From 1962 to 1992, Johnny Carson was the reigning Lord of Late Night. But though the host of The Tonight Show was far more popular than any competitor, an upstart (and former Tonight Show writer) named Dick Cavett carved out a sizable niche for himself in the late '60s and '70s.
At the time, a shooting war (Vietnam) and a culture war split America into two camps. Carson, despite his undeniable charm, was old-guard establishment while Cavett was the hip, intelligent, vaguely countercultural alternative.
As a result, a lot of people popped up on The Dick Cavett Show who'd never plant their famous butts on Carson's couch. Some were perhaps too cerebral or politically inflammatory for Johnny. Others just didn't do talk shows ' except Cavett's. Sometimes Cavett would attempt the most un-Carson-like feat of booking a guest for an in-depth interview that would span an entire program.
Collected as The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats are four new DVDs that feature early-'70s interviews with Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Groucho Marx (with Debbie Reynolds), Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, as well as talks with directors Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston, plus a multiple movie-centric chat with Mel Brooks, Robert Altman, Frank Capra and Peter Bogdanovich.
Conversation ' real conversation, with the ring of confession ' is the hallmark of this collection, which reminds me how far today's talk shows have come from Cavett's program. Letterman, Leno and their late-night brethren typically offer up comedy schtick with a couple of quick segments of over-prepared, plug-heavy repartee. The Cavett shows collected here go in for plugs, too, but those are brief. For the most part, what these productions present are engrossing and unscripted discussions about film, politics and, well, life.
My favorite conversation is the two-part interview with Hepburn, who showed up at Cavett's ABC studio merely to inspect the premises and decided, on the spot, to tape the shows that very day. Watching her, I couldn't quite shake the echoes of Martin Short's devastating impression. Even so, I had to admire her good humor, feistiness and shrewdly self-aware observations.
'I think the reason people have an affection for me now is that, in a kind of way, I must have lived a life that a lot of women think would be a nice life to have lived,â?� says the then 60-something icon. 'They think it's dignified, but they think it's free.â?�
With Hepburn and the others, Cavett is a modest presence, an elf with a deep, crackly voice, who injects just enough of himself into these encounters to be amusing. (In the late '70s and early '80s, when he hosted a PBS show, he unfortunately became something of a self-serving gasbag.)
Cavett's conversation here is not only witty in itself, but the cause of wit in others. Asked how he cleans his famous dimple, Douglas replies, 'Is nothing sacred?â?� Questioned about the secret of his 30-year marriage, Mitchum takes a beat before responding, 'Deviousness, I should think.â?� On the subject of movie stars in general, Hitchcock observes, 'Walt Disney had the right idea. If he didn't like the actors, he tore them up.â?� And on the subject of Jerry Lewis in particular, Welles minces no words:
'He really has a way of coming on as a great thinker ' which should be stopped.â?�
Groucho and Brooks, of course, are constantly funny, while Davis tells the shocking tale of how, as a young contract player, she was used by her studio to evaluate the amorous aptitudes of 15 actors in a single day. Astaire doesn't have much to say, but his singing and dancing make for one of the most purely entertaining shows in the collection. I'm sorry to report that the most disappointing interview here is the one with Brando, a peerless actor but a mediocre guest. He refuses to answer most questions and, for much of the time, adopts a superior attitude as he shares, in mind-numbing detail, his Deep Thoughts about the plight of Native Americans, some of whom join him onstage.
'Anyone can be a bore,â?� says Hepburn in one of many confessional moments. 'This is the sad truth.â?� But on The Dick Cavett Show, the happier truth is that very few guests actually were.