Dick Cavett, slave to the moonwalk, just couldn’t help himself. It was just past 1 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12, and Mr. Cavett was sitting on a folding metal chair in the downstairs lobby of the Circle in the Square Theatre with a television camera trained on his face. He was finishing an interview with a small television film crew during a break from rehearsals. Mr. Cavett went on about the nature of matter being created and destroyed, and how it relates to the Broadway revival of The Rocky Horror Show , which begins previews on Broadway Oct. 20. In the show, Mr. Cavett will be portraying the Narrator.
Even though Mr. Cavett was, in Rocky -speak, “devirginated” and saw the film–on, egads, VHS–for the first time only about three months ago, in the interview he sounded quite convincing, in part due to that famous, Nebraska-tinged vocal caramel of his. On stage, the man who used to interview Daniel Ellsberg, John Lennon, Norman Mailer and Groucho Marx will use it to deliver one of the show’s most enduring lines: “The Time Warp”‘s “It’s just a jump to the left.…”
As a closer of sorts, the producer of the program, a woman in a black leather jacket named Andrea Swift, asked Mr. Cavett if there was anything else he wanted to add. Mr. Cavett, who was absently passing a styrofoam cup of coffee from one hand to the other, gave the camera the impassioned look of a hostage under duress.
“Yes,” he said, “I’d like to say, if you have any influence with the director or choreographer, find out where my moonwalk is going to be worked into the show. I’m too intimidated to ask.”
Ms. Swift looked a little confused. Mr. Cavett began sliding around the carpet in a chewed pair of brown loafers he wore with white socks underneath. “I’ve done it on other people’s shows,” he said. “If you walk out there’s always big applause, of course, because there’s an applause sign. ‘Here he is, Dick Cavett!’ But if you turn, as I have, and do your moonwalk–five or steps or so is all you need–the sound triples to a roar of fanatical approval.”
Ms. Swift took the bait. “Do you want to do it for us?” she asked. Mr. Cavett’s face lit up.
For the next 10 minutes, Mr. Cavett, who turns 64 in November, held the little camera crew hostage to his moonwalk. They pulled the camera back to capture the whole moonwalk gestalt, turned a monitor to face him so that he could watch himself moonwalk, and readjusted the boom mike so that he could instruct while he moonwalked. (“Left heel down! Right heel up!”) By the time Mr. Cavett had actually finished doing his moonwalk, he lamented that it was not nearly what it could have been because of the lobby carpet.
“Can you see the illusion of sliding ?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Ms. Swift absently.
Afterwards, I asked Mr. Cavett where the crew had been from. He shrugged. “CBS, I think,” he said. It turned out they had been from a gay and lesbian magazine show called In the Life , which airs on some PBS stations. But an audience is an audience, as Mr. Cavett, who has been mostly heard and not seen since the last incarnation of The Dick Cavett Show quietly disappeared from the CNBC lineup in 1995, surely knows. Since then, Mr. Cavett has lent his voice to shows about cats and bats for the Animal Planet network and maintained his longtime gig of hosting the radio broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which (people are always surprised to learn) he pre-records sitting alone in front of a microphone in a New York recording studio.
In the last few years, Mr. Cavett’s appearance in the papers has usually signaled some misfortune or other, like in 1997, when the Stanford White-designed Montauk mansion that he owned with his wife of more than 35 years, the actress Carrie Nye, burnt to the ground, or when, that same year, a producer sued him for $35 million for bowing out of a syndicated radio talk show because he was suffering from a crippling depressive episode. Just last month, at a cocktail party for Christopher Reeve’s paralysis foundation, Mr. Cavett made the papers when he thrust his hand into his jacket pocket and impaled it on a pair of scissors he was toting around to perform his famous rope trick.
Even his regular appearances on the chat shows have become less frequent. Nobody, it seems, is willing to do what Dick Cavett once did, which was to bring on the bygone greats–Orson Welles, Jack Paar–to talk about the days when they looked out from the summit of show business.
