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Cavett's Conversations: 'When People Simply Talk'

Nov 9, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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Dick Cavett poses in his New York office in 1978.

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Dick Cavett wasn't your typical late-night talk show host — he quoted Shakespeare and Graham Greene, he knew his Bernstein from his Gershwin, and he landed guests who never went on TV. Once on The Dick Cavett Show, those guests sometimes gave him a hard time.

"You keep interrupting the long story of my life," Katharine Hepburn told Cavett during a 1973 interview. "If you'd just shut up ..."

"I kicked her under the table," Cavett recalls with a laugh.

Guests on Cavett's 1970s show included John Lennon, Richard Nixon and Groucho Marx. And he let them talk. Cavett, now 74, looks back on it all in his new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.

Cavett got his start writing for the big TV guys of his day — Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin. Before Cavett launched his own show, Paar gave him some great advice: "Kid, don't come out and do interviews — that's dull," the veteran TV host told him. "That smacks of clipboards, and 'What's your favorite color?' That's junk. Just make it a conversation."

And that's exactly what Cavett did. TV-shy movie stars conversed with Cavett as if over the kitchen table.

Hepburn hemmed and hawed about coming on Cavett's show, but in 1973, she agreed to stop by "just to take a look at the set." Once there, Cavett recalls, Hepburn suddenly decided to take the plunge. At age 66, it was her first television appearance.

"I saw her left cheek twitch a little," Cavett says, "and realized this woman — this woman with the guts of all time is nervous. That utterly relaxed me because all I could think of was: I have to help this poor kid get through the next couple of hours."

Cavett writes about his conversations with Hepburn, Olivier, Redford and Reagan. In 1971, he asked Bette Davis how she — unlike Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland — had managed to avoid being "victimized" by her career.

"It takes great discipline," she answered frankly. "I think I was very fortunate in my upbringing. I think my New England background ... was an extraordinary stabilizer."

Tough, strong woman like Davis and Hepburn just opened up to Cavett. Not only was he bright and engaging, but he was also young — late 30s, though he looked younger — and good looking.

But he was troubled, too. Cavett has been quite open about his struggles with depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety attacks — to the surprise of many of his fans.

Cavett says people ask him, "What do you have to be depressed about?" But he says discussing his bouts with mental illness in public has ultimately been rewarding. "The greatest benefit of depression," he says, "is the fact that when I have talked about it, every so often someone comes up and says, 'You saved my dad's life.' "

It's hard to see hints of depression in the early Cavett. What you do see is the atmosphere he creates for his guests — attentive, respectful and quiet when he needs to be. Nobody's selling anything on the old Cavett shows. Except for Marlon Brando, who appeared with Cavett in 1973 — slim and gorgeous, before the rest of his life happened to him. Brando came on TV with an agenda — he'd appear only if he could speak about the miseries of Native American life. But Brando ended up talking about acting — a profession he'd always ridiculed.

"We couldn't survive a second if we weren't able to act," Brando said. "Acting is a survival mechanism. It's a social unguent and it's a lubricant. We act to save our lives, actually, every day. People lie constantly every day by not saying something that they think, or [by] saying something that they didn't think."

"That's not acting," Cavett countered.

"That is acting," Brando insisted.

Though he remembers Brando's appearance very well, Cavett says he has no memory of "61 percent" of what he did on television. (Luckily for the rest of us, many of his shows are now available on DVD.)  And it's not just that memories have faded with time. Mere minutes after he had recorded a program, he would have trouble recalling it. (He says it once took him 20 minutes to remember that he had just spent 90 minutes interviewing Lucille Ball.)

"The person who does the show is not the one who is home later," Cavett says. "You resume being that person when you get back to the studio and into your clothes and out on the set and into your makeup. They are not necessarily totally connected."

So Cavett was acting, too. In his new book, Cavett defines what he did on TV this way: "Conversation is when people simply talk; not take a test on the air with Q and A. It's when something said spontaneously prompts a thought and a reply in someone else."

He goes on to write, "feel free to pass this on to anyone about to do a talk show."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets
By Dick Cavett
Hardcover, 304 pages
Times Books
List price: $25
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