Dick Cavett

Twelve noon Saturday: Dick Cavett has been awake for only a few hours -- he and his wife most of the night searching (successfully) the dark and rain-swept tip of Long Island for their lost dog.

Now, after only a few hours' sleep, the man who once introduced Orson Welles on his show as "a thinly wrapped enigma" is obligingly responding to a reporter's request that he introduce himself as if he were a guest on his own show:

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he says gamely. "My guest tonight is someone who has been an actor, athlete, talk-show host, writer, magician, amateur tap-dancer, sub-amateur singer, and Midwesterner who converted to the Ivy League. And the combination of all the above has him very confused about what he wants him to be when he grows ip. He has a certain overlay of charm masking vast reservoirs of doubt, hostility, and self-loathing . . . or none of the above."

It is somehow fitting that Mr. Cavett should step so easily out of maelstrom and aborted slumber to wrap himself in the unruffled talk-show persona viewers see every weeknight on "The Dick Cavett Show" on 248 PBS stations. Over the years, he has given the impression, real or imagined, of a meandering, affable conversationalist who seldom raises his voice above an Ivy League murmur, and who could coax bashful remembrances from Richard Burton or (even tougher) from Norman Mailer.

If this video image is merely a costume, he does not readily discard it.

Leaving his office on another day and walking across 57th Street to the Russian Tea Room, he treats an inquisitive fan with the same meticulous politeness he accords his guests. Sitting in his dressing room a few hours earlier, he exhibited the same accessible, disarming interest in a young television assistant. Always magically easy and ego-less.

"Ego-less" may seem an ill-chosen adjective for a man whose adoringly photographed image is legion around his own production company, who seems endlessly willing to talk about himself (sometimes to the exclusion of his more interesting guests), and whose dressing room mirror bears strict instructions that his eyelashes must be combed through and his eyebrows brushed carefully up.

Yet the word seems apt in describing the slender, diminutive Mr. Cavett.

There is a certain vanishing presence about him that makes you feel you are talking to a television set when you sit across the desk from him. His personal ambiance seems to have a calming affect on friend and foe alike.

This ambiance may be the secret ingredient of his singular success as a television conversationalist, especially in his current show on public television, which usually has all the genteel civility of a 19th-century drawing room gathering.

After the show's most successful episodes, he says, guests will tell him, a bit incredulously, "You made me feel so comfortable, it was like sitting in my living room and talking to an old friend."

His executive producer, Robin Breed, adds that even Mr. Cavett's most acerbic critics succumb to his medium-cool presence.

"When these people meet him in person," she says firmly, "they are always charmed by him."

Over the years, not everyone has been charmed by Mr. Cavett.

One viewer complained to the New York Times that this "cute and innocent act has become all too noticeable and boring for quite some time." The National Review once chided him for prodding his audiences into "mean, bullying laughter, " calling him "a professional failure," "the Adlai Stevenson of Television," and a "a bit of an impudent snob." Jane Mankiewicz and Daniel Menaker penned an Atlantic Monthly parody depicting him as a vacuous, slightly nasty little man preoccupied with "so many Hamptons to go to and so many book jackets to read."

Glancing bemusedly over the aforementioned magazine articles, he says, "You can almost, after a while, predict at what point, in what year, after how much time, they are going to start saying bad things about you. I can't really comment on these articles, because I haven't read them. I don't know whether it's a defense mechanism, or what it is, but I seldom read things that are written about me. I think I already mentioned that a magazine with my picture on the cover laid around my house for months before I read it. I think it was TV Guide."

Lately, Mr. Cavett has every reason to read his own press. The media tide has turned back in his direction.

After an unimpressive start during its first year -- he was then just finishing a Broadway run in "Applause," and admits that doing the television show was "boring" for him --his program, now in its fourth season, has rung all the right chimes in the critics' minds and provided him with a comfortable niche.

This niche recently came dagerously close to disappearing.

In recent voting for next year's programming, PBS affiliates almost turned the show down -- mostly because it was one of the most expensive shows on their schedule -- but finally accepted a smaller package with fewer new episodes.

Had the show fared worse in PBS's annual station lottery, PBS affiliate WNET in New York and the Chubb Insurance Company (the show's only underwriter) were going to try to arrange a rescue package to keep Cavett going.

When the future of his show was still uncertain, Mr. Cavett seemed almost unconcerned, observing nonchalantly, "this has been a possibility every year," and adding that he has long since grown used to his uncertain prospects on network TV.

"Networks have always been the graveyard of Dick Cavett," muses Mrs. Breed, the producer, who generally insulates him from the criticism of the smaller stations which complain that the show is too expensive and out of touch with their viewers. Many local stations are unimpressed with Cavett's guest roster of demi-celebrities.

Mr. Cavett's storied guests, most of whom are just not visible on commercial television, have included: Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Hugh Leonard, Ray Bradbury, George Cukor, Shelley Berman, joyce Carol Oates, Robert Joffrey, FCC chairman Charles Ferris, Jessamyn West, Eudora Welty, Beverly Sills, Oriana Fallaci, Buddy Hackett, boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, Clare Boothe Luce, and Eva Le Gallienne.

