10 Dick Cavett Show episodes that prove good conversation makes good TV
Dick Cavett (right), Richard Burton

10 Dick Cavett Show episodes that prove good conversation makes good TV

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

When Dick Cavett was on network TV in the early 1970s, he had a reputation as the talk show host for people who hated talk shows. (This was confirmed when he was consigned to PBS in the late ’70s.) It was a condescending and backhanded compliment, like an Emmy nomination given to a critically acclaimed but low-rated show after it’s been canceled; the subtext was that he was too intelligent for the medium. Cavett himself would probably take offense at this. He is unapologetically a show-business figure, someone who used his vast knowledge and genuine interest in people, politics, culture, and the arts to make a career for himself in the entertainment business.

There was a time when it seemed necessary to have mixed feelings about Cavett. Rick Moranis did the definitive Cavett demolition job on SCTV, portraying him as a smug, passive-aggressive ditherer who was too ready to believe his own hype. But now that Cavett has been retired from active service for some time, it’s easier to appreciate what he brought to the talk-show field and view his flaws as endearing. It’s not as if anyone has done what he did better, or seems interested in even trying to do it now. Cavett’s old boss Jack Paar also booked politicians and writers alongside the showbiz types, but Paar was so thin-skinned and emotionally volatile as a host that his guests frequently took a backseat. And there was a time, in the early ’90s, when Charlie Rose seemed a promising heir apparent to Cavett, but even when he was fully awake, Rose tended to switch to auto-pilot when the talk wasn’t about current politics or basketball. The best of the current breed, Craig Ferguson, can keep a conversation going, has novelists on his show, and acts as if he genuinely wants to meet them. But his Late Late Show is still principally about the comedy. When he tries something different, it’s presented as an experimental, change-of-pace event.

Cavett gave air time to movie and TV stars, film directors, rock stars, novelists, critics, veterans of old Hollywood, politicians, comedians, and anybody else who might have something interesting to say. Sometimes he’d mix them together on the same couch; sometimes he’d go deep in conversation with one guest over the course of an hour or more. Cavett must have had some ego himself—a shrinking violet does not tell Norman Mailer, on national TV, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine”—but he always made the talk the star of the show. And because unfettered talk among groups of smart people can be unpredictable, unscheduled events used to break out on his show all the time. It’s a safe bet that no one was expecting fireworks when the show booked Medical Center star Chad Everett—who so angered Lily Tomlin with his sexist comments that she walked off the set.

Like Johnny Carson and David Letterman, Cavett got his first hosting gig on daytime TV, on an ABC program originally titled This Morning. In 1969, the network shuttled Cavett to a three-nights-a-week primetime spot. Although the primetime series contains the seeds of Cavett’s legend, that didn’t fully blossom until his show moved to late night, taking the kamikaze assignment of going head-to-head with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

After Cavett’s contract with ABC sputtered out early in 1975, he briefly had a summer show on CBS, then moved to PBS from 1977 to 1982. Since then, he’s popped up for a few weeks or a few months on various networks and cable channels; his longest-running gig was on CNBC, occupying a regular half-hour of primetime from 1989 until 1996. Many of the shows from his PBS era—where he was granted creative control and freedom from commercial constraints in exchange for lower public profile and production values—are classics. (See: Cavett’s sit-downs with Richard Burton.) But when people light up nostalgically at the mention of Cavett’s name, they’re usually thinking of his ABC period. It was then that he fought the good fight for conversation as entertainment, in the last few years before the concept was relegated to cable channels and talk radio—and, eventually, podcasts.

“Jefferson Airplane/Joni Mitchell/Stephen Stills/David Crosby” (8/16/1969): Commonly referred to as “The Woodstock Show,” because the guests and the studio audience (who sit cross-legged on the floor surrounding the stage, presumably because there wouldn’t be enough chairs to accommodate them) had just come from that fabled concert, making it quite a time capsule. Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and the other Airplane members perform “We Can Be Together,” “Volunteers,” and (with drop-in guest David Crosby) “Somebody To Love,” and spend the rest of the show mugging at the camera to indicate their dismay at being part of this whole plastic-fantastic square TV thing. All of the rumors are true: They were a talented bunch, Grace (who persists in addressing Cavett as “Jim”) had charisma to burn, and a bigger group of assholes may have never walked the Earth. Ironically, the episode belongs to a young Joni Mitchell, who didn’t play at Woodstock because her manager wanted her to stay fresh for her big TV appearance.

“Mel Brooks/Rex Reed/Mark Frechette and Daria Helprin” (4/6/1970): An entertaining snapshot of the state of the movie industry in 1970, this episode begins with Rex Reed’s take on the Academy Awards, which gives Hollywood insiders the chance to be insulted by someone who was about to make his acting debut in the unwatchable Myra Breckinridge. It then turns hilarious with Mel Brooks’ account of filming The Twelve Chairs in Yugoslavia, and takes an unscheduled U-turn into the high weeds of deep weirdness with the arrival of Mark Frechette and Daria Helprin, stars of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. After responding to several questions in his signature uncommunicative gibberish, Frechette gets touchy when asked about his and Helprin’s living arrangements in the Fort Hill Community organized by musician Mel Lyman. (Frechette died in prison in 1975, after he and other members of Lyman’s group robbed a bank as a “revolutionary act.”)

