Richard Alva (Dick) Cavett (born November 19, 1936 in Gibbon, Nebraska) is a television talk show host known for his conversational style of in-depth and often serious issues discussion.
Besides his birthplace of Gibbon, Cavett also spent parts of his youth in Grand Island (during World War II when a German prison camp was located there) and Lincoln.
His maternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher originally from Wales. Both of his parents were schoolteachers and postgraduates at Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley.
When the family lived in Lincoln, their garbageman was future serial killer Charles Starkweather, whom Dick's father got to know.
When he was 10, his mother died of cancer.
In eighth grade, he directed a live Saturday-morning radio show sponsored by the Junior League. He was elected state president of the student council, won two gold medals as state gymnastics champion, and played the title role in The Winslow Boy.
One of his classmates in high school was Sandy Dennis.
Before leaving for college, he worked as a caddy at the Lincoln Country Club. He also began doing magic shows for $35 a night under the tutelage of Gene Gloye . He attended the 1952 convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in St. Louis and won Best New Performer trophy. Around the same time, he met fellow magician Johnny Carson, 11 years his senior, who was doing a magic act at a church in Lincoln.
As a result of his Nebraska upbringing, Cavett has had a strong affinity for the culture of the Sioux and other native tribes of the Great Plains and has owned many artifacts. This interest ultimately would lead to his TV interview with Dr. John Neihardt.
Cavett applied to Yale University only because of the urging of an Omaha high school teacher, Frank Rice, a friend of his parents.
- "My Nebraska clothes set me apart. I remember I actually wore brown-and-white shoes. They were impractical, though. The white one kept getting dirty."
He won the Louis H. Burlingham Memorial Scholarship, in return for which he worked 15 hours a week as a busboy in the Trumbull College dining hall. Later he continued working off his scholarship at the Yale library, assisting Robert Barlow , curator of the Yale Musical Theatre collection.
He played in and directed dramas at the campus station, WYBC , and appeared in Yale Dramat productions. In his senior year, he changed his major from English to drama. He had grand ambitions of getting into show business and was envious of fellow Yale students such as Bill Hinnant and James Franciscus who already were acting professionally.
While a drama student, he always 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.
His distinctive voice, which had always set him apart in school, proved effective in attracting the attention of celebrities as well. He and his Yale roommate Christopher Porterfield (later his executive producer) met Marlene Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva , backstage after Tea and Sympathy at the Shubert Theater , and Cavett talked her into coming to meet them at the Taft Auditorium at Yale. He also met Peter Ustinov after a reading at YMHA Poetry Center in Manhattan and got him to accept an invitation to come speak to the Drama School.
During his last two summers at Yale, he apprenticed at Shakespeare festivals in Oregon and Stratford, Connecticut. He had one line in The Merchant of Venice, in which Katharine Hepburn played Portia.
At Drama School he met his future wife, Carrie Nye McGeoy from Greenwood, Mississippi. After graduation, the two of them acted in summer theater in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and he worked for two weeks in a local lumberyard in order to buy an engagement ring. Four years later, on June 4, 1964, they were married in New York, at which time Carrie Nye was playing the lead in The Trojan Women off-Broadway.
The Tonight Show
In 1960 Cavett was living in a three-room, fifth-floor walk-up on West 89th Street in Manhattan for $51 a month.
- "I went bargain-hunting at a store with a GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign over the door. They had been going out of business for some time. The words 'going out of business' were chiseled in stone -- and the u's were v's."
He auditioned for and got a role in a film made by the Signal Corps, but further jobs were not forthcoming. His Yale education would have been a meal ticket if he were going into law or finance, but for show business it was a disadvantage if anything. He was an extra on The Phil Silvers Show, a TV remake of Body and Soul, and Playhouse 90 ("The Hiding Place"). In an attempt to remain visible, he briefly revived his magic act while working as a typist and for a company that had him pose as a customer in department stores and review the service he received. Meanwhile, Carrie Nye was getting Broadway roles.
