Dick Cavett shares some of his memories with Alec: meeting Orson Welles in the lobby of the Plaza; talking with Marlon Brando by phone—““I was told he would [call] at a certain time and we talked with the sun about 15 degrees above the horizon until well after the moon had risen;” and interviewing Laurence Olivier in the Wyndham Hotel when, Cavett says, he was feeling so depressed “I just want[ed] to go home and get under the rug.” Dick Cavett is the master of talk, a television legend; in this conversation, he shows Alec why his career has spanned nearly five decades.
I’m Alec Baldwin and Here’s the Thing. Dick Cavett’s career in television spans nearly five decades. During that time he’s also acted in movies and on Broadway, hosted a radio show and written several books. His latest, a memoir called Talk Show, came out last year.
The “Dick Cavett Show” debuted in 1968. Here was a small-town Nebraska boy with a Yale education, cultured yet unintimidating, thoughtful, honestly curious and funny.
He had a knack for gently driving the conversation to the heart of the matter while keeping his guests comfortable.
Alec Baldwin: Cavett’s show could book the brightest and often most reclusive celebrities of that time; Katharine Hepburn, John and Yoko, Groucho Marx, Orson Welles, Truman Capote.
Cavett himself was as admired as his guests.
Alec Baldwin: I’ve known Cavett for several years as a neighbor on Long Island. I visited him at his house there; a place called Tick Hall. Cavett’s house sits on a beautiful remote cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Cavett has lived here for 43 years.
Alec Baldwin: For our listeners, that sound you’re hearing is the rattle of the ice tea being delivered into the parlor here.
Dick Cavett: That’s a very attractive employee.
Alec Baldwin: That’s actually his wife Martha. Cavett’s first wife, Carrie Nye, died in 2006.
Cavett got his start in show business as a writer for the greats of early television; Jack Paar, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. After a few years of this he decided to start writing for himself but first he had to figure out who he was.
Dick Cavett: And there’s a breakthrough point I had when I got what you might call a premise and I just re-found – thank God – a lost letter from Groucho saying, “I saw you on The Merv Griffin Show the other night and got that old feeling. Seriously,” he may have said, “I think you’ve struck a mother load with your idea of being the Nebraska yokel at Yale.”
Alec Baldwin: Is that the card you played?
Dick Cavett: Well yes, I started thinking what – you know always you hear writers must write what they know – well, what’s my life? What do I know? I don’t have an unusually large nose, I don’t have – funny, I’m not short and fat; I can’t play off that. I can’t – but I did come from the Midwest and go to the Ivy League; totally contrasting worlds.
Alec Baldwin: There was no Ivy League in your family?
Dick Cavett: None.
Alec Baldwin: What did your dad do?
Dick Cavett: All three of my parents – I also had a stepmother – were teachers, and my dad taught high school and as he always reminded me when I was going to spend some money on something, “Your mother and I, in the Depression, had to decide whether to spend a dime on a loaf of bread or if we could go to a movie with it.”
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Dick Cavett: I can’t believe that but it’s –
Alec Baldwin: That’s a Depression Era – that was my dad.
Dick Cavett: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Was it a semi-rural or rural community?
Dick Cavett: Quite, quite rural, yes. Yeah, the edge of town was a few feet in every direction.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Dick Cavett: I’ve been to – every time I go to Comstock I try to picture where my dad maybe lived and taught. But he was rewarded with $900.00 a year.
Alec Baldwin: What was your relationship to conversation? Meaning have you always been the conversationalist back home in Nebraska and then when you went to Yale and…?
Dick Cavett: A month ago, on this table when I was going through old envelopes of stuff, I found three – what do you call it – report cards from 3rd, 4th and 5th grade; Miss Gabis, Miss Fooks and Mrs. Graham.
Alec Baldwin: And all three of them said, “One might imagine how far Dick would get if he’d stop talking in class.”
Dick Cavett: You hit it. ‘Dick must learn to control his talking,’ is on two of them. And ‘Dick must learn to let others talk occasionally,’ one of the wittier ones put down.
Alec Baldwin: But you were always someone who – it was a gift that you had.
Dick Cavett: Apparently, yeah, and –
Alec Baldwin: Did you go to Yale undergrad? Did you do graduate school as well?
Dick Cavett: No.
Alec Baldwin: Undergrad only?
Dick Cavett: What some might have referred to as a drama school graduate and –
Alec Baldwin: But you weren’t.
Dick Cavett: I wasn’t. I took three courses in the drama school while I was an undergraduate: directing; Miss Welches’ speech class – stage speaking, it’s theory and practice; – and a theater history class taught by a humorless German, if that isn’t too redundant.
