Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Interview with Dick Cavett


This interview was originally conducted as research for an article that was commissioned by a major publication, but never ran. If you wonder why much of the conversation revolves around two hippie members of the Mel Lyman personality cult as opposed to Dick Cavett's career, that is precisely why. 



Dick Cavett Voicemail: (D.C. asking you to leave a message at the tone).

Kliph Nesteroff: Hey there, Mr. Cavett. It's Kliph Nesteroff calling. It is Monday, 10am. If you wanna give me a call back ... if you prefer I can call you right back so I can pick up the charges. Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks. Bye.

[Phone Rings]

Kliph Nesteroff: Kliph speaking.

Dick Cavett: Ahhh, it's the absent Cavett.

Kliph Nesteroff: Hello, Mr. Cavett.

Dick Cavett: You have to call me back. I gotta finish a thing, send it off and if you can call ten minutes from now, I'll be clear.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'll make it fifteen.

Dick Cavett: Okay. Thanks.

[Fifteen Minutes Later]

Dick Cavett: Hello?

Kliph Nesteroff: Hey there, it's Kliph Nesteroff calling again.

Dick Cavett: At last.

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Cavett: (laughs) I can't be more grateful to you for reminding me and letting me see once again that incredible [interview with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin].

Kliph Nesteroff: I know it's perhaps a rather marginal moment in the history of your show but...



Dick Cavett: Well, it didn't stand out as much as Lester Maddox walking off or the man who died on the show. Although there was a near death here in terms of the interview itself.

Kliph Nesteroff: I hadn't even heard of these two until I saw that segment on the DVD release.

Dick Cavett: Did you just happen to see if they were on there and find them?

Kliph Nesteroff: I had been watching the DVDs to begin with, a few years back, when they came out. It just struck me as such a strange interview and at the very end Mark Frechette - I think you suggested they live in a commune and the gentleman gets somewhat hostile and says "It's not a commune. It's a community."

Dick Cavett: A community, yeah.


Kliph Nesteroff: What's the difference? And he says the difference is... our purpose is to serve Mel Lyman. As soon as you hear that - red flags.

Dick Cavett: Yeah, absolutely. I can't guarantee that I had ever heard the word commune at that point, but I must not have. What else would account for my [pronouncing] it come-yoon? Mel Lyman certainly didn't ring a real strong bell at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: I talked to the woman who at the time was in charge of chauffeuring the two around to promotional junkets and interviews when Zabriskie Point came out...

Dick Cavett: Don't tell me [this appearance] was the brightest of all of them (laughs)!

Kliph Nesteroff: She said [all their appearances] were terribly awkward. Anything that had to do with what they perceived as mainstream showbiz, they just would not go along with. So they begrudgingly went to these...

Dick Cavett: It was clear from their grim-visaged entrance that they were soiling themselves by appearing on a commercial television program. And I think when I saw it just now, I got the same chill I undoubtedly got then looking at their faces as they lurched and slunk onto the stage and into their chairs.


Kliph Nesteroff: When that happened was there anything going through your head, like there's something wrong with these two?

Dick Cavett: Yeah, I wondered if they were zombies of some sort.

Kliph Nesteroff: In a sense, they were.

Dick Cavett: They bore me out as well as bored me (pause). Well, I can't say that, really. I always kind of liked it when the going got tough. Having Mel Brooks sitting there and being able to see his face … kind of inspired me to such exchanges. I’d ask [Frechette something] and he'd sort of mumble, "What do you want to know about it?" And I said, "Oh, nothing." This broke Mel up and the audience. Had I been there alone and not had Rex and Mel there... I have to admit I was probably playing a bit to them because they knew quite clearly what a pain in the ass the two were.


Kliph Nesteroff: I guess at the very least it does set you up for some very large laughs when the tension is that high.

Dick Cavett: Yes. I'm surprised I didn't say are you aware this program is called a talk show. If I had to do it over again, I would (laughs). It's not a sit and stare show.


Kliph Nesteroff: Did you learn anything about [the two being involved in a cult] after that interview?

Dick Cavett: If I did, it is lost in the great maw of memory. I had any number of keener interests than them at the time.

Kliph Nesteroff: Of course.

Dick Cavett: I don't remember ... seeing them before the show. I usually didn't see [guests] before the show, unless somebody said they'd like it if you came by and said hello, make them relax a little. But I have no memory of [Frechette and Halprin] before or after the show.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think it was maybe just two or three weeks before the appearance on your show, Mark Frechette accompanied Abbie Hoffman on The Merv Griffin Show for the notorious flag shirt...

Dick Cavett: The flag shirt incident.


Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently, during that episode, Frechette punched out one of the other guests on The Merv Griffin Show.

Dick Cavett: Yes. Do we know who that was?