Cavett was a copyboy (gopher) at Time magazine when 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 . From hanging around the Tonight Show before, he knew which floor Paar's dressing room was on. Paar appeared in the corridor and noticed the Time envelope, and Cavett offered it. Cavett then went to sit in the studio audience. Sure enough, 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 he was hired, originally as talent coordinator (interviewing potential guests, booking guests, and again interviewing booked guests to prepare questions). Some of the guests he screened were of the opinion that he himself should appear on the show. This finally happened when Miss Universe of 1961, Marlene Schmidt of Germany, was a guest, and Paar brought Cavett out on stage to interpret her conversation.
While at Time, Cavett had written a letter to Stan Laurel. The two later met at Laurel's apartment in Hollywood. Later the same day, Cavett wrote a tribute that Paar read on the show, which Laurel saw and appreciated. Cavett visited Laurel a few more times, up to three weeks before Laurel's death.
In his capacity as talent coordinator, 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. Allen couldn't attend, but Cavett did. From the funeral, Cavett followed Groucho Marx three blocks up Fifth Avenue to the Plaza Hotel, where Marx invited him to lunch, thereby beginning one of Cavett's most treasured associations.
Cavett continued with The Tonight Show as a writer after Carson took over. For Carson he wrote the line, "Having your taste criticized by Dorothy Kilgallen is like having your clothes criticized by Emmett Kelly."
Nevertheless, he did not feel the same closeness as with Paar, despite having met Carson years earlier. After quitting, he was a writer for Jerry Lewis's ill-fated talk show, for three times the money. He returned to write, however, when Marx was interim host for Carson in July 1964.
Cavett then began a brief career as a stand-up comic in 1964 at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, inauspiciously. His manager was Jack Rollins , who later would become famous as the producer of Allen's films. Nightclubs in general were in a downturn at the time.
- "Somehow I don't think the caviar was the finest -- I don't know much about caviar, but I do know you're not supposed to get pictures of ballplayers with it."
- Drunken female heckler: "I pay your salary, buddy, with my hard-earned money." Cavett: "And I'm tempted to guess at your profession."
- Perhaps his most famous line is, "I went to a Chinese-German restaurant. The food is great, but an hour later you're hungry for power."
He also played Mr. Kelly's in Chicago and the hungry i in San Francisco, during which latter time he met Lenny Bruce. "I liked him and wish I had known him better...but most of what has been written about him is a waste of good ink, and his most zealous adherents and hardest-core devotees are to be avoided, even if it means working your way around the world in the hold of a goat transport."
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: "I have a feeling the mystery guest is trying to figure out who I am." He wrote for Merv Griffin and appeared on Griffin's talk show several times, and then on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In 1968, after the premiere of the international film Candy, Cavett went to a party at the Americana Hotel where those who had just seen the film were being interviewed for TV. "When the interviewer, Pat Paulsen, got to me, he asked what I thought the critics would say about Candy. I said I didn't think it would be reviewed by the regular critics, that they would have to reconvene the Nuremberg jury to do it justice. He laughed and asked what I had liked, and I said I liked the lady who showed me the nearest exit so that I would not be forced to vomit indoors." The exchange was cut from the broadcast.
After doing a rejected pilot with Van Johnson, The Star and the Story, Cavett hosted a special, Where It's At, for Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, which got good reviews and led to the morning version of The Dick Cavett Show (q.v.).
Cavett has been nominated for 11 Emmy Awards and has won three. Clips from his TV shows have been used in movies, as in Annie Hall, Forrest Gump, and Frequency (2000). He also appeared as himself in various TV shows, including episodes of Cheers, Kate & Allie, and (in animated form) The Simpsons.
From November 15, 2000 to January 6, 2002, he played the narrator in a Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show, to the delight of fans of both him and the show.
Bouts with depression
He has openly discussed his bouts with clinical depression in recent years, an illness he has had to deal with since his freshman year at Yale. He was the subject of a 1993 video produced by the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association called A Patient's Perspective. He was sued in 1997 by a producer for breach of contract when failing to show up for a nationally syndicated radio program (also called "The Dick Cavett Show"); Cavett's lawyer confirmed to the Associated Press at the time that Cavett left due to a manic-depressive episode.
Cavett by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield, Bantam Books, August 1974.