Christmas came early for me this year as I got to talk to Dick Cavett about Groucho Marx. The occasion is the December 27 premiere of American Masters "Groucho & Cavett" on PBS.
Dubbed "the thinking man's talk show host," Cavett emerged as a clear alternative to Johnny Carson's Tonight Show while on ABC from 1969 through 1975. (Other networks kept him busy into the '90s). His series set the bar for conversation and inquiry and featured such 20th century icons as Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, Woody Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Norman Mailer, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Truman Capote and too many other names to drop.
One was Groucho Marx. As he tells it on this podcast, Cavett met the most famous Marx brother by "sheer accident." It happened in 1961 as they were coming out of a funeral service for famed playwright George S. Kaufman. Before you could say the secret word, the two became fast friends.
Cavett was 25 at the time, Groucho 70. Later, as he was closing in on 80, the comedian appeared many times on Cavett's shows, often wearing a ridiculous golf hat with three balls on it. He killed, especially on the early episodes, singing and cracking wise and owning every inch of Cavett's stage.
I was 12 or 13 at the time and saw much of it live. It was great, historic television and such fun to re-visit on the American Masters episode.
The story has a Canadian angle, though not a happy one. In his last few years, the aging comedian fell under the spell of a young woman from northern Ontario named Erin Fleming. Cavett, who had them both on his show, shares his thoughts.
Cavett remains witty and robust at 86. He talks about his early gigs writing jokes for Tonight Show hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. He confirms getting to know another one of the comedy gods, Stan Laurel. We even touch on one of the Yale grad's proudest achievements: getting on Richard Nixon's enemies list.
Ladies and gentlemen, my guests on this episode in alphabetical order: Dick Cavett.