Cavett book cover

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by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. (1974)

News flash, we’re about to lose Letterman!

Late Night TV talk show addicts know that sinking feeling. Hell, we’ve been through it all before—Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and now Dave.

We watched them come, watched them nightly and then, sadly. . .watched them go.

But hey, on that May 2015 morning when Dave blows us his good-by kiss, odds are our bedmate isn’t going to roll over and say “Dear, sorry for your loss!”

But sleep tight my friends, Page Turners from the Past is here with a recent find, a little walk down memory lane with our old Late Night friend Dick Cavett.

In Cavett, a biography co-authored with his friend Christian Porterfield, Dick waltzes us though his Nebraska childhood where dirty old men tried to grope him in movie theaters. He recalls his days at Yale where he met wife-to-be Carrie Nye, the Broadway actress, and he reminisces about trips during his college years to Manhattan where he (a self-admitted celebrity groupie) roamed the streets tipping his cap to the famous and slipping into Broadway theaters to spy on shows from the wings.

The Q&A format—Christian plays host and Dick the guest—proves to be perfect for the Late Night fan. And the biography? Well, like the TV show, it offers readers that insider show biz —wink, wink, nudge, nudge—conversations that made Cavett the topic of workplace water coolers back in the 70s.

And there are stories aplenty. The young Yale-educated unemployed makes the rounds down show business’ mean streets—dropping off resumes with disinterested NY agencies, working gigs as a stand-up comic and as a minor league magician. An occasional extra role in TV or a movie comes his way but nothing to move the starving artist’s income needle past hand-to- mouth.

Most Cavett fans know the one (he thankfully revisits) about his unlikely entrée to big time show biz. Lurking in a 30-Rock hallway he caught Jack Paar headed to the john, slipped him a Time Magazine envelope (Cavett was working at Time as a copy boy) with pages of jokes that would kick-start Cavett’s gag writing career. Paar managed to work some of Dick’s lines into the show that night as “ad-libs” then later hired the “kid” to write his monologues. This led to the same gig with a promotion to Talent Coordinator when Carson took over the 11:30 NBC spotlight. Cavett hies to the Hollywood to write for Jerry Lewis for a time then bounces back to New York and Carson.

In due time, the book drops us right back where WE long to be—on ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show.

As the lights come up we find ourselves enjoying his witty repartee with a guest list that one might easily mistake for the (then) living version of The Hollywood Wax Museum—Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Bob Hope, Noel Coward, the Lunts, Truman Capote, Nureyev, Fred Astaire, Katherine Hepburn, Orson Wells and John Lennon.

Cavett (later a daily columnist for The NY Times) was clearly the most intellectual of the late night talk show hosts. And this highly entertaining biography does nothing to belie that point. Old fans will bobble-head with one nostalgic nod after another as Dick and his co-author call (and recall) those great moments from the past.

  • The night Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Cavett almost came to blows with Dick suggesting that Mailer might want another chair to seat his “Giant ego!”
  • The show where he had to restrain himself from asking a beautiful actress, known to be sleeping with not one but two astronauts at the time, which one of the flyers was better in the sack.
  • The one about the guest who failed to be responding to Dick’s wit and wisdom with good reason, the man was dead.
  • The show that made national news when Lester Maddox walked off the set.

Sound like the perfect tourniquet to help stop the “Letterman bleeding?”

Oh yes . . . all of the above and a whole lot more.

Cavett learned the work ethic of joke writing from his friend, the master, Woody Allen: “I could not adjust to the fact that for the first time (as a professional comedy writer) I had to think for minutes and sometimes hours for the right joke. When Woody had told me that he sometimes spent a day getting a joke right, I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. He said you can’t just accept the first thing that comes to your head; you have to keep thinking until you know you’ve got the best possible joke on the subject at hand. Woody certainly put his principle into practice. I think his albums show the finest sustained level of joke-writing genius in the history of stand-up comedy.”

Cavett meets his all-time hero Groucho Marx on a New York street: “I approached and said, with the genius for originality that has put me where I am today, “Hello, Groucho, I’m a big fan of yours.” And Groucho said, “If it gets any hotter I could use a big fan.”

Later, while dining together one day, Cavett recalls Groucho asking the server, “Do you have any fruit? I mean besides the head waiter?”

The author regales us with stories of people coming up to Groucho just to be insulted by the host of You Bet Your Life. A man approached him in the restaurant with this verbal bouquet. “Groucho, my wife and I want to tell you how much we admire you.” Groucho: “Well, you’ll have to get in line.”

While riding an elevator in the St. Regis Hotel, two Catholic priests get on, recognize Groucho, and one of them says that his mother is a tremendous fan of his. Groucho: “Oh, really! I didn’t know you fellows were allowed to have mothers.”

