Dick Cavett: The thinking man’s talk show host

❉  An overview of the American talk show host’s legendary career.

When American TV viewers’ eyes light up nostalgically at the mention of Dick Cavett’s name, they’re usually thinking of his best remembered programme, the late-night ABC series which aired 1969–1975, where he gave screen time to a wide range of guests, ranging the full cultural spectrum from John Wayne to John Lennon, Gore Vidal to Norman Mailer, TV stars, pop stars, comics, politicians, and anybody else who might have something interesting to say.

Like Johnny Carson and David Letterman, Cavett got his first hosting gig on daytime TV, on a 90-minute ABC weekly program called ‘This Morning’. In 1969, the network shuttled Cavett to a three-nights-a-week primetime spot, going head-to-head with Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’.

Some of his guests included Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Timothy Leary, Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Muhammad Ali. Woody Allen, who Cavett helped “discover” when Allen was doing stand-up comedy, appeared on Cavett’s ABC show several times. Sometimes Cavett was able to devote a whole show to one guest, yielding memorable interviews with the likes of Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis and Orson Welles.

In addition to the standard-fare of celebrities, his late-night series also booked rock acts, which shows like Tonight tended to ignore. Legendary performers like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Paul Simon appeared. John Lennon and Yoko gave Cavett their first interview after the break-up of the Beatles in September 1971, and when a coked-up David Bowie sat down with an unflappable Cavett, it led to some of the most surreal repartee in television history.

Cavett also held the distinction of being the only show to have a guest die during it. Organic farming advocate J.I. Rodale had moved “down the couch” after his interview. Cavett, assuming he had snoozed off during the chat with the next guest, asked, “Are we boring you, Mr. Rodale?”. Rodale had passed away from a heart attack; the show did not air.

During the late 60’s and early 70’s, ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ was hailed as an intelligent alternative to more fluffy interview shows. Despite critical acclaim, he ran third in the ratings behind Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, which resulted in less frequent airings of the show.

After Cavett’s contract with ABC ended in 1975, he briefly had a summer show on CBS. Next came a half-hour PBS interview program running from 1977-1982. He returned to ABC once more in 1986. His longest-running gig was on General Electric’s cable channel, CNBC, from 1989 to 1996.

❉ In 2005, Shout! Factory released a series of box sets collecting Cavett’s shows—four discs each of Comic Legends and Hollywood Greats, three of Rock Icons, and a pair of two-disc sets devoted to the shows featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Ray Charles. Sony Legacy has a two-disc set containing Jimi Hendrix’s appearances on Cavett’s 1969 primetime series. Some of Cavett’s PBS shows are also available for viewing through The New York Times website. 

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