TV Legend Dick Cavett Recreates History Off-Broadway

Dick Cavett
Photo by Oscar A. Zagal

Dick who?

All right, you self-infatuated millennials and blissfully myopic under-40-ers who registered a blinkered “Who?” at our over-the-top headline. First we’ll introduce you to the American genius of Dick Cavett. And then you — like the rest of us fogies, geezers and weezers — will understand the excitement as the 77-year-old TV legend stars in Brian Richard Mori’s new play, Hellman v. McCarthy, which opens March 26 and runs until Apr. 13 at the June Havoc Theatre, in an Abingdon Theatre production.

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The Nebraska-born, Yale-educated, stage-struck Cavett was holding an unremarkable staff job at Time magazine in the early 1960s when Jimmy Fallon’s early predecessor at The Tonight Show, a sensitive and charismatic man named Jack Paar, made it publicly known that he needed new material. Cavett — but most especially the young Cavett — possessed a kind of insouciant pluck, which is not a bad quality to have in the business of show. So Cavett popped a couple of jokes into an envelope and endeavored to ensure that Paar would read the material. Well, read it Paar did, and soon Cavett became one of Paar’s more salient suppliers. (In his online opinion column for the New York Times, he has written more than once about this period.) Later, he graduated to became Paar’s “talent coordinator,” and still later, putting his pluck to good purpose, Cavett networked his way into hosting The Dick Cavett Show, which ran on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and on PBS from 1977 to 1982. (There were also gigs on CBS, USA and CNBC.)

While Cavett remains best known today for his work as a TV host, he has also written books and acted on Broadway and in films. But calling Cavett a TV host is like calling Alexander McQueen a dressmaker. His style was sui generis for television then as now, and probably remains unsurpassable in its quality: urbane but never unctious; scrupulous but sprinkled with sass. His way of eliciting both self-awareness and self-knowledge from his guests — of coaxing them into revealing profound feelings and personality traits — was more deft, entertaining and consistently fascinating than anyone else in the history of the tube.

We recognize the aforementioned reads like hyperbole. But there are reasons why it isn’t. One reason is the magnitude and diversity of his guests. One episode might spotlight an actor like Burt Lancaster opposite the architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable. Another might construct a mashup to end all mashsups, such as the time Woody Allen, Muhammad Ali, Cloris Leachman and Rudolph Nureyev climbed aboard the Cavett train. Looking on the website for The Dick Cavett Show, we can take a totally random year — 1980 — and pare the list down its jaw-droppers. Like who? Joseph Heller, Laurence Olivier, Sarah Vaughan, Hal Prince, Lorin Maazel, Phil Donahue, William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Myrna Loy, Calvin Trillin, Alvin Toffler, Pauline Kael, Tommy Tune, G. Gordon Liddy, Ned Rorem, Truman Capote, Bob Fosse, Dyan Cannon, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Marty Feldman, George Cukor, Ray Bradbury, Jean-Luc Godard, John Huston, Stephen King, Eudora Welty, Beverly Sills, Buddy Hackett, Arthur Ashe, Anthony Burgess and “Bear” Bryant. With the possible exception of Charlie Rose, who some might say is Cavett’s stylistic heir, nobody has ever possessed quite Cavett’s alchemy of warmth, depth, range, skill, charm and humor. Always humor.

Certain episodes of The Dick Cavett Show are indelible in the minds of those who saw it as broadcast — or have discovered it through that digital nostalgia trip called YouTube. There was the time Katharine Hepburn rearranged the furniture. On Sept. 11, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent an full hour and Lennon introduced a song called “Imagine.” In 1973, he interviewing method brushed up against Marlon Brando. In 1976, he flirted with Mae West. And then there’s a famous — that is to say infamous — round-robin love-in between writers Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, with yet another glittering star of the pen, Janet Flanner of The New Yorker, setting up Cavett for a brutal and brilliant exchange:

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While Cavett’s mots were inevitably bon, one quip from Cavett’s coven has lived in particular infamy. On Jan. 25, 1980, literary critic Mary McCarthy was a guest, and she declared not very much love for Lillian Hellman, the great American playwright. McCarthy said that “every word” Hellman wrote “is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” Hellman sued McCarthy for libel, and the lawsuit stretched on for four years, ending only with the playwright’s death.

