Dick Cavett Waxes Poetic on Playing Himself

The venerable former talk show host looks back on his part in the feud between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, what it was like to interview a reticent Beatle, and more.

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Dick Cavett is considered one of the greatest talk show hosts ever. From the ’60s through the ’80s his interviews with celebrities ranging from Gore Vidal to Jimi Hendrix were and are renowned for their humor and intelligence. The Onion AV Club said he “prove[d] good conversation makes good television.”

He also was a regular columnist for the New York Times and has published several books. All of which Rico and Brendan told our live audience, by way of introduction. At which point, Dick took the stage, and admonished them: “You left out one of my credits… I once came in second in a Jessica Williams lookalike contest. Proud moment.”

Interview Highlights:

On playing himself in the off-Broadway production “Hellman v. McCarthy”

Dick Cavett: Well, I’ll give a little background, though it’s an elaborately long story. But two great, famous American writers — Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman — were friends, once, but things developed over the years. And Miss McCarthy, on a show of mine, decided to point out several things about Miss Hellman.

The most memorable thing she said about her was, “She’s such a dishonest writer that even her ‘the’s’ and ‘ands’ are lies.” Now, Miss Hellman did not agree.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Neither did her lawyers.

Dick Cavett: No, and, in fact, you know way too much. And I got a call the next morning [imitating Lillian’s voice], “Why didn’t you defend me?” And I said, “Well, Lillian, you don’t ever seem to me like someone who needs defending. You take care of yourself.”

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Rico, Brendan and Dick Cavett appear at WNYC’s The Greene Space on April 14, 2016. (Photo Credit:

And in a humorous mood, she sued me and PBS… and at least three different parties. But, anyway, it was a bitter thing. It was a long lawsuit. It played all over the papers, and the news, and the world of literature. And this play evolved from that, and one of the characters was named Dick… [snaps] Cavett, and the two ladies.

And it’s a strange feeling playing yourself. How do you play yourself? You can be yourself. That’s not easy, either, onstage, but to play yourself…the sad part is I wasn’t the first choice for the role.

On transitioning from writing and acting to hosting a long-form talk show

Dick Cavett: You know, it wasn’t a decision, really. When I was looking back on it, of all the things I ever wanted to be, a talk show host was not among them. I wanted to be famous. Isn’t that sickening?

On his 1971 interview with a cagey George Harrison

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, you’re interviewing George Harrison. He’s one of the biggest stars in the world, making a rare TV appearance, and he’s promoting a film about Indian music called “Raga.”

Dick Cavett: I’ll take your word.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And the Beatles have broken up, but a few minutes into the interview, you ask him about John Lennon.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, my God! Nightmare.

Dick Cavett: The fact is, for those that don’t have a detailed memory of that show, I’d had had John and Yoko on, and then Harrison. And people said, “You’re going to try to do a 90-minute show with Harrison? Lots of luck.”

Some of it was like that, and then it got better, and better, and better as the show went on. And that’s one of the arguments for a long show, is many guest, in the seven minutes they mostly get today, aren’t warmed up yet.

Rico Gagliano: Well, we’ve got to say goodbye to you, Dick. This has been great talking to you. Sorry. I’m sorry.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s all the time we have for today.

Dick Cavett: Wait a minute! I’ll be the judge of that.

On how he would try to recover from an awkward moment during an interview

Rico Gagliano: So, in that moment, who are you thinking of? Are you thinking of, you know, your fragile ego? You know, defending yourself? Are you thinking of the guest? Making him more comfortable. Or are you thinking of the audience?

Dick Cavett: The best thing you can do is, and it sounds so silly, try to listen to what the guest is saying.

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When I first did the show, I thought, “What a nightmare! I’m going out there to do 90 minutes of television, improvised, and I don’t know when to throw to commercial. And I don’t know what’s going on. And oh, my God, I’m talking to this guest here, but maybe I’m supposed to be in a commercial now.” And you look over at the guest, and the guest’s lips have stopped moving.

And you have no idea what you were talking about, or what they were talking about, and it’s really scary. A lady producer I had said, “When that happens to you,” she said, “I should’ve warned you about it — have a sentence, a question, that will fit anybody at a time like that.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: And what was your go-to?

Dick Cavett: Well, she suggested, “Do you pee in the shower?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s so crazy! That’s our next question. That’s weird.




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