Alec Baldwin: You mentioned his name when I saw you; what was his name?
Dick Cavett: Alois Nagler
Alec Baldwin: Alois Nagler.
Dick Cavett: He was kind of good. He looked like Rex Harrison but spoke like Himmler.
Alec Baldwin: Who was my other favorite name you told me the other day? Ola?
Dick Cavett: Oh, Orson Welles beautiful, beautiful girlfriend I met right in that part of the Plaza lobby that Cary Grant pauses at in the beginning of “North by Northwest” and "Essential," and he said, “Dick, this is my lady friend Oja Palinkas.”
Alec Baldwin: Oja Palinkas.
Dick Cavett: He pauses, ‘Oja Palinkas,’ and I thought I’m going to remember that name for as long as I can.
Alec Baldwin: I’m going to Google it as soon as I get home.
Dick Cavett: Yeah. God I‘d love to know the details of his life and all those years when he’d make a film and not quite finish it, move on, live off some Countess somewhere and then his next address would be in Spain and the next one would be in –
Alec Baldwin: Mexico.
Dick Cavett: – and God, what a life; mad, strange, wasted, gigantic amount of talent. Now, obviously not totally wasted because he did a lot of films but…
In a doctor’s office I picked up a National – a New Republic and it was an article that began ‘Some day theater historians will have to deal with the problem of what Marlon Brando and Orson Welles did to their bodies.’ And he parallels their two careers; the wasted this, the bad choices –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, early genius.
Dick Cavett: – the contempt for the business that they loved to express.
Alec Baldwin: When I was going to do a television show, I was ten years too old for the part – I was 40 – and they wanted to Brick in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” –
Dick Cavett: You were ten years too…?
Alec Baldwin: Too old; I was 40. And Brick should be, you know, hovering around 30, late-20’s. So they wanted me to do this for CBS and have Brando play Big Daddy. So I contacted him and he says, “When would you like to get together?” I said, “I’d like to get together with you this week quite frankly because I’m leaving for Africa.” And he said, “Sure, come over to the house on Thursday at 1:00.”
I went to his house –
Dick Cavett: 12500 Mulholland Drive.
Alec Baldwin: I went to Mulholland Drive, yeah, and had lunch with him for nearly four hours at his house and sat there.
Dick Cavett: Talk about people who talk.
Alec Baldwin: And he talked about his weight gain and his physical problems. He talked about it like it was an airbag, like it just – like one day – and it wasn’t until he was morbidly obese did he say, “Well, maybe I’m not doing so well.”
But when you did the show with him – because I watched so many of your shows –
Dick Cavett: He wasn’t very terribly fat then; he had a gut.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, he was a little blocky, but the funny thing about him is there’s later Brando, you know, the very end, and there’s him with Larry King and he’s very playful and he’s very childlike, but with you when he was on he seemed very feral on the show, was he that way off camera? He seemed like he was going to throw a punch any minute now.
Dick Cavett: No. And alternating with that million-dollar grin that that director he admitted he couldn’t cut away from to do a reaction shot because he was so hypnotized by that fabulous grin of his –
Alec Baldwin: But he seemed angry.
Dick Cavett: Yeah, other people said the show seemed like pulling teeth and what do you bring the dreary Indians on for, and all this stuff. It was a very difficult evening and if I had it to do again – I didn’t resist him any except at one point – well, I got a laugh that he didn’t get until he heard the audience laugh – it looks like when I’ve seen it back – which was, “What about the success of the movie “The Godfather”? And he said, “I don’t really want to talk about movies.” And the audience laughed because that’s one thing you would talk to a big movie star about.
And then he grinned, he came through with that anomalous grin like, ‘I know what this must mean to you.’ So then I said, “How about the book "The Godfather?" And he knew to laugh at that part.
And then other one was his belittling [ice tea rattling] – belittling of the art of acting and how “Anybody can do it.” Once he said to me, “You know, your mom said who peed on the toilet seat? And you say ‘I didn’t do it,’ and you’re acting then.”
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, I come into his house and he says – he says – and we’re sitting there, and I’m completely numb –
Dick Cavett: At first you are.
Alec Baldwin: He comes in in a muumuu and we’re in his house – it’s a very hallucinatory moment for me – he looks at me and says, “You and I are like two dogs sniffing each other right now.” And he says, “I’d like to make an arrangement with you – an agreement with you – where you say whatever you want to say and ask me whatever you want to ask me, and I’ll say whatever I want to say and I’ll ask you whatever I want to ask you and we’ll just talk about whatever we want to talk about and it will make us feel comfortable.”
