“I can’t believe that he’s here now, I can’t believe I know Groucho Marx, I can’t believe that there is a Groucho Marx,” a young and sparkling Dick Cavett said in 1968 when introducing his comedic idol on an early iteration of Cavett’s legendary talk show.
And though I’ve known Cavett since 1979 when I began working as a production assistant on his PBS series, I confess that I feel almost the same way when his famous visage pops up on my laptop via Zoom four decades later.
“There you are, Ron,” Cavett says in a low-hum version of the instantly recognizable voice that somehow always conveys a self-conscious irony.
TV shows get cancelled, but over the years, a new Cavett show would be reborn again… and then again, on PBS, ABC, USA, and CNBC, and I worked on them all.
The occasion for our virtual reunion is “Groucho & Cavett,” an episode of American Masters Airing Dec. 27 on PBS. The show combines clips from Groucho’s many appearances on Cavett’s ABC late night show with commentary by the present-day Cavett, age 86.
How does it feel, I wanted to know, for Cavett to watch his younger self with Groucho?
“It really is good seeing myself in something that took place that long ago at the age that I am there and realizing how good I was,” Cavett tells me with a laugh. “And I really mean it. I’m often amazed.”
Cavett shouldn’t be amazed, of course, because he was very, very good. It’s why the late critic Clive James wrote, “Cavett ruled as the small screen’s most sophisticated talk show host from the early 1970s onward.”
When I was coming of age, Cavett’s show provided a nightly glimpse of a world where greatly talented performers, writers, comics, and journalists actually spoke to one another. Those impromptu exchanges—which I think of as a performed version of sophisticated conversation—were a large part of the show’s allure.
I remember one show with the unlikely mix of Muhammad Ali, Edward Albee, George Carlin, and Jon Voight (many years before Voight’s freaky infatuation with Donald Trump). Even more memorable, of course, were Cavett’s conversations with Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Richard Burton, and many others, which can still provide a riveting night of viewing thanks to YouTube. And few scripted dramas match the spectacle of Norman Mailer exchanging insults—and almost fisticuffs—with Gore Vidal as Cavett took on the role of an extremely witty referee. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange once told me, “In New York in those days you had to get home by 11:30 to see who Cavett had on his show.”
Zooming with Cavett last weekend, I mentioned that I recently watched an episode of his ABC show on YouTube featuring Bette Davis and the British director/neurologist/comedian Jonathan Miller discussing method acting.
“I have got to find this,” Cavett tells me. “You’ve made my coming day.”
Talk of Bette Davis leads to a question I’ve always wanted to ask: If he had a choice of having a drink with Davis or another Hollywood grande dame Katharine Hepburn—who granted Cavett her first-ever TV interview in 1973—who would he choose?
“Oh my God, that would be tough, each has her own particular rewards,” Cavett says. “I think I’d be more comfortable with Bette Davis. I got along fine with Hepburn. But Davis had something that made her a little more accessible.”
Accessible enough that Cavett once asked Davis on the air how she lost her virginity, and after the audience’s laughter settled down, Davis proceeded to tell the story.
“That was a wonderful moment. But I felt so comfortable with her, and probably would not have asked that question to, uhm, Mrs. Lyndon Johnson,” Cavett says, adding under his breath, “If in fact she did.”
I always found Hepburn to be a bit too autocratic, I told Cavett.
“‘Tis true, ’tis a pity. Yeah. Somebody said about her—it might even have been Garson Kanin—that she’s a wonderful woman and everybody knows how great she is and so on, and the one thing about her is you feel that she stands for something, though you have no idea what it is. But she gives that impression.”
Next, I ask another question I’ve long wondered about: Why did all those rock and roll stars—Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, David Bowie, George Harrison, et al.—come on Cavett’s show when Cavett himself was by no means a devotee of their music?
“Sometimes I wonder how that happened,” he says. “I didn’t give a damn about rock music, and yet I hit it off with them.”
Cavett’s sessions with Joplin were particularly compelling. During one show, she announced that she would soon be heading to her high school reunion—with a vengeance.
“I can never forget the line,” Cavett says, quoting Joplin’s words. “‘They ran me out of school, out of town; those people ran me out of the state, and I’m going back.’ And the audience knew exactly how to respond to that.”
Cavett’s rock star guests went a long way to making his show the hip version of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, where Cavett worked as a writer early in his career.
“I always really liked Johnny, and he came to like me,” Cavett recalls.
How would Cavett define Carson’s nervous, electric energy—that quality that made him so compellingly watchable on the air?
