Dick Cavett Takes a Few Questions

Michael Schulman in The New Yorker:

To revisit “The Dick Cavett Show,” which ran late night on ABC from 1969 to 1975 (and in various other incarnations before and after), is to enter a time capsule—not just because of Cavett’s guests, who included aging Hollywood doyennes (Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn), rock legends in their chaotic prime (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix), and squabbling intellectuals (Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer), but because Cavett’s free-flowing yet informed interviewing style is all but absent from contemporary television. Late-night shows are now tightly scripted affairs, where celebrities can plug a new movie, tell a rehearsed anecdote, and maybe get roped into a lip-synch battle. But Cavett gently prodded his subjects into revealing themselves. Though he was pegged as the “intellectual” late-night host, he resisted the label. He was a creature of show business: spontaneous, witty, and interested in everything.

Cavett’s interviews with the likes of George Harrison, Orson Welles, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor have racked up millions of views on YouTube, providing a unique window into a raw, freewheeling, contentious time. A Nebraska native who went to Yale and got his start writing for the late-night hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson (before becoming Carson’s competition), Cavett presided over an era split between culture and counterculture, squares and hippies. He wasn’t quite either, but he was somehow at home with both. Two of his most frequent guests, each of whom became a close friend, were Groucho Marx and Muhammad Ali—who represented either pole. On December 27th, American Masters will air a documentary about the former, “Groucho & Cavett,” the filmmaker Robert S. Bader’s follow-up to “Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes.”

More here.