Dick Cavett: That is so him. Did he ever do any of his little upsmanship things like saying, “Why are you holding your left hand in your right hand like that?” I’d say, “Well, I don’t know.” “Why’d you move your hand to the side of your head like that?”
But I know what you mean when you first met him. If you can stop the voice in your head saying, “Jesus Christ, this is Marlon Brando that I’m sitting with,” and he’s so aware of that. My first talk with him was on the phone where we are now, in fact. He called – I was told he would at a certain time – and we talked with the sun about 15 degrees above the horizon until well after the moon had risen.
Alec Baldwin: With him as an example, who are the ones who you were surprised the way it went?
Dick Cavett: Oh –
Alec Baldwin: Good or bad.
Dick Cavett: Yeah. The bad – the good was of course always welcome. I had no reason to think that James Mason would be the first person I ever had on a show – on my daytime show – who was enchantingly charming talking without any sense of putting on the charm, that I missed all signals to go to commercial. And it was the first time that I broke through reading my notes off to the guest, barely able to hear what they were saying for reasons of nerves and signals that I just missed over their shoulder, and oh my God, someone lettered a card and took it back, oh God, the guest’s lips have stopped moving, “Um, do you have any hobbies?”
Alec Baldwin: When it goes badly it goes –
Dick Cavett: The ones who went badly were invariably – not many, fortunately, nobody just died on my – except whoever the lout was who was the male lead in the movie “Zabriskie Point” and his non-verbal girlfriend who were inflicted on me once, however many years ago “Zabriskie Point” came out; he was monosyllabic and maybe thought it was funny, “So I don’t if it’s a good movie or not.” Hmm.
Probably. Finally I’m getting desperate and I said, “Wait, I read that you got in a fight back stage with somebody, a fist fight, in a television studio.” “Yeah, what do you want to know about it?” And I said, “Details,” forcing him to talk.
Alec Baldwin: This is in front of an audience?
Dick Cavett: A little later – now, when this sort of thing happens there’s one thing you must always do; be sure you have Mel Brooks sitting there. Brooks is there – that was a – and it was – “One day we found a, uh,” the guy says, “We found a, uh, uhm, a, uh –” “A bread box, something,” Mel yells.
The disappointing guests were writers. You know I loved having writers on. I did a boy’s dream – some boys’ dreams – Updike and Cheever on the same show, Cheever separately, Updike separately – Saul Bellow – I started to say I had them all.
Alec Baldwin: But who didn’t cut it as a talk show guest?
Dick Cavett: But the thing was that the – yeah, you couldn’t believe that this semi-articulate person, having trouble with vocabulary, seemingly – it was just outlandish, unbelievable thing – had written that glorious prize-winning prose that you read.
Now the exceptions were, of course many; Truman Capote, questionable accurate, but entertaining at all times.
Alec Baldwin: You had Olivier on the show, correct?
Dick Cavett: Yes. It was a 90-minute show in London and then I did him again in New York in the Wyndham hotel with Lady Olivier, Joan Plowright, so I got two with Olivier.
Alec Baldwin: How was that?
Dick Cavett: Well, it was fine. He – what was just so interesting about meeting him –
Alec Baldwin: That’s an interesting word, was it fine? What do you mean?
Dick Cavett: It was the opposite of bad I think is what I was trying to say. You can’t pick on a guy’s choice of words.
I’ll tell you what my problem is; I swore to God recently that I would never say the word awesome in my life –
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Dick Cavett: – and if we could make that true of everyone in the world that would be swell. It can go along with ‘iconic’ and ‘closure’ and ‘like,’ of course, and a few others. ‘Amazing’; we all are saying amazing all of the time now. I got five amazings in watching morning television for about 40 minutes the other day. ‘The amazing guest,’ ‘it’s an amazing guest,’ ‘we have just an amazing script, it’s just amazing,’ ‘I was amazed by it.’
Alec Baldwin: You’re career amazes me.
Dick Cavett: Yeah. But Olivier was terrific, and he was such a clown. Afterwards – not on the air, he could have done so more on the air and it would have been wonderful. I think I was probably a little too in awe – I didn’t say awesome – to get all of the fun out of him that I later learned is in there.
Alec Baldwin: Now who other people today do you sit there and say, “God, if I was doing it now, that seemed like it could be fun.”
Dick Cavett: I almost wish you hadn’t asked me that because here’s how that thought occurred to me. I was on a radio show plugging the book – I think it was Mark Simone, and he said, “You must get Cavett’s DVD’s, there’s one called “Hollywood Greats,”” and he may have said, “Tell us who’s on it.” And I thought, “What a dirty trick, I won’t be able to think of two of them now.”
