Dick Cavett in the Digital Age

Stopping to smell the flowers with the last great intellectual talk-show host.

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — Everyone wants to ask Dick Cavett the same question, and it is a question that he never wants to answer: Of all today’s talk-show hosts, who is the “next Dick Cavett”?

“Well, that’s an awkward subject matter for me, because I know all of them,” Mr. Cavett, 81, said on a recent sunny Thursday afternoon at his sprawling country house in Connecticut. “I’m not addicted to talk shows. God knows, I’ve spent enough time on them.”

As in Mr. Cavett’s 1960s and ’70s heyday, the country is in a period of turbulence, with racial tensions flaring, protests in the streets, and a fundamental ideological fissure. The hosts who have emphasized substance, who have “gone political,” have been praised and nominated for Emmys.

But “the next Cavett”? Is such a thing possible?

If only.

For three decades, Mr. Cavett was the thinking person’s Johnny Carson, embodiment of an East Coast sophisticate. He wore smart turtlenecks and double-breasted blazers, had more cultural references than a Google server and laced martini-dry witticisms into lengthy, probing talks with 20th-century luminaries including Bette Davis, James Baldwin, Mick Jagger and Jean-Luc Godard.

A Renaissance salon in a rabbit-ears era, “The Dick Cavett Show” was woke some 50 years before the term came into vogue. Viewers tuned in to see Muhammad Ali spout off about the Vietnam War or to see Yoko Ono show her conceptual art in a 90-minute discussion with John Lennon.

Imagine: from left, John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Dick Cavett in 1971. Credit ABC, via Getty Images

Fans of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” would scarcely know what to make of the infamous and chaotic 1971 “Cavett” episode featuring Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, who had recently compared Mr. Mailer to Charles Manson in a New York Review of Books essay.

After Mr. Mailer accused Mr. Vidal of “intellectual pollution” and Mr. Cavett of being “smaller intellectually” than himself, Mr. Cavett suggested, in what was perhaps the original sick burn, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?”

In fact, “‘intellectual’ was a word that always made me go up the wall, partly because I knew how the word is esteemed in the world of television,” Mr. Cavett said, sipping seltzer with orange and munching grapes in his sunroom. “I was called ‘intellectual,’ I guess, because I didn’t know any better than to read the guests’ books.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~


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