Dick Cavett: 40 Years Later, Still in a Class By Himself

I first met Dick Cavett 40 years ago, when I was a teenager with my parents at a show on a Sunday afternoon in East Hampton.

I saw him in the lobby and must have gotten all lit up because I pointed him out to my parents. A moment later, I felt a tap on my back.

Dick Cavett.

He'd noticed me noticing him, and he came by to say hello.

At the time, he was the host of a national TV talk show opposite Johnny Carson. He didn't really need to go over to say hi to an excited teenager.

But he did.

Dick Cavett, 40 years on, is still a class act.

He currently blogs for The New York Times and broadcasts on SiriusXM radio. How does he feel about modern times? I caught up with him, 40 years later, and asked.

Dick Cavett: Woody Allen said to me once in a walk in the park, maybe twenty years ago, "Cavett, can you think of anything that's getting better?" It's not all that easy to rattle off a long list of things that are better today than in the past.

Michael: Do you agree with him? Do you think things really are going downhill?

Dick: I admit I was stuck for an answer. What's better today than it was ten years ago? All I could think was maybe certain French wines.

The great Mort Sahl line from way back certainly applies today.

Woody and I used to go see Mort. We worshipped him, and watched him skyrocket to fame. Sahl said, "When you think of the people who founded this country, and look at them, Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington... And then you look at what we have today, what can you learn from this?

"Darwin was wrong!"

Michael: I think this election proves his point.

Dick: He also said, "Nixon is the sort of man, who if you were drowning fifteen feet from shore, he'd throw you a ten-foot rope. And Kissinger would announce that the president met you more than halfway."

Michael: What do you think of talk shows today?

Dick: People keep saying to me, "Nobody does what you did." But I'm never quite sure what they're talking about. I could have one guest for 90 minutes. Today, everything now is six minutes long, if that. People's attention spans have gotten short. No one can listen to one person for 90 minutes today. I don't know if I could!

Michael: How much can you learn about someone in six minutes?

Dick: Exactly. And half of the words spoken are the word "exciting." "I'm so excited about my new movie." "I'm excited about the director." "I'm excited about my oatmeal I had this morning." It's just relentless.

I used to laugh at how Dave Letterman would deal with that, with cringing looks that would shame the guest into speaking a little more honestly.

Michael: You had Rudolf Nureyev as a guest on your talk show. If he were dancing today, would he be invited onto a talk show?

Dick: Well, I would have him back.

Michael: I know you would.

Dick: I have a terrible regret about Rudolf, that I didn't get him up out of the chair and ask him to teach someone to do a pirouette. And he would've, and it would've been fun.

Michael: When did you know you wanted to be a talk show host?

Dick: All I wanted to do was get famous and meet famous people. That's a pitiful goal.

Michael: How shallow, Dick.

Dick: I just didn't know how to do it. I had no idea. It all goes back to the magical inspiration I had as a copy boy at Time Magazine to go across the street and take a monologue as Jack Parr and got hired. Everything came from that, of course.

Michael: Tell me about how Parr influenced you.

Dick: Before I started hosting my first show, he said, "Just let me tell you one thing. Don't do interviews."

I said, "What do I do? Sing?"

He said, "No interviews. That's 'What's your favorite color?' and Q&A and David Frost with his clipboard. Make it a conversation."

And that's what I've always done.

It was the best advice I could get.