SXSW 2018 Interview: Dick Cavett on ALI & CAVETT: THE TALE OF THE TAPES
What can be said about a career as full as talk show host, Dick Cavett's? A start would be to describe what it was not. Unlike the Carsons turned Lenos turned Fallons who held respective reigns over the late night airwaves, Cavett, though also a comedian, hosted shows with a unique degree of class in his free flowing exchange of ideas with his varied guests.
Cavett hosted conversations with a wide range of talent, but unlike other talk show hosts, these discussions contained a singular blend of entertainment and substance. In short, Cavett's skills consisted of an ability to engage his guests in a way that was conducive to the richest levels of communication.
Among Cavett's many gifts, if not his most important, was his ability to strike a rapport with those who'd grace his guest seats. And for all the countless wonderful people who'd do just that, few, if any, resulted in rapport richer than his onscreen relationship with the great Muhammad Ali. Over the years, Ali appeared on Cavett's show a whopping 14 times, and to watch these tapes in succession, a comprehensive picture is formed, not just of a relationship that played out before millions, but one could say, of the entire Muhammad Ali story, from his early days as an up-and-coming contender to the honor of torch bearing the 1996 Olympics, while battling Parkinson's disease.
Ali and Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes chronicles this incredible and biographic relationship from beginning to end in a fashion that honors both heroes. Above all, it depicts what these two great talents meant to one another, resulting in a touching account of a professionally personal relationship, of showmanship, and most importantly, of friendship.
It's a thorough film that Mr. Cavett was good enough to expound upon for me at SXSW during a conversation I won't soon forget. I wonder how it felt for Cavett to be on the receiving end for a change. In any case, it went like this:
One of the things I've always appreciated about your show is just the vast array of people you've hosted.
Dick Cavett: When I look at my guest list these days I'm stunned. Especially to remember the ones I could swear I never met.
From Vonnegut to Gloria Swanson, to Bette Davis, Groucho, Benny, Lennon, Joplin, and on... It's an endless list...
It's really an array.
It is. What was your- not to use the term mission statement, but what did you intend for The Dick Cavett Show?
I never intended jack shit for it. All I wanted was to know - hope - that when the day comes, when I'm in charge of 90 minutes of television without the slightest idea how to do it I shudder, my only intent was to get through the show, get a reasonable amount of laughs and last for at least six weeks, and I think I did.
Ali was the first guest, but did you have an idea of the type of guests that you would want to facilitate?
I didn't have a thought in my head. I had a thought free head. All I knew was the date is coming I gotta do this. It must be what I always wanted though it isn't. Couldn't pick specifically. I thought I had made it when I was a writer for Jack Paar and for Johnny Carson and that, that was all anybody could ever ask for. And then I got to write for Jerry Lewis and Merv Griffin, and that, that was more than I had anticipated. Other than that, I preferred to let other people book the show because I could always think of some reason I didn't want to, whoever it was, from the President to Danny Kaye to Elmer Brisby, the ant expert, who was on my first week....
Did you have a reason for not wanting Muhammad Ali on the show?
Never. No, of course not. I never thought I'd meet him. I met him actually back in my writing days with Jerry Lewis. And got to - not to know him at all - I got to meet him then. And thought, "Well, I've met Ali now. Probably never see him again. And then 14 shows later...
I'm sure this isn't something you've put a terrible amount of thought into, but I'm wondering how would you attribute your success of being able to speak to anybody? The level of communication you were able to achieve on the show...
I was sort of hoping you could tell me (laughter). Yes, I have tried to analyze that because I've been asked about it. And I think often people have an impression of me that is not true, that I'm rather thoughtful and perhaps well organized and full of intellectual inquiry. None of which could be farther from the fact. By the way, when you get into television, don't let them hang the label, intellectual, on you. You have to fight it the rest of your life.
Is that so?
Maybe the label I would give you is 'likable'.
Likable, yeah. That I never worried about. It's funny, I never thought of myself as particularly likable. And I was always surprised when people would say - and even now, will still say, "I just loved you," or "I just love you." And I have to say, "Have we met?"
Look no further than the response of your guests.
I think I was tolerable, but I never thought of myself as especially likable.
Ali was not the only return guest. A lot of people were, maybe not mainstays, but-
Yeah, I think he was there the most times of anybody - about 14 times. And we became such good friends, good buddies and liked to hang out and laugh together. He stayed at my house overnight. He was doing a documentary out there and they were having a hard time with him. And I just happened by, and I happened by where they were shooting, which was about 200 yards from my house up a dirt road as part of the... what looks like the Witness Protection Program. He said, "My mother would never believe I stayed in Dick Cavett's house." That always made me laugh, but he did. I took him up and put him in the big bed. It was getting dark and I went to the motel to get his wife and bring her over, and did. But while I was gone the phone had rung. Oh, this story's in the documentary, I think.
