fishing village than a toney Hamptons destination. Upon visiting the Tweed House that summer it was love at first sight and Cavett spent the winter dreaming of the return. After several seasons renting it, for $1,000 a summer, the Cavetts bought the house, which was one of eight built in Montauk by the infamous architect Stanford White. "Edward Albee had an option on the house at the time, but he wanted to put in tennis courts or something and the Tweeds, whose son was a friend and fellow actor at the time, didn't want the property altered. They knew how much I loved the house and suggested I buy it." Cavett did indeed buy "Tick Hall" and after a fire destroyed it in 1997, rebuilt it to its exact specifications.

Magician, comedian, writer and talk show host, Cavett was raised in the Midwest, which seemed almost a requirement for success as a television talk show moderator in the latter part of the 20th century, with fellow Nebraskan Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, hailing from Michigan, David Letterman from Indiana, Phil Donahue from Ohio, and the guy that really created the whole damn genre, Steve Allen of Chicago, all coming from the heartland. Years later, Oprah Winfrey, raised in Milwaukee, followed suit. Cavett can't quite explain it, "I don't know, it can't be because we have a nondescript Midwestern accent, because that is an accent unto itself."

Cavett found his way east in college, attending Yale as an English major, but switched to drama in his last year. "I can still remember taking the train from Chicago and pulling into Grand Central Station. One of my favorite radio shows growing up was "Grand Central Station" and I think I sang the theme song out loud as the train was pulling in." After college, he moved to Manhattan and married his college sweetheart, actress Nye, and they remained married until her death in 2006.

As a copy boy at Time Magazine in the early 1960s, which Paar himself loathed because of its publisher Henry Luce, Cavett found his way to his idol after reading in the American Herald Tribune that Paar was rarely happy with his monologue. Cornering him in a hallway coming out of a bathroom at 30 Rock, with written jokes unfolded in an issue of Time, Cavett handed Paar a monologue and said, "Don't worry, I'm just a a copy boy there." After sneaking into the taping, Cavett found that Paar had actually used his jokes in his ad-libs that night with both laughs and applause. Cavett relayed his first joke uttered on air, "It was when hi-jacking, or as they called it then, air piracy, made the news. The joke went something like, 'Imagine sitting in your seat and hearing the voice on the loud speaker say, 'Hello, this is your Pirate speaking.' I will always remember that moment, it was like someone had just made me the President of the United States." Paar told him, "Kid, come back in two weeks." Cavett did, with more jokes in tow, and the rest is television history. Cavett went on to write for Paar and then Carson, who took over "The Tonight Show" from Parr. Then eventually, after a very successful afternoon show of his own, he was the ABC host to challenge the very man he had helped make successful,Johnny Carson.

ON A ROCK AND A GOOD PLACE: At Cavett's Cove, Montauk. Photo courtesy of Daphne Productions

Reinventing Talk
Maybe the key to Cavett's success was that he did not try to mimic his predecessors, but sought to re-create them for a new generation, and in the process created an entirely new way to think about the way to do late night talk. While other shows rarely booked rock acts, he had everyone from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Sly and The Family Stone, and the incredible Woodstock Show the day after the concert. He managed to wrangle celebrities that would normally not do interviews and devoted the whole show to a conversation with them, like the two consecutive nights with Audrey Hepburn. Great British actors were regulars on the show such as Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter Ustinov and a very memorable and rare interview with Sir Laurence Olivier. His interview with segregationist politician Lester Maddox was historic when the politician got up and walked off the show after being pressed for an answer by Cavett. He returned to the show at a latter date and upon his entrance Cavett, in perfect comic timing, stood up and briefly walked off the set, leaving Maddox sitting alone on stage.

He was particularly adroit at interviewing writers, the likes of Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and a show that is presently up on his New York Times blog, "Talk Show: Dick Cavett Speaks Again" features John Updike and John Cheever. He once asked Mailer, after the writer moved his chair away from the other guests, "Perhaps you'd like two chairs Norman, to hold your enormous ego."

I asked Cavett if it was his choice of guests that created the water cooler conversations that were regularly generated from the show or if he intentionally asked questions that would provoke provocative responses for his viewers, "It wasn't a conscious decision; I just found it was working for me to do it that way." That way - meaning he rarely took the easy or safe route during his "conversations" - and gave his guests more than the cursory 10 minute appearance common to most talk shows. He wasn't looking for a sound bite, he was after the details. Sometimes the results were unexpected, "When I interviewed Muhammad Ali, I used the word niggardly. I commented that 'so and so was niggardly with you.' I knew I was going to say it, I had thought about not saying it, but when I did he grabbed me around the throat." Another memorable moment was his question to Beatles guru and transcendentalist Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, "I asked him if he would have shot Hitler if he had the opportunity. He responded, 'I would have taught him to meditate.'" Cavett then went on to imitate the guru's hi-pitched chuckle for me with obvious disdain.

