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Issue 02/17/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 06

by lyle e davis

Sometimes we just don’t know where life is going to take us.  Sometimes one little decision, one little series of events, will shape our lives forever.

Fortunately, for all of us, Dick Cavett made a decision to go into Omaha, Nebraska, to take the College Boards, rather than participate in a major gymnastics competition in which he was likely to have wound up as champion.  A brilliant gymnast, he had already won the state’s gold medal in the pommel horse and was thought to be a sure winner in the upcoming meet.

He not only qualified for college but got a full scholarship to Yale University.

“One of the happiest days in my life was standing on my porch, reading that amazing letter of acceptance from Yale to be part of the class of 1958,” he remembers.

Had he gone to the state gymnastics meet in Lincoln, Nebraska, we might well have had another Olympic gymnastic champion . . . but we would have been denied the years of pleasure Dick Cavett has given us as, arguably, the premiere television host, interviewer, commentator, humorist, and wit.

Cavett appeared regularly on nationally broadcast television in the United States in five consecutive decades, the 1960s through the 2000s.

Cavett became interested in show business early in life.  Like at four or five years of age, before kindergarten.  

“Mom used to stand me up on a chair and have me recite things,” he says.  “She had required me to learn bits of Shakespeare and I would recite them.  After completing my recitation I?would then say, ‘Everybody crap.”

I?had trouble pronouncing my “l’s” and all the neighbor ladies would come to the recitations just to giggle and comment, ‘wait till he gets to the end.’  They apparently were not so taken with the works of Mr. Shakespeare but for me to say, ‘everybody crap.’

Dick’s mom and dad were both educators and “sometimes obnoxiously got me involved in writing, reading and education.”

Cavett was born on November 19, 1936, in Kearney, Nebraska.  He grew up in a town called Gibbon.  

To my great surprise, Gibbon does not have a big sign at its city limits saying, “Gibbon, Nebraska, boyhood home of Dick Cavett.”

I was also surprised that the house in which he grew up in has been torn down or moved.  One would think, given his celebrity and many awards, they would have preserved the house as a tribute to ‘their favorite son.’  Particularly in a small town like Gibbon.

“We lived in a big white house facing the grain elevator, where there was a sugar beet pile.  I spent hours playing; there.  It was across from the grain elevator which was owned by a man named Alva Zimmerman.  The big white house is gone now, as is, I?suspect, Mr. Zimmerman.”

Great question for Jeopardy:
“Dick Cavett, famed television personality has the same middle name as Thomas Edison.  What is that name?”

Answer:  Alva

Richard Alva Cavett has a number of Alva’s in his family line.  His dad, Alva B. Cavett, and his his paternal grandfather, Alva A. Cavett.

“In fact,” says Cavett, “Carol Burnett was amused by my middle name and addressed that issue on her television show on one occasion.  You can still see that episode on one of the DVD’s out there . . . “Comedy Legends.”

When Dick was 10 years old, his mother, Erabel "Era," died, at age 36, of cancer.  He suffered a terrible depression following his mom's death.  “It was a terrible trauma.  She had an incompetent, stupid, doctor in Grand Island.  I?learned later from friends that he had failed to send a specimen to the lab . . it may have made a difference. But we’ll never know, will we?” 

We asked Dick if he thought this heavy duty emotional trauma might have played a role in his frequent episodes of severe depression in his later years, which he has openly and publicly discussed quite often.  

“I?suspect so,” he said, “though we don’t really know if it is environmentally induced or if it is something genetic, something strictly chemical.  I can tell you that no child should have to go through that emotional trauma.

When the bipolarity (also known as manic-depressive disorder) manifested itself I?never had the super highs of a manic stage . . . I?had more ‘hypo-mania.’  You have the innate feeling that you really can’t afford more than four hours sleep a night because there is too much to do.

We spoke of the phenomenon of bipolarity being common amongst creative people . . . and some of the best known people in history.  A classic example is Winston Churchill.  Others include playwright Tennessee Williams, actors, singers, comedians, including Patty Duke, Carrie Fisher, Connie Francis, Robin Williams . . . the list is a long one.

“Steven Fry, the great British actor and playwright, did a show about bipolarity.  He decided he’d rather not get treated because his manic stage forwarded his career. 

I really don't know, nor do the scientists, it seems, if it is genetic and we are born with it or if some emotional trauma or other environmental element brings it forward.  It seems to run in families so I suspect there is an element of heredity, which affects the body chemistry.”

Among other medications, Cavett takes lithium, which is a fairy common medication for bipolars.  He emphasizes, however, the absolute need to be diagnosed and prescribed for by a doctor that specializes in this field.  There is no one “right” treatment.  Every patient is likely to need a specialized treatment plan.

