It’s a description that didn’t go down easy. “I was surprised that they couldn’t find a better word in the thesaurus somewhere,” Dick Cavett says of PBS’ new documentary series, Pioneers of Television, premiering Jan. 2 and airing Wednesdays through Jan. 23. “I pictured us all entering in covered wagons.” The celebrated late-night host is just one of dozens of participants — from Jerry Stiller to Phyllis Diller, Betty White to Dick Van Dyke — in the project, which explores the development of television through interviews and archival footage. A devoted fan of the medium’s early years, Cavett is utterly self-conscious of the project’s title. “If I’m a pioneer,” he asks, rhetorically, “what are Jerry Lester and Dagmar, and Ernie Kovacs, and — God, who all else? Berle, even? They would be Neanderthal, probably, by that scale. Television had been around a while when I got into it.”
Cavett admits to spending most of his childhood “lying on the couch with peanut butter and graham crackers in Lincoln, Neb., watching television every night — and most of Sunday and Saturday.” It obviously was a charmed life, and judging from the ebullient note of reverie in his voice, one that he still feels could not have been better spent. “I got the Golden Age of television, and plenty of time to watch it,” he says. “God, I wonder how many hours I logged in black and white, watching Studio One and Robert Montgomery [Presents] and Kraft Television Theatre, What’s My Line? and Super Circus, and Berle and Show of Shows — the only one I could never miss! I turned down dates — well, possible dates — because I didn’t want to be talking to some girl while Show of Shows was on, on Saturday night!” He pauses momentarily: “I’ve never admitted that.”
Entering show business seemed inevitable for the young Cavett. His early years are peppered with stories of “run-ins” (usually by Cavett’s elaborate designs) with celebrities of his day, from Judy Garland to Jackie Gleason, and many others. “I was aware that [the desire to meet famous people] had a strong hold on me, that I had to be there among these people,” he says, recalling one instance in particular in which opportunity brought a number of stage and film luminaries to Lincoln. “I was in junior high, then. When the Drama Quartet Broadway production [of Mr. Roberts] toured America … this touring reading, so-called, had only Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Sir Cedric Hardwick and Agnes Moorehead. In Lincoln, mind you! At the Coliseum, in the gigantic, Hitlerian-sized basketball court and auditorium that you get at big state universities. I went back and spoke to Laughton beforehand. I had a break — their equipment hadn’t arrived, and they had to hold the curtain for about half an hour. And I can remember to this day, Laughton saying, ‘I hate to keep an audience waiting. I loathe it!’ He sort of said that to me, because I was the only one standing by.
“And when it was over, I shot backstage,” he continues, recalling how he followed the actors out of the auditorium. “I was sweeping across the floor with those four people, hurrying, and all I could think of was, ‘I want to go with them! I don’t want to go back to high school tomorrow morning and sit in a boring history class!’ I was just aflame that evening! … Boy, it was hard going back that day.”
Another instance put the high-school-aged Cavett in touch with the man most people knew as Sherlock Holmes. “Basil Rathbone wrote me a letter after I wrote one to him,” Cavett remembers. It’s obvious he’s told this story many times before, but the eagerness in his voice suggests he’d happily retell it twice. “He was out there to narrate [composer Arthur] Honegger’s ‘King David,’ with a huge, 150-person chorus. That was amazing. It never occurred to me to go to high school that day. I just went down to the university because I knew Rathbone was there and I saw him talk to a class. I hung around with him, and the next day I went to rehearsal and he remembered me from the day before, and it made me just shine. I wrote him a letter later, and I got one back.”
Cavett’s voice grows increasingly tinged with sentimental euphoria as he continues. “Rathbone’s handwriting is classic. It’s beautiful. He’s not British, in fact — he was South African. But I had this letter and very clearly, in the upper left corner, it said, ‘Basil Rathbone, 135 Central Park West, New York, NY.’ No ZIP code, then. Every class I went to that day, I laid it on the corner of my desk, so someone could easily see it. ‘Oh, yeah. I got another letter from Basil,'” he laughs, sardonically. “‘He won’t stop pestering me!'”