Cavett does not like to be asked to rank his guests by favorites, but he will admit to regretting a couple that got away. Photo by Barbara Friedman

When pressed, Cavett admits to Groucho Marx being among his favorite interviews and one of his favorite people. "In all the years I knew Groucho, as he aged, he never ever told me anything he had told me before, unlike most aged men. It was all new, all gold and I should have written it all down. The only thing he ever repeated, at least four times, was 'Did I ever tell you my greatest compliment? You know George S. Kaufman was my God and Kaufman said to me one day, 'Groucho you are the only actor I would ever allow to ad lib something I wrote.' Groucho would tear up while telling it." Cavett went on to relay one of his favorite stories about Kaufman, "He went backstage to watch one of his shows and the doorman didn't recognize him and asked him if he was with the show. Kaufman responded, 'I'm sure not against it'."

While looking at photos in his book, "Eye On Cavett" during our lunch at Quatorze Bis on the Upper East Side, I commented that the shot of him bare-chested reclining on a horse predated the famous Burt Reynolds beefcake photo. "Hell, I predate Burt Reynolds. I am going to tell you something that I don't think I've ever told anyone else during an interview, off camera, Helen Gurley Brown asked me to pose for that shot first. She was on my daytime show. I turned her down and then she came back another time and asked me again. I think I said, 'No Helen, if anybody sees me naked it will only be you.' I don't want Burt's heart to be broken, but I think he knows that."

Cavett does not like to be asked to rank his guests by favorites, but he will admit to regretting a couple that got away. Without a beat he said, "Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra." I told him I couldn't believe he had not interviewed Sinatra. "We would have had such a good time. I called once, but got one of his goons on the phone, the guy mumbled something like, 'I don't know who the hell you are' and I think I said, 'F--- you, who the hell are you?' I did meet Sinatra once, at Bennet Serf's house I think, but I didn't press for it enough. What a shame. Not only the greatest pop singer of all time, he really knew the art."

Talking further about music he said, "You know there is only one person who many people in the business think equaled Sinatra in musicality and it will surprise you...Fred Astaire! He did the show twice." He went on to relate a conversation they had in a parked limo on the way back from an event at the Kennedy Center. "I told him Kate Hepburn had said that Ginger Rogers gave you [Astaire] sex appeal and you gave her class. He said,'What? Who said that? Oh for Ch--- sake. It makes me sound [light] or something.' And then in a very loud voice he said, 'Katherine Hepburn is full of sh--!' What he hadn't noticed at the time was that two lady tourists were looking in the open window and heard the whole thing. I am sure they couldn't get anyone back home to believe what they claimed to have heard."

I asked him if he had seen "Frost/Nixon" and if he was envious at the time that David Frost got the interview with the former president, who it was revealed hated Cavett and wanted his White House staff to find a way to get him. "I probably was, maybe not at the time. The shows were not really that spectacular. I saw the play and the movie. The movie bothers me because so much of it was bogus, the main thing that was bogus was anything that Nixon did to make you feel sorry for him. I said that Frank Langella must be an acting genius to be able to make us feel sorry for Nixon, a scandalous criminal."

HORSING AROUND: Dick Cavett at Indian Field, Deep Hollow Ranch, Montauk. Photo courtesy of Daphne Productions.


Montauk, That Small Western Town With An Ocean
Cavett laments the changes that have Hamptonized Montauk. "When I first saw it I thought it could have been some small western town, only with an ocean attached to it. I was amazed to find out it was actually part of East Hampton Town at the time. Regrettably it has become more like East Hampton Village, with more of the glitterati."

He recently sold 77 acres in a town/county/state deal that would preserve the land forever. Asked if he intentionally sold it so under market value to help make the deal go through, he answered, "I won't embarrass either of us by telling you how much money I turned down, money that was solid, but neither I nor my neighbors wanted to look out the window at condos - and that is what would have happened. There was nothing noble about it really, I just couldn't imagine not being able to walk around the land again. I just couldn't pull the trigger."

His love of Montauk is palpable as, toward the end of our conversation,he recalled some missed opportunities. "Bette Davis invited me for a weekend once, the Lunts invited me to Switzerland, James Mason, David Niven, I kept turning them down because I couldn't wait to get back to Montauk. I never answered an invite from Ava Gardner, which was a real measure of insanity I suppose. Even though it has become a name droppers paradise, I miss it so much when I am away from it. I can't wait to get out there, skin cancer risk and all, I love the sun in Montauk, I love the ocean."

Cavett has certainly held tight to what he describes as some of the best advice he ever got from Parr, "He told me, don't do interviews kid, make it a conversation." And yes, at least over lunch, Dick Cavett remains the consummate conversationalist.


Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline




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