But I had it sitting there on my messy table, and here’s who’s on it; it has all of Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, Fred Astaire, Kirk Douglas, Lucille Ball, Frank Capra –
Alec Baldwin: Noel Coward.
Dick Cavett: Coward isn’t on that one, dammit – that needs a separate one too – Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles, John Houston and Marlon Brando. And I looked at this – did I mention Lucille Ball – and I thought two things; (A) am I the only one on this cover of this box who’s alive? No, Kirk Douglas is. But what I really thought was who are their counterparts now? What list of today’s greats would include that many redwoods?
Alec Baldwin: Even in politics. Politics, writing, is there anybody – authors?
Dick Cavett: I think we live in an age of increasing mediocrity.
Alec Baldwin: But you don’t sit there and say, “I would love to have had Richard Holbrooke on, I’d love to have…”
Dick Cavett: Oh there are so – there are plenty of people, yeah, God yes. Meryl Streep belongs on anybody’s list of greats. But I don’t think quite so many achieve – maybe you can’t be big in the way those people were; these giant people who were. They don’t grow redwoods anymore, do they?
Alec Baldwin: No.
Dick Cavett: They just grow smaller sequoias or pines.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, yeah, zelcovas.
Dick Cavett: Conifers of some sort.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Well, the media is like a train. I mean it used to be that the train was a glamorous, gleaming thing that was a – now the train is a filthy – that’s all you get when can’t drive a car.
Dick Cavett: That raises a question that’s completely outside of show business, but when I was a kid I marveled that Japan had a 200 mile-an-hour – the Shinkansen – bullet train, and we still have the Long Island Railroad and I’m 50 years older.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. It’s a great country though, isn’t it?
Dick Cavett: Otherwise.
Alec Baldwin: America.
Dick Cavett: It is, yes.
Alec Baldwin: You obviously have had your difficulties, and you’ve talked about – no, no – you’re looking over your shoulder like ‘No, that’s somebody else’– and I know for me, when I was getting divorced and I was in the real nadir of the whole experience; I felt horrible. Everybody gets down, everybody has the blues, everybody suffers losses; you can not only have a bad game, you can have a bad season. But then when do you decide that you need from someone clinically?
Dick Cavett: Since memory is affected by depression – there are details like that, they’re not absolutely sure – but I know the one time I knew was that when I boarded the Concord and realized ‘I’m not going to be this sick in another country’ and got off.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Dick Cavett: And I called my shrink and he said, “Well, you can either get on the next plane or go to Columbia.” And my staff was already over there. And I just thought ‘I can’t go away feeling this horrible.’ A stewardess took one look at me and said, “You want to get off.” And I said, “Yeah.” I mean she saw whatever it was; it was that clear.
Let me ask you this; did you work during any of this? Were you able to work?
Alec Baldwin: I had to work, yeah. I had to work. And work helped me a bit.
Dick Cavett: I can tell you a quickie that involves two people we’ve already named. I was at the Brando residence – you might have just left that one day – and I told him about taping a show with Olivier and the Wyndham hotel for PBS, and I said, “I was so depressed while doing it,” and it’s being Olivier made me realize how depressed I was because when I got to the hotel and they took me to a room and we were going to tape in the room up above, I thought, “Lawrence Olivier is one story above me and I don’t give a damn, I just want to go home and get under the rug. And there are some cue cards, what do they say? Oh, I’ll start it over again. How can they be so cruel to get me out of bed to do this?”
And sitting there with the Oliviers, having read a prompter little cue card introduction, the chat started and I had some notes off camera, but I thought, “This is awful. They’re going to come over any moment and say, “Dick, it’s all right. We’ll send them home, or we’ll send you home, they’re home. We’ll get them back on another day. This is obviously not a good day for you.””
The other thought rushing through my head was, “They can see I am nuts. My brain is cracked, they can see it, I must be taking 20-second pauses from when they speak until I do, and I must be just hanging there, with my head – I better raise my head a little.” And Olivier is quite, quite smart enough in the psychology of performing and so on to know that he’s got a dingbat on his hands.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Dick Cavett: And this is just –
Alec Baldwin: He’s flying solo here.
Dick Cavett: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: His copilot’s asleep in the cabin.
Dick Cavett: I hope Robin my – yeah – my producer will come over and say it’s all right. But I realized I had finished it. And I was telling Brando that and he said – I said how awful it was – and he said, “Did you ever see that show?” And I said, “Oh, God, are you kidding? No.” “Do me a favor, go home and look at it.” This is a half-a-year later – longer, I was well then.