He still only partially understands the impulse that led him to chase fame both literally and figuratively, and can only explain the phenomenon that similarly affects many people in the simplest of terms: “I think you want to have a brush with fame. You want to be able to tell your friends at the drive-in in Lincoln, Nebraska, ‘I was talking to Basil Rathbone the other day … ‘” he chuckles. Regardless, it was encounters like his with Rathbone, Laughton and many others — including a memorable meeting with Johnny Carson long before his years on The Tonight Show — that drove Cavett to pursue a career in show business by any means.
His real career started with a semi-successful attempt at becoming an actor. “I finished a season of summer theater at Williamstown,” he remembers. “That was my senior year, and at the end of the summer, I didn’t have any plans. And somebody said, ‘Well, I guess you’ll be looking for an apartment in New York.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah. I guess I will.’ So I did.”
While trying to establish himself on the stage, Cavett worked as a copyboy at Time magazine, a position that afforded him the flexibility to go on auditions when necessary. But even then, he admits his ambitions were flawed. “My highest idea for myself was, ‘Maybe, someday, I’ll get to be a guest on talk shows.’ I thought I would love that. If I can get myself into a position, either as an actor or whatever, I just want to come out through that curtain and sit in that chair.”
Cavett’s moment arrived, and with it, so did he. Opportunity took the form of an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, one of Cavett’s viewing staples in earlier years. It was a surreal experience for this bright, if not necessarily focused, performer. “Because my manager was the legendary Jack Rollins, I got on Sullivan before I really had earned it, so to speak,” he admits. “There were plenty of up-and-trying comics who hated my guts for this, whom I worked with in the evenings, in clubs. And I found myself going through the looking glass. … As I stood backstage, thinking, ‘Is this real? Am I the person — who woke up at 111 W. 89th on a fifth-floor walkup for, I think, $51 a month and all the roaches you could hope for — who walked down those five flights, down to the Ed Sullivan Theater? I’m about to be on The Ed Sullivan Show.’ And I noticed that there was a dance number ahead of me. They had one of those black, obsidian floors from the movies, you know, that looks like black mirrors. And it was dusty. It needed a mopping. And I remember having that silly thought that I’ve gone through the looking glass and found it wanting on the other side.”
Eventually, after working primarily behind the scenes as a writer for both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Cavett found himself on his ideal plane. As host of The Dick Cavett Show, which gradually found its way to numerous networks over the years, Cavett found himself in the perfect position to meet the colorful people he so ardently admired. But it wasn’t always the love-fest he might have liked it to be.
Almost certainly the most infamous episode of Cavett that aired featured the recently departed American author Norman Mailer. Well under the influence when he arrived on set, Mailer refused to exchange pleasantries with Gore Vidal, who also had been invited to appear that night. When Cavett asked what the problem was, a slowly escalating display of verbal fireworks ensued, with Mailer losing handily to the wit of the others onstage, particularly when Cavett uttered what might have been the most memorable line of his career. “I don’t know to this day where it came from,” he says. “Maybe under regression hypnosis, I could find out. When he said, ‘Why don’t you just read the next question off the question sheet?’ I thought, ‘I’m not David Frost!’ — but I didn’t say that. I said, ‘Why don’t you fold it five ways and stick it where the moon don’t shine?’ Longest laugh I think I ever got. Even longer than asking Bette Davis how she lost her virginity.”
But even the rudest guests never dampened Cavett’s enthusiasm for his work, and as a result, Cavett has a lifetime of stories to tell — and would tell them all, given the chance, one suspects. These days, he often saves his yarns in a blog for The New York Times’ website, but before our conversation came to a close, he couldn’t resist telling just one more, a ripple effect of his proudest and most fond friendship, the bond he had with Groucho Marx. “I got a letter from Groucho’s now-81-year-old daughter Miriam, thanking me, after 20 years, for writing the introduction to the book, Love, Groucho — his letters to her. … My eye skipped down the letter to about the seventh line, for whatever reason, which was, ‘My father thought the world of you.'” Cavett pauses, obviously moved, and even his own laughter at his momentary embarrassment can’t conceal his sense of pride. “Oh, God! It’s getting to me now! I can take any number of, ‘Goodbye forever, Mr. Cavett’s from my readers at the Times, now!”