“John Kerry/John O’Neill” (6/10/1971): Cavett devoted one episode to a debate between the 26-year-old John Kerry—then known as the public face of Vietnam Veterans Against The War—and 25-year-old John O’Neill, recruited by the Nixon White House to denounce the antiwar veterans movement. There were other episodes in which Vietnam dominated parts or all of the conversation, but this one took on fresh relevance more than 30 years later, when O’Neill, as spokesman for the Swift Vets And POWs For Truth, spearheaded the attacks on Kerry’s war record during the 2004 presidential race. In doing so, he confirmed that, for people who came of age during the war, nothing that anyone has said or done in the decades since can ever be as important as what they were saying or doing then.

“Woody Allen” (10/20/1971): Cavett helped “discover” Woody Allen when Allen was doing stand-up comedy and Cavett was working as a talent coordinator for the Jack Paar Tonight Show. At the time, it must have felt like a supernatural occurrence for either of these guys to meet someone their own age who could match their own devotion to Groucho Marx. Allen wound up appearing on Cavett’s ABC show several times, though the true measure of how close they became is that he later appeared on one of the earliest episodes of Cavett’s PBS series in 1977, a few months before Allen played hooky from the Academy Awards the night he won Best Picture and Best Director for Annie Hall.

“George Harrison/Ravi Shankar” (11/23/1971): John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s three appearances on the Cavett show have been honored with their own DVD release, but in some ways, George Harrison’s interview is the more refreshing chat with a Beatle. Looking like a young Gandalf, Harrison gently teases the host over how many commercial breaks are allowed on American TV, chides “the Lennons” for having turned their first visit to the show into something of a plug-a-thon. Not to be outdone, Lennon’s former bandmate adds that he saw Brother John just the prior to the taping, at the premiere of Harrison’s sitar documentary Raga, “which is what we should be talking about, maybe…”

“Janis Joplin/Raquel Welch/Chet Huntley/Douglas Fairbanks Jr.” (6/25/1970): In the space of just over a year, Janis Joplin appeared on Cavett’s show three times, always as the sole musician on the panel. She and Cavett, who had little in common, really look as if they enjoyed each other’s company; when they’re joined by other female guests—like Raquel Welch and Gloria Swanson, with whom the musician also had little in common—Joplin seems eager to reach out and form a sisterly bond. This episode includes the snippet of conversation that was included in the 1975 documentary Janis, in which Joplin asks Cavett if he’d care to accompany her to her upcoming high-school reunion in Texas. Cavett: “I don’t have that many friends in your high school class.” Joplin: “I don’t, either. That’s why I’m going.”

“Gore Vidal/Norman Mailer/Janet Flanner” (12/1/71): For good or bad, The Dick Cavett Show’s reputation as a place where writers could have serious conversations in a televised public forum made it the best place for people outside the salons and academies to watch literary feuds declared and acted out. The best remembered of Norman Mailer’s many appearances has its roots in a Gore Vidal essay in which Vidal compared Mailer to Charles Manson and stirred up subliminal memories of Mailer’s having once stabbed his second wife at a party. Mailer invited himself on when he learned of Vidal’s booking, then announced his intentions by head-butting Vidal in the green room before going on the air. (Cavett reminisced about the festivities in his New York Times blog shortly after Mailer died.)

Ray Charles” (1/26/73): Cavett’s episodes with Ray Charles were arguably the high point of his efforts to use his series as a musical showcase. Ever the good sport, the host even acquiesced when his guest encouraged him to sing along, which immediately became a running joke; it turned out there was yet another field of show business that Cavett never would have been able to fall back on if his talk show career hadn’t panned out.

“Marlon Brando/Sam Cagey/Dr. Wallace Heath/Dennis Limberhand/Mervin Wright” (6/12/1973): Cavett has described this episode as a disappointment and a missed opportunity. Brando, fresh from his triumphant comeback with The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris, agreed to come on, but insisted on the same stipulation he later made of a Playboy interviewer: He was only interested in discussing the situation of the Native Americans, and he brought along his own Native American brain trust. If Cavett thought there was a chance that Brando would weaken and answer a few questions about his movies in particular or acting in general with some coaxing and the applause of the studio audience, he guessed very wrong. But the interview is fascinating for what it is: the most charismatic man in the world playing the tease, for what he imagines to be a greater purpose.

“Katharine Hepburn” (10/2/1973, 10/3/1973): At the start of 1973, ABC had been cutting Cavett back from multiple appearances every week to one show a month. Gradually, the show petered out into increasingly sporadic “special events” tucked under the network’s umbrella title for late-night programming, ABC’s Wide World Of Entertainment. Cavett’s epic, career-spanning interview with Katharine Hepburn was his last big get while the show was keeping to any kind of regular schedule. It would have counted as the end of an era, if Cavett’s brand of talk show had generated enough commercial clout to qualify as an era. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQDMgspaSFc

And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Groucho Marx” (9/5/1969); “Robert Mitchum” (4/29/1971); “Fred Astaire” (6/25/1971); “Ingmar Bergman/Bibi Andersson” (8/2/1971); “Colonel Anthony Herbert” (11/19/1971); “Bette Davis” (11/17/1971); “Jim Henson/The Muppets” (11/25/1971); “John Huston” (2/21/1972); “Jack Benny/Bill Cosby/Joe Frazier” (2/21/1973); “Carol Burnett’ (2/21/1974)

Availability: 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. While the contents of those discs are available for digital purchase at Amazon and iTunes, the Hendrix DVDs differ from the Shout! Factory discs in that they don’t contain the entire shows, just Hendrix’s performances and interviews along with Cavett’s opening monologues. Some of Cavett’s PBS shows are also available for viewing through The New York Times website.


Next time: Robert David Sullivan picks the 10 installments of Match Game that hit him right in the [Blank].