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Profile : He Who Talks Smart, Often Will Last : DICK CAVETT, ERUDITE JESTER OF THE CHAT-SHOW HOSTS, FINDS HIS STYLE IS STILL APPRECIATED

August 13, 1995|DOUGLAS J. ROWE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Dick Cavett occasionally still gets asked on the street, "Whatever became of you?," as if he hasn't been on the air since 1974, when his highly regarded late-night show ended.

Fact is: Unlike the dinosaur some people think he is, Cavett continues to roam the landscape--even if the movie "Forrest Gump" made him look like nothing more than a long-ago face in a time capsule.

He concedes he would like to have a higher profile than his current weekend talk show on CNBC, "Dick Cavett," affords him. Yet the state of his celebrity has its satisfactions.

"When people on the street say, 'I loved your show last night,' you don't much care where it was," cable or network television, says Cavett, whose voice can be heard these days on AT&T and Marriott commercials.

Those fans clearly appreciate that the 58-year-old Cavett is offering thoughtful one-on-one interviews in an era of screaming walk-ons and paid guests airing every lurid little detail about themselves and each other, sometimes resorting to flying fists and chairs.

But as Cavett sits in the living room of his Upper East Side apartment and tries to talk seriously about serious talk shows, he wildly digresses ("Like being sloppy, I don't like it. I'm not proud of it.") and indulges in another one of his notorious proclivities--name-dropping, beginning with an anecdote about how rarely good friend Woody Allen will go into a Yiddish dialect for comedic effect.

Intermittently, he buckles down to the main thread of the conversation.

He wonders where it's written that the host has to be neutral and proceeds to recall an experience that he says exemplifies "my favorite kind of serious talk on television."

In an interview with a spokesman for a tobacco concern, he complimented the man's talents in arguing his case, then added: "I don't how you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning because, to me, what you do is on a moral plane with pushing drugs on a playground or working at Auschwitz. But you do it well."

Cavett relishes moments like that, "when you get to say what you would be yelling at the screen if you were the viewer." He compares that role to the character in the play who finally says what the audience is thinking, such as "He killed her" or "You liar."

Cavett has always chafed at his intellectual persona, and after all these years, the 1958 Yale graduate with acting ambitions who did stand-up before getting his own show in 1968 still thinks of himself as a performer, not a professional interviewer like Larry King or Charlie Rose.

"I'm always a good guest," he says. "I never know if I'm going to be a good host or not."

He explains that being a host means inhibiting yourself.

"I don't want to intrude on the guest. I want them to talk. And I hate it when the host does all the talking," he says. "When I go on as a guest, I'm utterly liberated. And it isn't just that it isn't my show and I don't care if it goes in the toilet."

He certainly knows what it's like to have a show go in the tank. After a fast start with his 1968 morning show, which got critical acclaim and an Emmy (though few viewers), he eventually succeeded Joey Bishop as ABC's alternative to Johnny Carson.

But as rollicking as his own show could get, with clashes over Vietnam, race, women's liberation and Watergate, it was cut back to one week a month by 1972, and canceled in 1974.

That was followed by an unsuccessful 18 months at CBS, then a four-year run on PBS before relatively brief stints with the USA cable network and again with ABC. He's been on CNBC since 1989.

By now, it's legendary that the turning point in Cavett's life came when he gave a monologue to Jack Paar and the long-ago host of "The Tonight Show" used jokes from it and hired him as a staff writer shortly thereafter.

"I'll always wonder: What if I just stayed an actor? Or just a club comedian?" says Cavett, who appeared briefly in the 1977 Broadway play "Otherwise Engaged" and in 1988's "Into the Woods."

Cavett says he'd like to do a show like the last segment of "This Week With David Brinkley," in which insightful, erudite people give their take on important matters--a show in which viewers are thinking, "I can't wait to see what so-and-so has to say about this. "

Beyond that, he seems quite content--so content he can evenhandedly discuss the deep depression he suffered through a decade ago.

"Whoever said suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem ought to be given a Pulitzer, even if he didn't write it. Because the world is full of ... people who have said, 'My God, I almost killed myself.' And I realize now what I wanted was relief. I wouldn't have been around to experience the relief."

He can even joke about it. Asked if it can throw him into fits of depression when some people think he hasn't been on TV since 1974, he says:

"No, not depression. Violence."

"Dick Cavett" airs Saturdays and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. on CNBC.

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