Yeah, this is my version. There are several versions. The phone had rung. Ali had picked it up and said, "Hello." And my wife in New York had said, "Darling?" And Ali said, "This ain't darling. It's only three time heavyweight champion of the world and I'm lying in your bed and I'm watching your TV." Luckily, she was hip enough to say, "Well, Mr. Ali, I'm so honored, and I will put a plaque on that bed." Which is more than she ever offered to do for me. I should've said that like Groucho Marx. But, yeah, we were friends in various places and for a long time. I often think of the very last time when he was on a throne at a big evening in New York where they opened a curtain as a surprise in a big ballroom. It was the Norman Mailer Writer's Prize Evening and so a lot of the literary world were there.
And this kind of draped box was up there. Suddenly, they whipped the curtain and there sat Ali in dark glasses and dark suit beautifully dressed and regal looking. Wow. He was virtually paralyzed, could not speak. I made a point of seeing him backstage where we could be alone for a minute sitting on a bench, he was sitting, waiting to be taken out to his table and I think he made a reaction to my name. You couldn't be sure. He was looking straight ahead always and virtually not there. That was sad in comparison to how I'd always known him.
I'm sure this film jogged all sorts of memories of your entire relationship, but I'm wondering even before the film and watching it, what are one or two of the memories that you personally will always go to? Do you have memories from that first show that resonates?
Partly, that. That was a show that the network behaved very much like a great network, they decided not to air it because the chicken dribbles said, "Nobody gives a shit what ... " I'm trying to remember the name of the Vice President. Anyway,'nobody wants to know what Ali and... Gore Vidal(!) have to say about Vietnam.' I remember saying, "Are you gonna always be chicken shit like this?" And he was quite startled, the network man. And I just thought,'I don't want to do this then if that's the way they are.' This was a good show. It played well. The laughs were big and the applause was big. I gather you know this, but I had to tape another show that they would approve. A Harmless one. And the reviews were generally good for that one, which played as the first show. Then the real first show played with Ali and Gore Vidal. The reviews were, "Now, the show has really hit its stride. This is what television needs." I never heard anything from the network people.
How did you feel when you were approached by Robert S. Bader to rehash this entire lifelong relationship in THE TALE OF THE TAPES?
Yeah, he really did that having read two blogs I had written in The New York Times about my friendship with Ali. People had said, "You've got to write about it." And he's been involved with my tapes for years. And he thought, "Geez, there's a lot of them. I wonder how many more." And he found some more, and he was able to envision an arc of Ali's life from back in the dark days and Elijah Mohammed and all the black Muslims, making his life a perilous entrée into the big time. I micro managed to escape all that and not receive deadly enemies. He's such a brilliant smart man, and so instinctively perfect with everything, with all the skills of a great performer. His timing was perfect, his imitations were perfect, his choice of words was always perfect. What to repeat if it needed it. Everything a good talk show host- and it usually happens in a huge celebrity comedian like Bob Hope, or somebody: Ali had ahold of his skill. A great combination.
Absolutely. He sure had a natural sense of showmanship. And you may reject the term, intellectual, or whatever, but nobody would accuse you of not speaking your mind. So with all that Nation of Islam stuff, you were right there to express your feelings on the matter. You weren't one to let a friend off the hook.
Yeah, I got really worried. I could see the danger that he was seemingly possessed by this. When he would do some of the minister's thoughts. People would denounce him, of course. And then when he didn't enter the draft because of his religion... Yeah, that got a lot of rednecks sore at him, of course, and we as a country have always had an ample supply of those as you know.
He made the transition. He became, and this is a fact not an opinion, the most famous person in the world. Some guy at Time magazine, I think it was, decided to test that, and they put together 16 photographs of the most famous faces everybody knows including Mickey Mouse, and the President of the United States, and Jackie Onassis, and Joe Louis, and Judy Garland, everyone iconic of that time. There was hardly anyone who didn't know him. Sometimes, they took one into the the jungle or somewhere and it's said a Vanuatu tribesman looked absolutely puzzled at these photos. He'd never seen photos before, and he was just looking and went, "Ali."
Oh, that's wonderful. All right, well, one more if you don't mind before I let you get on your merry way. Now that the film is finished, what is it like watching your entire relationship capsulized in 95 minutes?
Well, truth be told, I've only seen it once, and I'll be glad to see it again tonight. But it is sentimental for me and also very entertaining because it's entertaining. People will laugh their way through it in the right places, we hope. So I like watching it and will probably watch it once a day for the next five years.