Mr. Cavett once sat on his own summit on ABC, a summit similar to the one that David Letterman built, and the one Conan O’Brien made his own in the last few years. They called him “the thinking man’s Carson.” He had the attention of the hipster class and even the grudging acceptance of intellectuals, from whose ranks he booked guests. His theme song was a jazz variation of “Glitter and Be Gay” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide . Back when he was opposite Carson on ABC, Mr. Cavett’s show was crackling, dangerous, and he was the toast of New York.
But somewhere along the way, Dick Cavett became simply toast.
A few years ago, on Garry Shandling’s HBO talk-show comedy, The Larry Sanders Show , Hank, the Ed McMahon-like co-host tries to milk more money out of the network by claiming that Dick Cavett has been wooing him to co-host his cable show, but fails because nobody actually believed that Cavett was still on television. And even in his present stage-bound incarnation, Mr. Cavett seems to be packaged as a nostalgia act. Jordan Roth, The Rocky Horror Show ‘s 24-year-old producer, who readily admits that he had never actually seen Mr. Cavett on television, said that the casting decisions which brought both Mr. Cavett and 80′s rocker Joan Jett to the show represented a desire to create “this sort of outlaw, whatever-happened-to-these-people-that-you-loved-and-still-want-to-party-with show.”
A week before unleashing his moonwalk on the unwashed gay and lesbian masses, Mr. Cavett, fresh from getting a haircut, crossed the intersection of Madison Avenue and 81st Street. It was a muggy dusk, just before 6 p.m., and threatening to rain. While an unseen flock of what sounded like thousands of birds were going into an ecstatic chirping fit, Mr. Cavett stopped dead in his tracks before the big oak doors of the Frank E. Campbell funeral home, which has hosted more reclining celebrities than even the Sherry Netherland.
Mr. Cavett fixed his cornflower blue eyes in the middle distance.
“Here’s where I met Groucho,” Mr. Cavett said, pointing at the funeral home doors.
At that point, Mr. Cavett was a writer for Jack Paar’s Tonight Show . A Nebraska public school kid, the son of an English teacher and, from an early age, a student of the comic greats of his youth (Jack Benny, W.C. Fields and, of course, the Marx Brothers), Mr. Cavett graduated from Yale College and Yale drama school, then moved to New York and got a job as a copy boy at Time magazine. In a move of chutzpah that has since become well-worn showbiz lore, he marched into the RCA building in 1961 with an envelope of jokes and handed them to Mr. Paar, whom he encountered in a corridor. Mr. Paar dropped a few of his lines into ad libs that very night.
Soon after that, the playwright George S. Kaufman dropped dead. Mr. Cavett, who was never shy about social situations, marched over to Frank E. Campbell to pay his respects and check out the scene. “I’d met Woody for the first time at the Blue Angel the night before,” he recalled, referring to Woody Allen. Mr. Cavett, who over the years has honed a reputation as a shameless name-dropper, rarely uses last names.
“I was sent over by The Tonight Show to cover this new comic. So Woody and I said, ‘Let’s go to Kaufman’s funeral tomorrow,’ but he called in the morning and said he couldn’t. But I came here and saw that the funeral was an overflow. The big room was already loaded and there were people in the anterooms. So I went into an anteroom. The instant I sat down I looked across from me, and from that moment I was something. I had been in the presence of Groucho Marx.” It was, he remembers, the day of the Puerto Rican Day parade. After the funeral, Mr. Cavett walked towards Fifth Avenue with Marx and wangled an invitation to lunch with him at the Plaza. Almost 40 years later, Mr. Cavett still remembers part of Marx’s riff on the parade revelers. “Only four years ago, they were cutting sugar cane,” Groucho said. And he still remembers how Marx inscribed to him a copy of his memoir, The Groucho File : “To Little Dick, same as me, Groucho.” It was incinerated in the Montauk fire. A short time ago, Mr. Cavett noticed that the copy of his autobiography, Cavett , that he had inscribed to Marx, “With the veneration usually reserved for the gods, Dick Cavett,” was for sale on eBay. “It was up around 200 bucks,” Mr. Cavett said, not unimpressed.
