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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Still chatting it up

Dick Cavett's smart, witty interviews are back, on TCM and DVD.

September 03, 2006|Susan King

JOHNNY CARSON and "The Tonight Show" may have gotten the big late-night ratings, but in the late 1960s and early '70s it was ABC's erudite "The Dick Cavett Show" that drew the hip, the cool and the crazy.

That's because the Yale-educated Cavett, now 69, managed to attract a roster of guest celebrities, musicians, writers and politicians who generally refrained from doing chat shows. Katharine Hepburn appeared, and Laurence Olivier. But Cavett, a talent coordinator and writer for "The Tonight Show" under both Jack Paar and Carson, was in his element interviewing comedians such as Groucho Marx -- who once proposed marriage to fellow guest Truman Capote -- and Woody Allen.

Over the last year, Shout! Factory has released several episodes of Cavett's series, and the latest, featuring interviews with some very famous stars and directors, arrives Sept. 12. Turner Classic Movies is also welcoming Cavett: Throughout this month and October, the cable network will air episodes from the series with new introductions by Cavett, accompanied by films showcasing the subjects. Cavett's 1971 interview with Woody Allen airs Sept. 14; his 1971 visit with Robert Mitchum on Sept. 21; and his 1972 talk with Alfred Hitchcock on Sept. 28. Kicking off the Cavett interviews on Thursday is his hourlong chat with Mel Brooks, taped this year in Hollywood.

*

You did a lot of comedy, talk and variety shows before you got your own show.

I was the youngest person on a dais [of a roast] and I interrupted Milton Berle. I said, "Excuse me, Mr. Berle. Are we allowed to ad-lib with you?" Which triggered a favorite of his: "You want to ad-lib with me, I'll check my brains and we'll start even." I said, "Where would you find a small enough check room?"

He runs around to where I am and looks down as if I had a pad of paper and says, "You had that written down." He had already lost the battle and he knew it. The laugh went on to the next commercial break.

*

Your new chat with Mel Brooks seemed like old times.

Does that play well? I haven't seen it. It was hilarious when taped.

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How did the Turner Classic Movies thing come about? Was it because of the DVD releases of your show?

I really don't know whose brainchild it was. I don't know who the suspects are. I don't think anyone with me was clever enough to initiate it. But it seems like an ideal thing, seeing somebody informal and then being reminded how they act in the movies.

*

Your show stirred up a lot of controversy, like the time Lily Tomlin and Chad Everett were guests. He was such a male chauvinist pig that Tomlin walked off.

Some people didn't get it [that she walked off]. I had two walkouts: Lily -- though I wish she had stayed there and fought with him -- and the notorious Lester Maddox.

*

You also had interesting pairings on the show, like the time you had Janis Joplin, who would always wear like a feathered boa in her hair, with the very prim and coiffed Gloria Swanson.

I took [Joplin] to Sardi's restaurant. It was amazing. We stepped in and somebody saw her and elbowed the person next to her. As you looked around the room it was like a lot of still frames, freeze shots. People with soup spoons halfway to their mouths just froze. We played it like there was nothing unusual.

*

On the new Brooks interview you talk about how you had to woo Hepburn to do your show.

I got to go to her place, but first there was a phone conversation and we talked quite a while. The one thing I never thought to ask her was, "Have you heard of me or seen me before?" It was very pleasant going through her house. I wasn't sure she was going to do it then. Then came the dreaded line ... "Let's see what happens. If it's no good, we can always burn the tapes."

*

I think the best shows you did were with Groucho Marx, who was so sharp and funny. How did you two ever meet?

At [playwright] George S. Kaufman's funeral in New York.

*

You just went over and introduced yourself?

Yeah. I had met Woody Allen the night before, sent by "The Tonight Show" to the Blue Angel to see this kid who wrote for Sid Caesar at 17 who was doing a night club act. I said, I have got to know this guy. And we met and talked in the lounge and then we both started the same sentence simultaneously: "Too bad about Kaufman."

We both agreed to go to the funeral. He didn't and I did. There was an overflow crowd. And I said to myself, that is Groucho Marx sitting six feet from me. I followed him to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 81st Street. Groucho was there alone and I introduced myself and said, "I'm a big fan." He said, "If it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan."

That was the beginning of our relationship.

*

Do you think you'll do more interviews for TCM?

I'd be happy to do that. It has certainly got me in the mood again.

*

Talk shows are so different now than they were 30 years ago.

A theme in the reviews of the DVDs is that they say nothing happens in these shows that could happen today. You can watch an entire show and nothing is plugged. No one is coming on selling their latest movie, car or toothpaste. Jack Paar told me, "Kid, don't ever do an interview -- make it a conversation." And he was right.

-- Susan King

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