Former talk show host Dick Cavett spent a lifetime on television, interviewing many of the leading cultural figures of the 20th century – but also more recently opened up about his struggle with depression. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
If you're interviewing a man who has been a comedy writer, standup comic and talk show host, you better be ready with some material.
Dick Cavett: Don't you think it's a little rude to read your mail while you've got me waiting?
Budd Mishkin: It's my one fan letter and I bring it around everywhere.
Cavett: A fan letter poured in this morning.
Mishkin: So this was your first apartment in New York?
Cavett: Yeah, don't you love what I've done with the place?
No, this is not Dick Cavett's apartment. It's the Player's Club in Gramercy Park and the room of one of its founders -- famed 19th century actor Edwin Booth, known to history as the brother of the man who shot Abraham Lincoln.
Cavett: He really never recovered from it nor did his career.
Mishkin: Tough one to live down.
Cavett: Yeah. Some relatives are too much trouble.
Cavett has occasionally graced the stage, as he did playing the narrator in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
But for four decades, we've known him from his television shows. The best known -- his talk show on ABC from 1968 until 1975.
Nowadays, his words aren't heard, but read. Cavett is a columnist on the New York Times website.
"It's nice when people quote something you've written. And somehow it means more than something you've said. I don't know why that should be," says Cavett.
It was once thought that anything said on television was here and gone, whereas the written word was there for posterity. Now, ironically, it's hard to find the two books Cavett authored. But thanks to DVD collections, it's easy to watch his old ABC shows. He interviewed many of the great cultural figures of the times, including his friend Woody Allen, even John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
"He said something I've never forgotten. He said, 'You have the only halfway intelligent talk show on television.' And I thought, being called halfway intelligent is quite a compliment," says Cavett.
He had Katherine Hepburn's first television interview.
"When I finally spoke to her on the phone about it, it looked like it might happen. And it contained the line 'Of course if we do it and we don't like it, we'll just burn the tapes, won't we'," says Cavett.
The list of guests is impressive and eclectic -- Fred Astaire, Jimi Hendrix, a show that provided a forum for segregationist Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, and musicians coming back from Woodstock.
But the memories from the taping of another cultural icon are not so sweet.
"Laurence Olivier is in the next room and I am not thrilled. I can just as easily go home," remembers Cavett.
It was one of the first signs of Cavett's lifelong battle with depression.
He thought the interview with Olivier went so badly, he didn't watch the show until he got some advice from another pretty fair actor, Marlon Brando.
"'Do me a favor, take a look at it.' And I did. And I called him and I said I was fine. 'How did you know?' My eyes sparkled and I came in instantly. There were no pauses. 'Automatic pilot, it works for us'," says Cavett.
Over the last 20 years, Cavett has written and spoken extensively about his episodes of depression, which he describes succinctly.
"My brain is broken. I can feel it, it'll never get better," says Cavett. "Nothing interests you, no pleasure is possible. If there were a magic wand over there, eight feet away, that would help, that would cure you, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up."
For a man who reveres comedy and comedians, is anything funny when you are dealing with depression?
"I think there must be some little residual spark in there that says there's plenty of evidence that this is funny and entertaining and will be enjoyable to me even someday," says Cavett.
Cavett long ago went public with his struggle, on television, giving speeches, and now in his columns on the New York Times website.
"People reacted with, 'You saved my dad's life.' When he saw Dick Cavett talked about this, he thought maybe it was alright for him too," says Cavett.
As a young man in New York, Dick Cavett had a propensity for meeting many of his comedy heroes, like Groucho Marx.
"We kept talking, walking down Fifth Avenue, from George Kaufman's funeral, on 79th, and on down and on down, and we finally got to 59th, and I thought, 'You can shoot me now, I've had this much time with Groucho Marx.' And the familiar voice from the game show said, 'Well you certainly seem like a nice young man, and I'd like you to have lunch with me,' and I was in heaven," Cavett recalls.
Cavett dreamed of being part of New York show business even while growing up in Grand Island, Nebraska.
His parents were teachers. His mother died of cancer when Cavett was only 10 years old.
Years later, at the height of his television popularity, Cavett wrote that he had never recovered completely from his mother's death.
"I'm hearing my father say it. I'm not sure if he said it to me or I overheard it. The thing that's killing her is that she'll never get to see how Dick develops," says Cavett.
Cavett developed into a state champion gymnast, and a magician.
He once went to a local magic show with friends and introduced himself to the performer Johnny Carson.
"The best part was that during his show, he stopped in the middle and said, 'We have three young magicians in the audience.' I'd like to say he knew our names, he might very well have. Anyway, he introduced us to the audience and we felt like we were on Ed Sullivan," says Cavett.
Cavett would one day write for Carson, and then have a talk show opposite him. Others saw the two Nebraska natives as competitors.
But Cavett says they were always friends.
"When I told members of his staff that I had dinner at his place the night before I was on the show with him, they thought I was dreaming. 'You've seen the house? The inside?' But Johnny liked me so much that it was surprising to me. He's the most socially miserable person I've ever known," says Cavett.
Cavett says writing for others was easy because he had their voices in his head. And then he decided to do standup himself.
"Let's see, now I'll write my act. Oooo. What do I come on as?" says Cavett.
He started playing clubs in the Village, where soon-to-be household names were still relatively unknown.
"It was a sailor as I recall, and a girlfriend. The guy's saying, 'They got Rodney Dangerfeld or I can't quite make it out, Joanne Rivers, and Dick Cavett -- let's keep moving,'" remembers Cavett.
Cavett eventually moved into the talk show chair, where he'd stay for some 30 years. Early on, he did 90 minutes a night, five nights a week. As a result, the guests and topics often became a blur.
"The hardest thing I had to learn was listening. And I'm famous for being a so-called 'good listener.' But the number of times when I began and I would look at the other guest and think, 'Oh my God, this person's lips have stopped moving. I don't have any idea what they just said'," says Cavett.
Cavett's wife of 42 years, actress Carrie Nye, died in 2006.
He is now 72, but still has a bit of youthful exuberance about how this has all turned out -- a kid from Nebraska who got to meet, write for, interview, and ultimately befriend many of his show business heroes.
He recalled part of a letter once sent to him by the daughter of Groucho Marx.
"My eye dropped about eight lines in the letter, suddenly, and found this sentence, this may break me up to tell you, 'My father thought the world of you,'" Cavett says. "And I just realized that nothing in my life will ever override that, no matter how bad things get."