Born in Nebraska in 1936, Dick Cavett studied English at Yale before switching his major to drama. He became a writer for The Tonight Show and also worked as a stand-up comedian before landing his own morning talk show in 1968. Moved to late night in 1969, The Dick Cavett Show was the smarter, more controversial counterpart to The Tonight Show with its wide range of guests and subject matter. Following its cancellation in 1974, Cavett resurfaced with similarly formatted shows on PBS, USA and CNBC. He has also worked as an actor on stage and screen and is the author of numerous books and articles.
Dick Cavett was born on November 19, 1936, in Gibbon, Nebraska. His parents were schoolteachers and passed on their academic bent to their son, who also was a state gymnastics champion in high school. In addition, Cavett developed an interest in magic and began honing his skills through performances.
In 1954, Cavett left Nebraska behind to attend Yale University, where he majored in English and made the dean’s list in his freshman year. Around this time, he also began making trips to New York to see television show tapings, an experience that stirred something inside of him and changed the course of his ambitions. He switched his major to drama as a senior and graduated in 1958, intent on pursuing a career as an actor.
Living in New York and struggling to find acting work, Cavett found himself in a variety of jobs, including store detective and typist. But it was while working as a copy boy for Time magazine that a moment of inspiration propelled Cavett’s career forward. After learning that Jack Paar, the host of The Tonight Show, sometimes had trouble with his opening monologues, Cavett quickly wrote one out and brought it to NBC headquarters, where he handed it over unsolicited to Paar. Impressed by the young man’s brazenness and humor, Paar tried his jokes out on the show that night, and after the audience responded favorably, he hired Cavett.
Cavett became an important writer on the Tonight Show staff, penning jokes not only for Paar, but also for his successor, Johnny Carson, and interim host Groucho Marx as well. It was Marx, as well as Cavett’s new friend Woody Allen, who encouraged the young writer to step into the limelight as a stand-up comic. In 1964 Cavett did just that, performing in clubs in New York City and around the nation. That year, he also married actress Carrie Nye, whom he had known since Yale and would remain with until her death in 2006.
One On One
After several years and a variety of writing and acting jobs, including appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and the popular quiz show What’s My Line?, Cavett in 1968 received an offer to host his own program on ABC. Beginning as an interview show titled This Morning, it was soon renamed The Dick Cavett Show and moved to prime time, before landing in a late-night slot in December 1969, where it directly competed with Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show.
Despite the two shows’ apparently similar formats, Cavett soon distinguished himself from his NBC counterpart. Though The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show often featured many of the same big-name guests, Cavett eschewed the gag-laden style of his forerunners for a more relaxed, conversational tone. He also proved willing to go further out on a limb with his subject matter, at times bringing on controversial guests and addressing more difficult issues.
While the roster of names and themes that Cavett engaged with is too lengthy to list in full, during the show’s run on ABC he hosted guests as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and F. Lee Bailey, Hugh Hefner and Mickey Mantle, and Laurence Olivier and Timothy Leary. Cavett revealed a more intellectual streak as well, interviewing such literary greats as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Anthony Burgess, to name a few. Cavett further distinguished himself by tackling such hot-button issues as racism, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Despite its obvious depth and critical success, including multiple Emmy Award nominations, an eventual lull in its ratings—coupled with the feeling that it was too smart for the average viewer—prompted ABC to cancel The Dick Cavett Show in 1974. However, Cavett was far from done, resurfacing in 1975 on CBS and in 1977 as the host of another interview series for PBS, followed by similar gigs with USA and CNBC that ran into the mid-1990s. During that span, Cavett continued to demonstrate his ability to draw his guests out and engage them in a wide variety of topics, from the personal to the political.
Never “just” a talk-show host, over the course of his career Cavett has lent his wit, intellect and image to a wide range of projects. As an actor—at times playing himself—he has appeared in films such as Annie Hall, Beetlejuice and Forrest Gump, and he most recently performed in the 2014 off-Broadway play Hellman v. McCarthy.
The year 2014 also saw the release of the PBS special Dick Cavett’s Watergate, as well as the most recent of several books he has authored, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, a collection of his columns for the New York Times. Cavett, who remarried in 2010, splits his time between New York City and Montauk.
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