Mori’s play, which is directed by Jan Buttram, is taken directly from this famous confrontation, and in a fine masterstroke of casting, Cavett will play himself — recreating his role in the historical events depicted in the play. He is supremely fortunate in the choice of fellow actors, with Drama Desk and Obie-winner Roberta Maxwell as Hellman, and Tony nominee Marcia Rodd as McCarthy.

For tickets to Hellman v. McCarthy, click here or call 866-811-4111. And tell Mr. Cavett the CFR sent you.

And now, 5 questions Dick Cavett has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Is it not true, as it seems to be, that many if not most of the very best moments on your shows are not the planned ones, but rather the spontaneous, unplanned ones?”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Have you not consciously modeled yourself on George W. Bush?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Are you aware of how obvious it is which of your guests you’re having sex with?”

While it’s clearly a coup to cast you in Hellman v. McCarthy, it must be deja vu for you, too. Can you recall when you realized that McCarthy was igniting a firestorm? Also, how concerned are you with the play’s historical accuracy? Finally, if the 2014 Dick Cavett could talk to the 1980 Dick Cavett, would you offer him—or McCarthy—any advice?
I saw neither firestorm no smoke in the offing. The show had slipped harmlessly, I thought, into the past when someone announced, “Hellman is suing.”

The play makes no pretense of being comparable to, say, the historical accuracy of staging the actual transcripts of a trial; as, for example, when transcripts of the Oscar Wilde trial are staged. It’s an ingenious combination of fact and highly probable imagination.

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There is one long and tempestuous scene between Hellman and McCarthy which makes great use of dramatic license and which I inform the audience is invented — as the smart ones would already assume — because there are no other people in it. But there’s plenty of “real stuff” derived from my show, court documents, depositions, etc.

As for advice to myself or Mary McCarthy, looking back from the present it would of course be: Let’s not mention the notoriously litigious woman my late, Pulitzer Prize-winning friend Jean Stafford always referred to as “Old Scaly Bird.”

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You often write and speak movingly of your most favorite interviews, such as with Katharine Hepburn. When you were in the moment, did you ever self-edit—say, omit a question based on the mood or vibe? Any regrets as to questions you should have asked but didn’t of a subject you especially liked?
Regrets about unasked questions tend to be along trivial lines, like wishing I had asked athletes, who thanked God for their victories, how they think God decides to break the hearts of which team? Or decides to rescue one family’s little girl from the bus crash, leaving the rest to incinerate. Lighthearted stuff like that.

Bonus questions:

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Insofar as you might characterize your interviewing style as “sophisticated,” what makes particularly “sophisticated” TV viewing? Is it the complexity of questions, a gift for repartee, or the ability to draw the subject out in unanticipated ways? Do you think current TV viewers really are dumber today, or are they simply “sophisticated” in other, newer ways?
I’d never voluntarily submit to being described as “sophisticated.” Eustace Tilley, yes, but not me.

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All kinds of intangibles make for a good guest appearance, including the ability of both parties to improvise, seize the moment, “take the stage” conversationally. Also, the Brits are smarter than we are. They always have a well-stocked drinks trolley in the greenroom which makes for much more fun on “chat shows.” It has its perils. I had Lord George-Brown on in London for a jolly 20 minutes of a man pissed to the gills. Somewhere in the middle of the appearance he decided he just might be on television.

I am aware of no “techniques” on my part, and would like to know whatever I did to make so many guests say “I never felt this good on a talk show,” or ”How you got me to talk about that, I’ll never know.”

Name five living people in public life you do not know but who you would interview on camera today.
I’m really no good at lists of favorites, or bests, or “most” questions. I must decline to list five people I’d “most” like to talk to right now, partly because of the danger of running into someone on the street not on the list and the fact that three of the five I’d most like to talk to are dead.