Dick Cavett celebrates career of soliciting opinions, giving his own

Written By By BILL ZWECKER Columnist Posted: 06/18/2014, 10:57am
Array Dick Cavett and Alfred Hitchcock.

Spend a little time talking to Dick Cavett and it quickly becomes evident that the former talk show host continues to be interested in — and fascinated by — as wide a range of interests as ever.

When he called from his New York home recently, it almost felt as if the Nebraska native was still on the set of his self-titled chatfest, delving into topics ranging from the latest popular culture phenomenon to the political news of the day to how he could have possibly missed being aware of reality TV star Honey Boo Boo.

As to the latter, Cavett’s infamous penchant for bluntness was extremely evident.

Picking up on questions about his opinion on reality TV, Cavett softly snarled, “Oh my God yes. You’ve brought that up at just the right time. I just had my first shocking dose of the Boo Boo monster — and her appealing mother,” making clear “appealing” was his sarcastic way of implying “disgusting.”

“I just couldn’t believe my eyes or ears.”

The supporters of the Museum of Broadcast Communications likely will be treated to a good deal of the sharp-edged Cavett wit when he’s in Chicago on Saturday to be honored for his remarkable career at a gala being held at the museum’s home at 360 N. State.

The 77-year-old writer and comedian turned talk-show host joins an illustrious group of previous honorees, including Steve Allen, Mike Wallace, Hugh Downs, Betty White, Paul Harvey, Larry King, Irv Kupcinet, Bill Kurtis, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, Warner Saunders and Arthur C. Nielsen Jr.

Asked about the upcoming event, Cavett quipped, “I don’t get honored very often, so I won’t know how to behave.”

Known for his many years of gently probing celebrity guests, politicians and intellectuals dating back to the 1960s, he arrives at a volatile time in TV’s late-night hours after the retirement of Jay Leno and the announcement of David Letterman’s pending departure.

At first Cavett was reluctant to weigh in. “Since I know all of them, it’s a little difficult to talk about whom I like and don’t like. By talking about the ones I like, it will seem to make the omissions pretty obvious,” said Cavett with a laugh.

That said, he did loosen up a bit and admit that while he’s “not a fanatical talk-show watcher, I do like to keep up with [Stephen] Colbert and [Jon] Stewart, and what they do, because I too get much of my news from them.” And he catches Jimmy Fallon “because his talent is so varied and so wide.”

Looking back to an seminal comedian of an earlier era, Cavett was reminded of something Mort Sahl said about a trend he sensed “way back in the ’70s, if not the ’60s.

“He predicted that some 20 years of so from now, everyone in America would have his own talk show, and it’s almost come to that,” said Cavett with a big laugh. “It’s hardly an honor anymore. … Just think of it. Think of how much of a seer Sahl was — saying that way before we even dreamed of anything like the Internet or social media or YouTube.”

The long list of historically important celebrities Dick Cavett not only interviewed but would come to cherish as dear friends is almost overwhelming, from Groucho Marx to Lucille Ball to Katharine Hepburn to Marlon Brando to Fred Astaire to Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

How would Cavett rate today’s crop of famous faces who grace the weekly covers of celebrity magazines or are seasoned veterans on today’s talk show merry-go-round?

“I’m not one who always mourns yesterday’s loss,” said Cavett with a deep, deep sigh. “But you look at that list of the names you just listed and I have to say, do we really have people of that size, of that stature, today?

“Of course, it’s not that we don’t have great actors like Meryl Streep. There are plenty of people around. But on so many days, I just feel like I’m looking at the giant redwood forest of past stars and today’s group mostly looks like a bunch of saplings.”

Considering that Cavett spent many years as a performer himself — even doing magic, “just like Johnny Carson, my fellow Nebraskan” — he thinks that was a big help when it came to honing his skills as a talk show host.

“I think it probably did because I could identify with performers who liked to get up in front of people and get a laugh.”

Cavett didn’t hesitate a second when asked who coveted as a guest and never got. “Sinatra and Cary Grant. Don’t know about Frank, but as for Cary Grant, I should have pressed harder. I think I would have eventually got him.”

Too late, Cavett learned matinee idol was going around the country presenting “those evenings with Cary Grant. If I had known, I would have gone to one of those out-of-the-way places where he did them and grabbed him.

“Of course, I hope I wouldn’t have gone to Waterloo, Iowa. That’s where he died after doing one of those programs.

“Davenport, Iowa. Of all places for Cary Grant to die.”

Proving he is not afraid of stirring controversy, even as he approaches 80, Cavett clearly gets a bit of evil pleasure recalling his quote when asked about the death of David Frost: “Why is it never Dick Cheney?”

Still, it’s simply a matter a time when the former vice president — like everyone — will pass on.

“I just hope we’re around,” said Cavett curtly, clearly not concerned about ever making it on the Cheneys’ Christmas card list.

Email: bzwecker@suntimes.com

Twitter: @billzwecker

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