So I went home and looked at it and I was fine.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. It’s all that was going on with you.
Dick Cavett: There were no pauses. And I saw him again and reported that to him. And I said, “How did you know? What is that? I didn’t have hesitations. I came right in. I looked interested, which I wasn’t. My eyes were sparkling, which I – for no reason. And I looked like I was having the best time with the Oliviers that anyone could have with anybody.”
And he said, “Automatic pilot. I’ve had to resort to it a lot.”
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Dick Cavett: “It takes over.” So, had I stayed home that day and not taped the Oliviers, I would have stayed in bed and could not – if I’d been taped there I wouldn’t have looked good. But some part of us who are in the business, something won’t let you – some crazy way – be a total mess while you’re working.
Alec Baldwin: Well there’s two of us. Yeah, we have two – those two sides.
Dick Cavett: I saw it with Judy Garland who was I think on my show for her last television appearance, the ’68 daytime show – ABC erased them all and used them to tape “Let’s Make a Deal.” It might be – there’s a – somebody has bumpy home tape of that – she was so wonderful.
Alec Baldwin: You talk about these tapes, by the way, I want to get back to that –
Dick Cavett: Oh, yes, please let me.
Alec Baldwin: – no, whenever talk about these tapes, and you’ve got the rights to the ABC show –
Dick Cavett: There’s several versions of what really happened. I just remember being told one day, “Dick, they’re going to either reuse the tapes or erase them or dump them.” And I said, “What tapes?” “The ones to the ABC show. And you can have them if you want to for $60.00 each.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a ludicrous amount of money.”
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Dick Cavett: And a guy on my staff, unfortunately – but he did quite well – went through them and eliminated those he thought would never be of any interest again, and it turned out some of them would have been – but I have most all of them –
Alec Baldwin: Thank God he didn’t rely on you for that choice because you would have said to him, “Well, you can get rid of the Olivier because I was zonked throughout that –”
Dick Cavett: Yeah, threw out that one.
Alec Baldwin: Thank God they didn’t –
Dick Cavett: I was fine for the first Olivier one.
Alec Baldwin: When you talk about those ABC tapes I – in my mind – visualize the guys throwing the sled on the fire, you know, and it burning. I see these guys with boxes of tapes, “What are we supposed to do with these tapes, Charlie?”
Dick Cavett: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And somebody said, “I don’t know, it’s the Cavett show. I mean, what the hell is that? Ray said throw it in the fire.”
Dick Cavett: You’re too realistic.
Alec Baldwin: And there goes the lost tapes.
Dick Cavett: Well, you know the sons-of-bitches erased most of Johnny Carson’s New York shows – years of them – a number of which I was on. I would love to see them.
Alec Baldwin: What’s your relationship to television now? Is there any of it that you watch? Is there anything you like? Is there – where do you get your news from?
Dick Cavett: I’ve actually gotten so I don’t associate television with entertainment very much.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. No TV viewing now.
Dick Cavett: This is a total, total 360 degrees. When we got television in Nebraska I watched it every evening. I could tell you now CBS, NBC and ABC’s schedules for every night of the week back then; I watched everything. And a lot of it was good. I wasn’t just watching crap.
I watched “Studio One,” I watched Robert Montgomery, Philco Theater, the Web, of course Gleason and all the variety shows, the comics –
Alec Baldwin: Sammy Spear and his orchestra.
Dick Cavett: Yeah. Les Brown & His Band of Renown, and now here’s the star of our show Bob Hope. I get goose pimples even now. But then not only did I watch it I – from Nebraska – but I got to Yale and I went down to New York and every – all the men went to Vassar, Smith and Wellesley on weekends – I went to TV and theaters and studios in New York.
And I took a CBS envelope that I pulled off a CBS truck – some guy had left a manila envelope with a CBS eye on it – and I put something in that I walked into the stage door of the Jackie Gleason show and said, “How’s it going today?” “Okay.” And got into the theater and hid in there until show time and watched – and when the June Taylor Dancers formed that V upstage and Jackie came down through it, I know my hair stood up.
Alec Baldwin: You can read Dick Cavett’s blog – a word he admits he had to look up before he started writing one – on The New York Times web site.
How would you rank me so far? How am I doing? If you had to use one word, what would it be?
Dick Cavett: Wow.
Alec Baldwin: Thank you.
Dick Cavett: W-W-O-W.
Alec Baldwin: I thought you were going to say 'awesome.'
Dick Cavett: No, I would not say awesome for anybody at any price.
Alec Baldwin: Here’s the Thing is produced by WNYC Radio. Let me know what you think.