Here’s Dick’s admission that he never—even after numerous guest appearances by his hero on the Cavett show—got over the kick of thinking, “Here is Groucho Marx, and I’m getting paid to sit here with him.”

Recalling one of those on-air moments Cavett says; “We had discussed the musical Hair for a moment. It had just opened, and because it contained Broadway’s first frontal nude scene with both sexes there was a lot of talk about it. I asked Groucho if he had seen it, and I knew he did not have a prepared answer. I saw the machinery whir for a split second, and he said, “No, I was going to see it, but I went home, took off my clothes, looked at myself in the mirror, and saved seven dollars!” The audience roared, and the line sped around the country and into several night-club acts. Sitting that close, I could see that the suddenness of the line and the laugh surprised him for a tenth of a second. Then he calmly put his cigar in his mouth and waited out the laugh. The figure he chose for the price of an orchestra seat was of course not the correct figure, but it had the right number of syllables for the joke.”

That was Groucho!

Here Dick recalls how comforting Lawrence Olivier proved to be to a nervous host: “Before the taping, he said he was afraid that he would be boring on the show. He paced somewhat in the wings, and after I came off from a brief warm-up talk with the audience he said how brave he thought I was to go out and speak to them like that. I have a fantasy dating back many years that someday I would be able to look into the wings and confirm that the man I was about to introduce was Laurence Olivier. Now it was about to happen.”

“Olivier backstage after the taping was a wonder. He took off his jacket and tie, met my wife and our friends the Barry Forsters and began behaving like any actor who has been through something difficult and, now that the pressure is off, doesn’t exactly want to go home, but has another kind of energy to let off and does it among his fellow actors.”

Cavett on Brando: “The most powerful physical (impression) I got from a guest star was the one I got from Marlon Brando. The power in him hits you the second you meet him. If you’ll pardon me while I dust off a cliché’, being alone with him in a small room is like being in a cage with a large animal.”

“He (Brando) said he did not want to make an entrance on the show, but wanted to be discovered as ‘the man sitting on your right’” I said that this would be unfortunate, because the entrance was so effective theatrically, and that, while I knew he was not there to be theatrical, it was important to the show as a whole. He said, ‘Well . . .’ and took an ominous pause, in which the making of Mutiny on the Bounty flashed through my mind and I pictured his saying, ‘Call me when you feel like doing it my way,’” and heading for the door.

“Instead he said, with a grin, ‘I’ll do whatever you say.’ His entrance was worth the price of admission.”

Dick landing Ingmar Bergman as a guest: “I couldn’t get over his joviality. One expects to be ushered into a dark chamber at the end of which a brooding figure sits veiled in thought and cobwebs. I met Bergman for dinner and . . . , I don’t think I ever met a man so entirely awake.”

“He had agreed to do it only after seeing a kinescope of the show. When the kinescope started with my brief monologue, he said that he decided against the idea. Then Bergman allowed, ‘But then there was an interval. When it started again you were sitting down. I didn’t like you standing up—but sitting and talking you were a different person. I liked you from then on and decided to do the show.’”

And finally Cavett on Katherine Hepburn: “She is a work of nature. You want to sit back and look at her as you do a beautiful rock formation or a splendid animal—the way the chin goes with the mouth, the mouth with the cheekbones, the way the curve of the cheekbones is duplicated in the outward curve of her hair. As Jean Stafford pointed out after watching the two shows that Hepburn did with me, you realize that that voice is the only one that could have gone with those looks. It was startling, as I watched the show on the air, to see it cut from a close-up of Hepburn’s face to a commercial, and a close-up of one of the vapidly beautiful models in a hosiery or eye-shadow commercial. It was merely cutting from one beautiful woman’s face to another, but it was like switching form Mozart to Muzak. The triumph of Hepburn’s art is that she has been able to play the plain girl that none of the beaux want to marry. The audience could always see what they were missing, but the young men couldn’t.

“Just because she is so appealing in so many ways as a performer, I didn’t see any reason to expect her to show all her charm, gusto, playfulness, and wit when she appeared on my show. But she did.”

A world-class raconteur, with leading questions from his friend Porterfield, the Cavett wit and candor literally leap from the book’s pages. So on that fateful night when the Ed Sullivan Theater and your bedroom go dark on Letterman, flip on a night light and curl up with this little page turner from the past. Should your sudden laugh or guffaw awaken the bedmate simply roll over and say, “I know, Dave is gone and you’re sorry for my loss. But I’ll be fine, I’m reading Cavett!”

*For a copy of Cavett, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try where you can buy the 1974 novel for less than Dick Cavett made (per hour) during his gig as a copyboy at Time Magazine. Simply click on the book’s cover.