Cavett so enjoyed the attention he received as a pre-kindergarten child who could recite Shakespeare that he continued his quest for increased show biz experience.

He took up magic as a hobby.  In eighth grade, he both directed a live Saturday-morning radio show sponsored by the Junior League and played the title role in The Winslow Boy.

“About that time there was this scripted show from Storytime Playhouse in New York.  We did the radio show in the Lincoln (NE) Summer Theatre (known as the Hayloft Theatre).  Someone called and said they needed a young lad who could speak with a British accent.  So, I?got that part.  That was at age 15.
Cavett had already begun learning magic tricks . . . a hobby that he continues to study to this day.  He is good enough that, if he chose, he could make a couple of quid performing as a magician.  Recently, in fact, he performed two out of the five parts of the genius rope machine on the NBC Jimmy Fallon show.  

He is also a Lifetime Member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood.  He is quite proud of the fact that several of his television shows helped rescue the work of the great magician, “Slydini.”  His real name was Quintino Marucci.  He died about 10 years ago.  In addition to his television shows, Cavett also wrote about him in his blog(s) in the New York Times.  For a fascinating read, check out
and the follow-up column:

Both blog entries and the accompanying video clearly fascinated Cavett as he viewed stunning magic performed by a master.

Before Slydini . . . Cavett had met “The Great Carsoni,”      only he wasn’t very famous at that time.  In 1952 Cavett attended the convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in St. Louis and won the Best New Performer trophy. Around the same time, he met fellow magician Johnny Carson, eleven years his senior, who was doing a magic act at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lincoln. He and Johnny were to become very close friends over the years, Cavett having dined at Carson’s house on a number of occasions.  But, at this time it was just “Johnny Carson, the magician from Omaha,” (where he also worked on WOW-TV.

But all of this happened after he had gone through his early childhood years, after having lost his mom, and then subsequently, being presented with a new mom.  His dad remarried.  Dick’s new step-mom, Dorcas Deland, from Alliance, Nebraska,  was, like his biological mom, an educator.  It was a good match, it seems because on September 24, 1995, Lincoln Public Schools dedicated the new Dorcas C. and Alva B. Cavett Elementary School in their honor.

Asked if he had any difficulty adapting to a new stepmother after having been so close to his biological mom . . . “I was a bit ornery at first.  But, in time, I?came around and we became very close.  I?can’t tell you how many times I?have had someone come up to me and say, ‘Your mom just changed my life at the University.  She made me a teacher.’  Other people I?remember came up to me, a former jock from Lincoln High School said about my dad, ‘I only lived for his class.’"

One of Cavett’s classmates at Lincoln High School was the late actress, Sandy Dennis.  Cavett was elected state president of the student council in high school, and, as mentioned at the beginning of this narrative, was a gold-medalist at the state gymnastics championship.

“You grew up in Omaha,” he said to me, “do you know who we hated to play from Omaha?”

I guessed Omaha Tech(nical) High School.  Then, when Cavett said they were from just outside of Omaha, it hit me.  “Boys Town,”?I said.

Absolutely,” he said.  “We had to bring in extra cops for the games against Boys Town.  They were the rattiest gang.  My dad always got angry when some wealthy widow died and left a lot of money to Boys Town. ‘That place is drowing in millions of dollars,’ he would say.  Then, it was a nest of juvenile delinquents.  That may not be true today . . . but it sure was then.”

As to how he happened to apply to Yale University:

“I graduated in 1954.  We had a family friend, Frank Rice, of the old Grand Island Baptist College where he became a teacher.  Frank also taught in Omaha.  He had a John Hay Fellowship to Yale.  He came back and urged my parents to have me apply at Yale.  Dad wanted me to study law or dentistry, but I?was more interested in English, and, later, the Dramatic Arts.  Then came that amazing letter from Yale.  I?became a member of the Class of 1958.”

Before leaving for college, he worked as a caddy at the Lincoln Country Club. He also began doing magic shows for $35 a night.  

While attending Yale University, Cavett played in and directed dramas on the campus radio station, WYBC, and appeared in Yale Drama productions. In his senior year, he changed his major from English to Drama. He also took advantage of any opportunity to meet stars, routinely going to shows in New York to hang around stage doors or venture backstage. He would go so far as to carry a copy of Variety or an appropriate piece of company stationery in order to look inconspicuous while sneaking backstage or into a TV studio. Cavett took many odd jobs ranging from store detective to label-typist for a Wall Street firm, and as a copy boy at Time Magazine.  While at Time he read a newspaper item about Jack Paar, then host of The Tonight Show. The article described Paar's concerns about his opening monologue and constant search for material. Cavett wrote some jokes, put them into a Time envelope, and went to the RCA Building. He ran into Paar in a hallway and handed him the envelope. He then went to sit in the studio audience. During the show, Paar worked in some of the lines Cavett had fed him. Afterward, Cavett got into an elevator with Paar, who invited him to contribute more jokes. Within weeks, Cavett was hired, originally as talent coordinator. Cavett wrote for Paar the famous line, "Here they are, Jayne Mansfield," as an introduction for the buxom actress.

