Cavett, Richard Alva ("Dick")

views updated

CAVETT, Richard Alva ("Dick")

(b. 19 November 1936 in Gibbon, Nebraska), comedian and writer who, beginning in the late 1960s, was a prominent talk show host known for his acerbic wit and droll manner and for his literate and provocative guests.

Cavett, the only child of Alva B. Cavett and Eva Richards, both schoolteachers, grew up in Gibbon and then in nearby Grand Island, Nebraska. His mother died when he was ten; later, his father remarried another schoolteacher and moved the family to Lincoln. As a child, Cavett wanted to be a comedian, and his childhood heroes included Stan Laurel, Groucho Marx, and Fred Allen. He also greatly appreciated the style and grace of Fred Astaire.

While attending Lincoln High School he excelled in gymnastics and acted, along with his classmate Sandy Dennis, in school plays as well as in local stock productions. Like his later rival, talk show host Johnny Carson, Cavett performed magic shows interspersed with comic gags. If Carson could not perform in his hometown of Omaha, Cavett was booked as a replacement.

Cavett attended Yale University on a scholarship. At first majoring in English literature, he switched to drama his senior year, and frequented New Haven's Schubert Theatre, ingratiating himself with show business people, including Moss Hart and Basil Rathbone. On weekends he went to New York City, where he met and became friends with Fred Allen and Groucho Marx. After graduating from Yale in 1958 with a B.A. degree, Cavett did summer stock theater and then moved to New York. Because he could not support himself with occasional bit parts on television, he worked as a copyboy at Time magazine.

While working at Time, Cavett discovered that the talk show host Jack Paar spent his entire day worrying about his nightly opening monologue. Cavett wrote two pages of comic material. When he delivered it, he had the good fortune to bump into Paar himself, who used the material that night. Soon afterward Cavett was hired as a regular staff writer for Paar.

Back in 1954, Steve Allen had looked into a television camera and said, "First the good news … this show is going on forever." Allen, as the first host of a national night-owl talk show (1954–1957), was poking fun at a new format that has now become a fixture in broadcasting. Allen's successor at The Tonight Show was Paar, who abandoned Allen's sketch comedy and variety show format for the now standard opening of an urbane monologue followed by a sofa-and-desk routine in which a supporting sidekick and guests talked. Paar left the show in 1962, but Cavett remained on the staff, writing for interim hosts like Groucho Marx. He left to write briefly for Jerry Lewis, then returned to write for Johnny Carson, who became the long-time permanent host (1962–1992).

Encouraged by Woody Allen to move from writing comedy to performing, as he himself had done, Cavett left The Tonight Show in 1964 and started a stand-up comedy act. He appeared in coffeehouses and nightclubs, including the Bitter End, the hungry i, and the Blue Angel. He also appeared regularly on television panel shows like What's My Line?, and on radio. In 1967 Cavett and Yale classmate Tony Converse successfully packaged a talk show for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) that placed Cavett in a morning slot ordinarily occupied by a soap opera.

For his first talk show, Cavett deliberately chose guests who ordinarily never chatted on television, such as the design engineer Buckminster Fuller. The actress Patricia Neal detailed her struggle learning to talk again after a stroke. "He has the virtue of being a good listener," noted critic Jack Gould, "before phrasing his next inquiry." Instead of watching a soap opera, viewers could enjoy the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg debating the philosopher Paul Weiss or the liberal folk singer Joan Baez confronting the conservative hawk Louis Nizer about the Vietnam War. Cavett's show won an Emmy for outstanding daytime programming but was canceled due to low ratings.

In 1969 Carson's Tonight Show had two rivals. Many Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) affiliates ran the syndicated talk show hosted by Merv Griffin, on which Cavett had made his television debut as a stand-up comedian in 1964. ABC's nighttime talk show slot was hosted by the Rat Pack comic Joey Bishop. Bishop's show had dreadfully low ratings. In fact, over forty affiliates dropped it and ran old movies instead. ABC management had been impressed by Cavett's low-key, conversational style and realized his alternative roster of guests was unsuitable for daytime fare. Cavett replaced Bishop, resulting in an immediate bounce in the network's ratings. In fact, the show's audience increased almost 50 percent in the top five markets.

The Dick Cavett Show continued its host's earlier approach of focusing beyond the usual starlets, comics, and singers who were the common fare of nightly chat. Critics again praised his lineup of showbiz luminaries (Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Noel Coward), authors (Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller), and other personalities (the psychologist B. F. Skinner, the Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, and the conservative politician Barry Goldwater). A New York Times column by the critic Christopher Porterfield ran under the headline "O.K., You Folks Who Don't Watch TV, Cavett's Back."

Although columnists like Earl Wilson urged him to "dumb it up," Cavett remained dedicated to hosting literate and mesmerizing combinations (the actress Raquel Welch with the author Truman Capote) or a single guest for an entire show (the actor-director Orson Welles or the dancer Fred Astaire). ABC's new show was considered a class act, and Cavett's ratings were competitive with Carson and Griffin in urban markets. He won a second Emmy in 1972.

Cavett was willing to deal with controversial issues and became, on occasion, a target of political pressure. For instance, he was blamed for the Senate defeat of federal support of Boeing's supersonic transport because various guests had opposed it. Yet Cavett gave a Boeing spokesman more than equal time to defend the company. ABC blocked an appearance by the radical African American Angela Davis, and a show about censorship was itself censored.

Even though Cavett's show had a large and loyal audience, ABC cut it to two nights and then dropped it in 1974 because of less-than-satisfactory ratings. After that Cavett did occasional primetime interview specials, a Broadway play (Otherwise Engaged), and talk shows on public and cable outlets. He married actress Carrie Nye in 1964; they live in New York City and Montauk Point, Long Island.

Cavett's wry and sophisticated manner made for not just thinking-people's television but for a highly entertaining and overdue corrective to the usual fare of a talk show.

Cavett wrote two memoirs with Christopher Porterfield: Cavett (1974) and Eye on Cavett (1983). See also Jack Gould, "TV: Dick Cavett Offers Housewives Second Coffee," New York Times (5 Mar. 1968); Nora Ephron, "Dick Cavett Reads Books," New York Times (2 June 1968); and Christopher Porterfield, "O.K., You Folks Who Don't Watch TV, Cavett's Back," New York Times (28 Dec. 1969).

Patrick S. Smith