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No one can say that Dick Cavett hasn't had a successful career, though he never had the top-rated talk show that many expected. He pretty much sailed through the years as the critics' favorite, and these days, I think, a word-association test would have most people linking him with CBS.

But I'm so old — 81 when this was written, almost two years younger than he is — I can remember when Dick Cavett was a stand-up comedian.

When I interviewed him in 1969, he was in the relatively early days of one of his several talk shows. And while the status of every Cavett show was often in doubt, the one certainty seemed to be that it wouldn't be long before another show came his way.

He and I had a communications breakdown during the interview, though it isn't mentioned in the following story. At one point I asked whether he went into comedy as a sort of defensive strategy. I believe he mistakenly — though understandably — thought I was implying he'd been a withdrawn, perhaps alienated child who used comedy to win friends. What I really was asking is whether he turned to comedy as a defense against the stupidity that's so prevalent in the world. You either ignore it, grouse about it, or make fun of it. The presidency of Donald Trump would be a perfect example.

It would be easy to consider Cavett an intellectual snob, because he often seemed to give the impression he's smarter than the folks around him. Well, he probably always was. But I thought he also was more open-minded about cultural changes and had a curiosity about new performers who often were ignored by established entertainers.

In any event, Dick Cavett has always done what's necessary to keep working, and if he was seldom a star of our entertainment circus, he was always given a part to play, even if that role had him playing himself.

Providence Journal, August 24, 1969
People who watch television for a living pretty much agree that Little Dickie Cavett from Nebraska is the sharpest television talk show host there is.

Cavett’s ratings — first on his 90-minute morning program and now on his 60-minute evening venture — haven’t reflected his ability, and he never has enjoyed show business security.

“Little Dickie,” a nickname that seems to have started — and stopped — with his band leader, Bobby Rosengarden, brought his crew to Warwick Musical Theater recently to tape a show with Jack Benny.

While here, he confirmed the sad suspicion his future again is very much in doubt. His three-a-week talk show on ABC-TV goes off the air in September, as scheduled. However, Cavett had hope that by now the network would have indicated if and how it intends to use him further.

“There’s talk I’ll be back as a mid-season replacement,” Cavett said, “but so far this is just talk.”

It seems unlikely ABC would bring back Cavett in his present format for just one hour per week. Perhaps he will have to look elsewhere if he wishes to continue his talk program.

Cavett is too good not to come back, of course, but the fact is he’d operate best in the 11:30 p.m. slot, and right now all three slots are filled.

Cavett undoubtedly has attracted a loyal following with his unusual summer show, but he has no idea how large that following is.

“I don’t know what the ratings are,” he said. “The network hasn’t told me yet, though I’m sure they will . . . in September . . . when we finish our lat show.”

One thing is sure — his ratings have not been spectacular.

Cavett is an elfin man with an extra dry sense of humor. His Nebraska background and his Yale degree give him an all-too-rare quality that might be called down-to-earth sophistication. He doesn’t gush all over the place. no matter how important the guest.

He dresses like a meticulous Woody Allen, always natty, but like he has his eye out for a bargain. He’s liable to show up in a tailor-made sports jacket over a seven-dollar pair of Levis.

He is a quiet man who delivers funny monologs, but appears more at ease when he is playing off someone else, or vice versa. Cavett’s skill at being a straight man is just as important as his skill as a comedian It was his skill as a straight man that was responsible for this summer’s funniest program — his 30-minute interview with Groucho Marx.

“That program really was something special,” Cavett agreed. “We hope to repeat it before the summer is over. We’ll also show 30 minutes from the same interview that we didn’t show before. Groucho was in great form.”

If Cavett had his druthers, he’d use two guests per hour. When
his evening show went on the air in June, he sometimes had to squeeze in five guests.

“I could never get anything going with a guest,” he said. “I’d just get started and have to introduce someone else.”

As the weeks went by, Cavett tailored the program more and more to meet his wishes, and the resulting improvement is a tribute to the star’s taste.

Cavett does not strictly impose his will on the program, however. He does not book the guests, for example, although the people who do have a general idea of the guests Cavett prefers
Some feel Cavett has aimed his summer show at young people.

“Looking back at the line-up of guests, I can understand how we might have given this impression, but it wasn’t deliberate.”

Guests who helped give that impression include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson and Joan Baez. What many don’t recognize is these people have already bridged the generation gap, and anyone who features them isn’t necessarily trying to reach just one age group.

“We don’t know who watches us,” Cavett confessed, “though I suspect most of our audience is in the under-40 group.”

Cavett’s problems at adjusting to the relatively short 60-minute program prompted this question: If 60 minutes is too short, why does he continue to take up time with a monolog at the start of every program?

He smiled. “I guess it never dawns on a performer to cut his own material. Another reason is that an opening monolog is traditional with our kind of show.”

Cavett confessed his biggest battle is with himself in curbing his temper. His severest test came in mid-July when he reprimanded comedian Redd Foxx for interrupting a conversation with columnist James Kilpatrick.

“If you thought I looked mad on the air, you should have seen how I looked in the studio. Redd was mad, too, but he knew he shouldn’t have been doing his schtick while someone else was talking.”

Classic case of restraint, however, was displayed on Cavett’s old morning show when Timothy Leary was a guest.

At the end of the program, Cavett acknowledged that other guests might have prevented Leary from fully presenting his side of the drug story. He said Leary could do so another time.
“But as far a I’m concerned, Mr. Leary,” Cavett concluded, “you’re full of crap.”

The program was over before Leary could muster a reply.

“I got a lot of mail after that show,” Cavett said, “and all of it was favorable. Some people said that while they normally object to such language, they felt it was appropriate in this case.”

 
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