“Paar didn't want to lose me, so he put me on as a talent booker . . but I?wrote for him on the side.  I?hope the Statute of Limitations has run out, I don’t want the Writer’s Guild to be upset with me.  

At Yale School of Drama, Cavett met his future wife, Caroline Nye McGeoy (known professionally as Carrie Nye), a native of Greenwood, Mississippi. After graduation, the two acted in summer theater in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Cavett worked for two weeks in a local lumberyard in order to buy an engagement ring. On June 4, 1964, they were married in New York. Their marriage was at times tumultuous, but they remained married until Nye's death on July 14, 2006.

I?mentioned that this must have been another terribly emotional trauma, having his wife of 46 years die.  Was he able to cope with this tragedy, given his deep depression problems?

“Wow!  This interview is really focusing on emotional trauma!  I?guess I?must have.  Somehow you endure when you least think you can.  Other times, when you think you’ve got it whipped, it jumps up and bites you.”

An example of the latter came when Cavett was aboard the Concorde, preparing for a trip to London.  In 1980 Cavett suffered what he characterized as his "biggest depressive episode." All had seemed well, a promising show business venture awaited him in England, he was flying a top of the line aircraft.  All seemed okay . . . and then the manic-depressive malady, known today as bipolarity, kicked in. While on board the Concorde prior to take off, Cavett broke out into a sweat and became agitated. After he was removed from the plane, Cavett was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where he later underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Regarding this method of treatment Cavett is quoted as saying, "In my case, ECT was miraculous. My wife was dubious, but when she came into my room afterward, I sat up and said, 'Look who's back among the living.' It was like a magic wand." 

In his capacity as talent coordinator for The Tonight Show, Cavett was sent to the Blue Angel nightclub to see Woody Allen's act, and immediately afterward struck up a friendship. The very next day, the funeral of playwright George S. Kaufman was held at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home. Allen could not attend, but Cavett did, where he met Groucho Marx in an anteroom. From the funeral, Cavett followed Marx (who later told Cavett that Kaufman was "his personal god") three blocks up Fifth Avenue to the Plaza Hotel, where Marx invited him to lunch. Years later, Cavett gave the introduction to Marx's one-man show, An Evening with Groucho Marx at Carnegie Hall, and began by saying, "I can't believe that I know Groucho Marx."

Groucho Marx was always his personal idol.  They became close friends and Marx appeared lots of times on his television show, probably 6-7 times . . “There’s a full show with Groucho on Hollywood Greats, another on Comic Legends . . . both available at amazon.com.  Wonderful birthday gift, by the way.”

Cavett began a brief career as a stand-up comic in 1964, then in 1965, he did some commercial voiceovers, including a series of mock interviews with Mel Brooks for Ballantine beer. In the next couple of years he appeared on game shows, including What's My Line. He wrote for Merv Griffin and appeared on Griffin's talk show several times, and then on The Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1968 Cavett was hired by ABC to host This Morning. According to a New Yorker article, the show was too sophisticated for a morning audience, and ABC first moved the show to prime time, and subsequently to a late-night slot opposite Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.

Intermittently since 1968, Cavett has been host of his own talk show, in various formats and on various television and radio networks:

    • ABC (1968–1974)
    • CBS (1975)
    • PBS (1977–1982)
    • USA (1985–1986)
    • ABC (1986–1987)
    • CNBC (1989–1996)
    • Olympia Broadcasting (syndicated radio show, 1986–1990)
 • Turner Classic Movies (2006–2007)

During a recent television discussion with Mel Brooks, Cavett started talking about health expert J.I. Rodale, publisher of Today's Health. You may recall that Rodale was the person who died during a Cavett Show taping in 1971. It was fascinating to see that Mel Brooks thought Cavett was using the standard slang to describe a comedian "dying" on stage. Several exchanges went back and forth before Brooks understood that Cavett was talking about a guest who actually did drop dead during a talk show.