"There isn't really a place in commercial television for quite this list of people," Mr. Cavett observes, staring out of his 13th-floor window. "It's hard to book a show like this . . . to, as they say, keep coming up with it."

With conversation partners like these -- and others less known, but no less interesting -- and his own mood-setting gifts, Mr. Cavett has gathered mounting acclaim for a modest unadorned talk show.

Both his own talent and his staff's ability to find intriguing guests were clicking the other day at a taping of the show in a WNET studio in a run-down section of New York's West side. Author Toni Morrison was the guest.

Inside the rough-and-ready studio, a tiny audience of ghetto kids, executive types, matronly women, and young intellectuals waited patiently beneath a grid of stage lights hanging at a confusion of angles.

Canned music was playing over the public address system. There was no band, no warm-up sidekick, no elaborate set. The threadbare stage looked about as exciting as the setting for a regional chess match.

If Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin serve up a smorgasbord of mushc and lights and elaborate furniture, Dick Cavett's setting by comparison resembles a small lunch of one celery stalk, an olive, a bread stick, and a glass of water.

When the lights come up on this Spartan fare, Mr. Cavett comes bouncing onto center stage, where he strikes his best preppy stance and treats the audience to a two-minute intro to his guest, a chunky, alive black woman, who eases right into her role, encouraged by the light, impromptu-seeming questions of Mr. Cavett.

When was the last time she was her friend Muhammad ali?

Did her parents really tell her terrible ghost stories when she was a child?

Would it be going too far to say that her father was a racist?

Does she hear a voice in her mind when she writes?

Miss Morrison, whose newest book is entitled "Tar Baby," talks freely about her father. He hated white people so much that once when a white man wandered into his house, he threw him down the stairs and then flung a tricycle after him.

She speaks evocatively of the frightening ghost stories she heard at bedtime as a child ("Sharpen my knife, sharpen my knife," came the imagined voice from the darkened closet in her room).

She says that she hears, not one voice, but a chorale of voices, when she writes.

Then he has her read from her book, her soft, rich voice phrasing carefully composed words full of questions and colors.

As she reads, for a full three minutes or so, this mixed bag of an audience sits quietly absorbed in the flow of words, spontaneously breaking into applause at the finish.

Throughout the show, the conversation happens upon small moments, personal remembrances, the telling details of her life, which are the real delicacies Cavett's viewers tune in for.

Over the months, these viewers have been treated to such small moments as:

* Richard Burton, with his ravaged face and raging eyes, telling the story of his brothers in the coal mines of Wales including the older brother who "could not be bribed" with Sir Richard's fabled wealth to leave the shafts.

* Film director John Huston, who remembers telling Eugene O'Neill over the telephone how his life was changed when he silently watched first rehearsals of "Desire Under the Elms."

Eudora Welty musing about why she is not put off by supermarkets as story backgrounds: "You could see a ghost in a supermarket. The important thing is what is immediate to you and what is around you; one can use the ultimate of fertile imagination in any setting."

Not all of the Cavett show fare is so lofty, however.

When Raquel Welch appeared on the show, for instance, he introduced her by saying she was "no taffy-headed sex doll . . . to my tremendous disappointment," and continued the innuendo throughout the show. On other shows, the lowgrade humor and double-entendres seem to overwhelm the subject matter.

Fortunately, such behavior, which once earned Mr. Cavett the enmity of some of his early supporters, seems to be at a bare minimum these days.

As Mr. Cavett's fifth-grade teacher once noted on his report card, "Dick has made definite improvements in his consideration of others. He is also controlling his talking to those about him. His reading and English show an unusual vocabulary."

While his "reading and English" these days still show "an unusual vocabulary, " a not-uncommon complaints about Mr. Cavett's show is that, for all the intellectual toniness of his guest list, the conversation often hovers near the surface of his subject, never going very deep. It can be like overhearing a chat with Picasso about the weather: One is glad to listen in on the master, but the dialogue is not very nourishing.

At such times, Mr. Cavett himself looks bored. And he admits to occasional boredom, "although not as much as someone whose job doesn't depend on their showing an interest."

In his best form -- and Mr. Cavett seems to be hitting that form with great regularity lately -- he is neither wisecracking nor bored. He is the artful listener, retiring to the sidelines when his guests are being intriguing, warm, and human; asking a well-timed question when they are not.

The most lovely, unhurried thoughts are born under this gentle questioning.

Mr. Cavett attributes these best times to "a sort of instinct and a willingness to say what crosses your mind . . . something I'd really like to know much more than all the things I had planned to talk about."

Mrs. Breed says he has matured and become "more introspective," since his earlier days of brash success.

It shows.

After the Toni Morrison show, sitting in a tiny, cramped dressing room off the sound stage, complete with sink and typewriter, a copy of his autobiography, some fruit, and a volume of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, he twirls a pencil, listening to Mrs. Breed tell him why she is going to sit him at one end of a row of guests instead of in the middle. He has a sort of amused, removed air about him, as though she were talking about moving the furniture.

There is an unmistakable impression that Mr. Cavett has mellowed, that he has all the time in the world. It is easy to imagine him taking five hours to look for his dog.

You'd just want to hear the conversation afterward when he and the dog sat down for a chat.

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