“He was uneasy. He felt he wasn’t intelligent enough. That’s for sure. And he had a way of stating something and saying, ‘Sometimes…” Qualifying a little bit, almost as if saying, ‘If I’m wrong about this…’ And to me that was a giveaway of a feeling about him that I always limit. I always wanted to make him feel better than he did, and God knows he had plenty of triumphs and success. But there was that sense of…I’m trying to avoid using the word inferiority in his case.”
But getting back to Groucho Marx…
Cavett’s reverence for Groucho is boundless. “If Groucho had never existed,” he once said, “we would feel a lack in the world of comedy like that planet in the solar system that astronomers say ought to be there.”
Cavett’s friendship with Groucho famously began at the funeral of the writer George S. Kaufman. Cavett introduced himself afterwards and the two walked down Fifth Avenue as Groucho “insulted doormen” along the way. Where did that Marxian impulse to throw the first verbal punch come from?
“It was a great part of his style, of course,” Cavett says. “Some of the things were harmlessly so, and some would shock the humorless, and some probably would shock the humorous.”
The wordplay at the end of Cavett’s remark is typical of his conversational style, and it leads Cavett into one of his many favorite Groucho anecdotes—a story that Groucho misquoted when he told it on the air.
“Groucho runs into a priest on an elevator,” Cavett explains. “And the priest says, ‘My mother’s a great fan of yours,’ and Groucho says, ‘I didn’t know you fellows were allowed to have mothers.’ But on the air Groucho said, ‘I didn’t know you fellows had mothers,’ and it got just as big a laugh because of the active ingredients of the Groucho voice, the Groucho presence that could almost make you laugh at anything.”
The American Masters episode is full of these memorable Groucho lines, but I’ll just mention one more. After Groucho introduces his wife and a daughter who are sitting in the front row of the Cavett show audience he says, “You wouldn’t think that with a family like that that I would cheat.”
It’s clear what drew Cavett to Groucho, but why did the aging comic take to the young Yale man who approached him after a funeral service?
“I don’t know,” Cavett says, “I hate to say he admired education, but the fact that he had a friend who went to Yale probably meant something, and he kind of liked the way I talked.”
Groucho was an old man at the time of his appearances with Cavett, so I asked if the young Cavett worried about how well his old friend would do on the air.
“I think I probably did in a way because I was afraid that many of the people in the audience were too young to know who he was. But I don’t think I ever worried about how he’d go over with just about anybody. I’m trying to imagine what sort of person would say, ‘I can’t stand Groucho Marx,’ except possibly his former wives and unfortunately two of his children.” As for Groucho at his worst—when he was, for example, being awful to a niece who had given Groucho a birthday present of ties that Groucho didn’t like—Cavett says, “You hate to think of him doing anything like that. “
I can think of no such moments with Cavett. He never said an angry word to me, although I do recall a few examples of him being extremely pissed off.
The occasion that comes immediately to mind involves a confrontation with a network executive. Afterwards, Cavett asked me what the executive wanted. “Just patronize him,” I told Cavett. “If you stick your head in his office every six months and ask him how you’re doing and then have lunch with him once a year, the problem will go away.”
But I knew Cavett would never do that. He was encumbered by his unshakeable integrity, and perhaps that incorruptible quality, along with Cavett’s intelligence, keen sense of irony, and irreverence, are what drew Groucho and Cavett together.
They also shared a deep distrust of authority, which brings us to Richard Nixon.
Cavett had plenty of reasons to dislike Nixon. Cavett’s opposition to the SST—or supersonic transport—helped put Cavett on Nixon’s “Enemies List.” Anyone with access to the internet can hear Nixon ask his chief of staff HR Haldeman, if there’s any way they can “screw” Cavett.
Elsewhere, the Nixon tapes reveal the President of the United States asking an aide, “What is Cavett—a Jew?” This inspired Cavett to later say, “I always feel sorry for Nixon because he died without knowing whether I’m Jewish.”
On Zoom Cavett recalled running into Nixon in Montauk, “this dark figure like an old sea bird sitting staring out to sea.” This prompts me to ask who Cavett loathes more—Nixon or Trump?
“That’s sort of like the difference between liking Clark Gable and liking Hitler,” he says. “The contrast is so great that I can almost say Nixon wasn’t that bad at all. Nixon comes off well by comparison. Smarter—by a lot.”
So is Cavett optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?
“I’m amazed at how much is wrong, how many dumb people there are, how many wrong-headed people there are.” Speaking of Americans of his generation—and mine, for that matter—Cavett put it this way: “Somebody said we’re suffering from knowing what America was—and it certainly isn’t that now.”
And finally, I ask my old boss—my old friend—how he’s been coping with the pandemic.
“I wish we’d done without it,” he says. “I’m not afraid to say that.”
Hearing that droll answer, that dry wit, I can’t help but think that America was a better place when Dick Cavett was on the air five nights a week.