For The New York Times last May, Cavett wrote a compelling memoir of the 1971 incident. But don't stop when you get to the end. The comments that follow offer a remarkable prismatic look into the nature of memory, since some recall watching that show even though it never aired. See Marshall Ephron "What Happened on the Dick Cavett Show" and Mark Evanier's "Dying on Television" for different angles on Rodale's death.


Cavett is a fascinating figure in the whole history of that time period. He did a show that was on in a highly-competitive time slot for six years. (Joey Bishop, who he replaced, lasted for less than half that time.) Cavett's program was profitable for its network and it won great critical acclaim and awards at a time when very little on ABC was even in contention for any of that. Still, it was viewed by many as a failure because it somehow failed to move a man named Johnny Carson to the unemployment lines. What I've gleaned of the history is that that's about all Cavett did wrong. Today, there is little shame to finishing a respectable second in your time slot as long as your show makes money. Back then, if you didn't finish first, you were expected to concede abject failure and collapse onto your sword. And of course, what replaced Cavett got lower ratings and the network lost cash in that slot until years later when Ted Koppel and the Hostage Crisis moved into it, thereby begatting Nightline. I believe some ABC execs were later quoted as saying they should have just left him on and spent more on promotion.

One of Mr. Cavett’s books is called Talk Show, also available at amazon.com.

“Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.” The co-author of “Cavett” (1974) and “Eye on Cavett” (1983)

Mr. Cavett lives in New York City and Montauk, N.Y.

Mark Evanier, who has a fascinating blog (newsfromme.com) dealing with show busines said of Cavett: “When I see some of the amateurs and inept provocateurs who manage to get an hour of cable time, at least for a few ratings periods, I wonder why no one has offered Dick Cavett one of those time slots. Maybe he wouldn't want it but nothing the man ever did on television was not worth watching. The last time he had such a show, much of his old roster of guests was still available and he did shows with them that were interesting...but pale, anticlimactic versions of earlier, better conversations. Now, almost all of those folks are gone and I think it would be interesting to drop the guy into a new world of talking heads and see what happened. It might be exciting but even if it wasn't, he couldn't get lower numbers than Tucker Carlson or Glenn Beck.

It's a shame that it's been so long since television has found a place for Cavett.

Back in 2007, Clive James, the famed Australian author, essayist, critic, and broadcaster analyzed Cavett:  As a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range, Cavett was the most distinguished talk-show host in America, if sophistication and an intellectual breadth were what you wanted.

A small, handsome man with an incongruously deep voice, Cavett was deadpan in the sense that he had no special face to signify a funny remark. He just said it, the way that the best conversational wits always do. He was by far the wittiest of the American television talk-show hosts, most of whom have always been dependent on their writers.

Although his shows did not attract a wide audience, remaining in third place in the ratings behind Carson and Merv Griffin, he earned a reputation as "the thinking man's talk show host" and received favorable reviews from critics. As a talk show host, Cavett has been noted for his ability to listen to his guests and engage them in intellectual conversation.
He is also known for his ability to remain calm and mediate between contentious guests, and for his deep, resonant voice, unusual for a man of his stature (5'7").

The first question I?asked Cavett was . . . “why in the hell are you not on television?”

Cavett:  Good question.  And I don’t have an answer for it.  Do you have any contacts?

Me.  Oh, yes, here in Escondido, California, I?have all kinds of show biz contacts.

You know, I’ve always admired your work.  But I’m wondering if you DID have a show today . . . who would you have to make for interesting guests?  There is no more Groucho Marx, no more Lucille Ball, no more John Lennon, no more Norman Mailer, no more Truman Capote .. . all of the celebrities today are kinda . . . blah!”

Cavett: Funny, I?was asking myself that very question the other day; we really had a golden era of master showmen, colorful characters, memorable artists and political figures.  Today, it seems there are just so many young actors out to plug their latest book.  Do you suppose all the ‘real stars’ are gone?

Me.  Well, if anyone can find them and bring out the best in them in an interview format, you can.

Cavett:  Well, sad to say, nothing is in the works

That’s not totally true.  This interview came about because Cavett is in the area for a series of Hollywood Legend Series of interviews with famous stars at Harrah’s Rincon Casino in Valley Center.  His first interviews were last Saturday evening, with Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher with more to come throughout the summer with the likes of Shirley McLaine and, later, Jane Fonda.

Harrah’s Casino PR people tell me they will be taping the interviews but they weren’t sure how they would be marketed.

The interviews are done before a live audience, tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster for $55 for general admission reserved seating and $125 for preferred seating. For more information, please call 760-751-3100.

Sources:  Personal interview with Mr. Cavett on Wednesday, February 9th.
Mark Evanier’s blog:
The secret art of the talk-show host
By Clive James Friday, Feb. 9, 2007 - Slate Magazine