It would have gone for a lot more than that during the time The Dick Cavett Show was up against Johnny Carson on ABC from 1969 to 1972. Then, Mr. Cavett’s appeal was that he was sort of an anticipatory anti-Leno figure: He didn’t appear to require love or adoration from either his guests or audience; always appeared to be listening to his guests, rather than setting up for the next question; was comfortable with his intellectual acumen and his relative unhipness next to his guests (although he was forever arguing that he was not an intellectual); and was forever unapologetic about his monologue, the weakest part of his show.
“Disengagement” is the word that Marshall Brickman, then the show’s creative consultant (and later Woody Allen’s writing partner), used to describe Mr. Cavett’s appeal in a 1972 New Yorker profile, written back when Mr. Cavett had 35 employees and 2.5 million viewers.
Mr. Cavett never looked like he was trying to make friends on network television. He was best and coolest while under siege, like the famous 1972 Gore Vidal-Janet Flanner-Norman Mailer interview, when a drunk Mr. Mailer hijacked the show and teed off on the other guests. Without modulating his voice, Mr. Cavett said that he hoped Mr. Mailer wouldn’t make television history by slugging the elderly Ms. Flanner.
“I guarantee you that I wouldn’t hit any of the people here because they’re smaller,” Mr. Mailer said.
Cavett: “In what ways ?”
Mailer: “Intellectually smaller.”
Cavett: “Perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect …”
Mailer: “Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask a question?”
Cavett: “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?”
Mr. Cavett will also be remembered for his 1968 hour-long Groucho Marx interview on which, for no apparent reason, Marx wore a striped tam with pom-poms on top. It turned out to be the last good hour that the world would see from the comic before he suffered a series of strokes that would eventually kill him. For the hour, Mr. Cavett allowed himself to shed the detached reserve and several times nearly fell off his chair in fits of laughter. At one point, Marx dropped his Groucho persona and looked fondly at Mr. Cavett. “You know you’re one of the best and wittiest conversationalists,” he said.
Even back then, Mr. Cavett told The New Yorker that he felt a periodic black dread and sadness that he associated with performing, and now he says he would, in the past, unconsciously grind his teeth. But at the moment of Marx’s compliment, Mr. Cavett looked as though he might explode with pride. Many say that it was in 1972, when ABC decided to put Mr. Cavett’s show in an irregular rotation with shows hosted by, among others, his mentor Jack Paar–whose career he had resuscitated with a triumphant appearance on The Dick Cavett Show –that the young, disengaged Cavett disappeared, replaced by somebody else who manifested a need for more and more approval. And, as his numbers waned, so did the networks’ tolerance of his career-spanning prickliness.
“Dick’s career has been built on serendipity, and I don’t think he’d mind me saying that,” said Mr. Cavett’s best friend, Christopher Porterfield, an executive editor at Time magazine who met Mr. Cavett in a freshman English class at Yale and went on to be the co-writer of his 1974 autobiography, then, for a time in the late 70′s, the executive producer of Mr. Cavett’s company, Daphne Productions.
“He’s brilliant at exploiting things that fall in his lap. He is a born spontaneous television performer, but he’s not good at packaging himself, thinking of formats for himself, or conceptualizing his career.… If you say to him, ‘Okay Dick, what do you want to do next?’, his mind goes blank. That’s what began to happen. The more the burden fell on him to reinvent himself, it became harder, and he became more dependent on what people were offering, whatever it was.”
In 1976, on his PBS talk show, Mr. Cavett asked Woody Allen why he had chosen to skip the George S. Kaufman funeral. The pair had become close when Mr. Cavett left The Tonight Show and embarked on a short-lived standup comedy career that found him playing the same club circuit as Mr. Allen, telling thinky one-liners like “I went to a German-Chinese restaurant the other night, and a hour later I was hungry for power.”
On the show, Mr. Allen replied, in what sounded like a thinly veiled barb, that “of the two of us, over the years, you may have noticed, that you’re the more social one than I am … I find it real tough to show up at places, parties or any kind of social gathering … whereas you seem to be able to walk right in, [and] eat the hors d’oeuvres.”
He also complimented Mr. Cavett on having courage enough to shout at cabbies and harangue waiters.
Mr. Cavett hasn’t seen Mr. Allen in what he reckons to be over a year, when the two lunched at Shun Lee. A while afterward, Mr. Cavett sent Mr. Allen a note that read in part, “I haven’t seen you since Sun Luck.” Mr. Cavett winced at the memory, much more than any person should have to.
“I realized that I had the initials right but the wrong restaurant,” he said. “Some punctilious, librarian-like copy editor in me hates the fact that I haven’t been able to tell Woody that I had Sun Luck instead of Shun Lee.” He paused, smiled a rueful smile. “I hope that’s not why he isn’t putting me in his next movie.”
At the corner of 81st Street and Fifth Avenue, Mr. Cavett ducked into the bar at the Stanhope Hotel where, he noted, Mr. Allen had shot parts of his film Celebrity . He said he was concerned that he wasn’t dressed appropriately for the hotel in his rehearsal clothes: a black “Twisted Tales” hat from the Animal Planet show he narrates, an old pair of chinos, and a shirt with epaulets, with mismatched black and white buttons sewn onto it.
He was wearing a spool of index cards on a rope around his neck that Christopher Ashley, the Rocky Horror director, had made for him until he managed to learn all his lines. “I’m the problem boy,” he said.
He got a load of a rotund man sitting at the bar in a loud polo shirt. “At least I’m not as bad as that asshole,” he said and sat down at a cocktail table and ordered an orange juice with no ice.
Mr. Cavett said that he is in good shape now. With the help of medication and therapy, knock wood, the worst of the depression–which at one point during his PBS show landed him in Columbia Presbyterian hospital–has abated. And he now realizes he was in good company. “I think Groucho had at least a period [of depression],” he said. “His wife had left him … he would walk the dog in front of their house, over and over, until they invited him in. I remember that feeling in that country setting, thinking, ‘I wish I could go over to somebody’s house. There might be a place to lie down there.’”
Last summer, construction on the Montauk house was completed meticulously, so that it is exactly as it was when it burned in 1997, down to replacements for his wife’s childhood furniture from Mississippi. And the sadness that he experiences seems to be about all the friends and guests he’s lost over the years. His face drops when he talks about how Orson Welles, late in his life, would never fly because he could no longer fit his girth in first-class seats. “It would have been interesting to say to him, ‘Hey, Orson, do you know what fat does to you?’” Mr. Cavett said. “‘You know that it’s shortening your life and bringing on diabetes. You’re not stupid. Have you tried to quit eating? Have you tried to get it under control? What do you so hate about yourself?’”
And on the rare occasion that he sees his old shows, it reminds him of why Stan Laurel, late in his life, said he never liked to watch his old films. “He would say, ‘It’s so terrible, you know, looking at the old films,’” he said. “‘It’s like looking at ghosts. I’m the only one alive up on the screen.’”
And of course, he misses having a show. And he regrets not really having enjoyed it when he did. “If only I could go back into that time, I wouldn’t bitch at anybody else,” he said. “I’d be easier on myself. I’d be easier to work with. I’d be much, much more interesting, because I’m older now.” Mr. Cavett got the faraway look in his eyes, then laughed and whipped himself back into the present. “But of course, if I’m older, I can’t go back to that time. And then,” he said, “the thought gets all screwed up.”