Kliph Nesteroff: I have his name... he was a fellow who turned into a speech writer for Ronald Reagan.

Dick Cavett: My God. A result of being hit in the face?

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Apparently, despite being in a cult his instincts were correct.

Dick Cavett: (laughs) Yes, sounds like.

Kliph Nesteroff: Tony Dolan, was his name.

Dick Cavett: Spelled how?

Kliph Nesteroff: D-O-L-A-N. Tony or Anthony Dolan.

Dick Cavett: God, that rings a bell but I'm just not sure why. Maybe his name just got out a bit when he became a Reagan speechwriter.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had just graduated from Yale and was writing for [William F.] Buckley's [National] Review.

Dick Cavett: Oh, yeah. I had some vague truck with him somewhere.

Kliph Nesteroff: He became a speechwriter for Reagan and, later, a speechwriter for George W. Bush as well.

Dick Cavett: Oh, did he? Dolan, yeah I do remember the name. I almost have an image come to mind but not clearly.



Kliph Nesteroff: I guess it doesn't help that speechwriters try to stay in the shadows.

Dick Cavett: But I definitely remember that name if not him in person.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oddly enough I cannot find footage of that famous Merv Griffin - Abbie Hoffman episode.

Dick Cavett: I wonder if CBS buried it somehow. I don't know if this will help you, but I had a show [go] suspiciously missing once. I was going over my old favorite tapes. It was controversial... the guy who murdered his family in New Jersey and then claimed hippies did it. Captain [Jeffrey MacDonald]. 


He was an army doctor and it [became] a book and a movie. Fatal Vision is the book ... He's still in prison ... Every so often his parole comes up. He's been in the slammer since the seventies. I did a show with him before he was clearly a suspect. Anyway, we went to find this show for [research purposes] for something I was writing for my Times blog and [word] came back that, curiously, it's missing. Somebody checked around and found that it had been taken. It was not among my shows in the warehouse, but the Justice Department had a copy of it. And we got it [through the] Freedom of Information act or something. Anyway, we got it. It was black and white, which was weird ... wasn't a kinescope... it was too late for that. It was a strange incident. Now, the Nixon administration was never happy with my show and I had a number of interesting incidents about that. One of them you can see on YouTube if you haven't. I think one version is titled Nixon Wants Revenge on Dick Cavett. It's the great inundator, co-conspirator talking with Hadelman.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, from the Nixon tapes you mean. Yes, I have listened to that.

Dick Cavett: How can we screw him? There must be a way.

Kliph Nesteroff: That stuff is fascinating to listen to. Some of it is just ridiculous how inconsequential... just the fact that he taped everything.

Dick Cavett: In looking at it recently, I hit on another bit that you may have found. It's titled Jews and Negros as Spies. You know what I'm referring to?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes...



Dick Cavett: Halderman says, in effect, the reason they aren't [spies] is they're too dumb. They aren't smart enough to be spies and Nixon gets off one of his anti-semitic remarks. Although [everyone] in this world are now saying anti-semAtic. I tried to correct that in a column.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I worried about talking to you [wondering] if I was saying "commune" wrong.

Dick Cavett: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm not going to say come-yoon and then Cavett's going to write a column about it!

Dick Cavett: I flinched when I heard myself say come-yoon. I must have only seen it in those days and not heard it. I'm always correcting other people that say coup de graw and hain-eee-us...

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, anything with a French derivative you gotta expect to be slaughtered...

Dick Cavett: Why do we wreck them all? It would please Mark Twain. I [would like] to find all the remarks against the French in Mark Twain [and put them] together in a thick book (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: With foreword by Dick Cavett.


Dick Cavett: Yeah, I'd love to do it. I nearly fainted a couple weeks ago when the word L-I-N-G-E-R-I-E was pronounced correctly for the first time in my lifetime by the media, but most people wouldn't recognize the correct pronunciation. Why do we pick on the French? Is it a subconscious hatred of the French that we say... well, nevermind. We're off the subject. (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I'm in Canada right now and if someone does pronounce French words [incorrectly] it is assumed that you're insulting the French.

Dick Cavett: Nobody is worse at languages than the British. They're even worse than Americans who are proud they can't remember one word from their two years of Spanish. [Winston] Churchill was dreadful ... anyway, what else? That entrance of [Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin's on The Dick Cavett Show] is chilling. People would come out and the vibes they gave off would be a reveal for what was to follow. I loved it when Mel Brooks said to her, "Daria, time is passing! Talk!" And the breadbox line. "Anything! Breadbox! Something!" (laughs)


Kliph Nesteroff: There's another wonderful moment where there is an awkward silence between everybody on the panel and then you say, "Oh, I remember what I was going to ask you," and then Mel Brooks yells, "Thank God!"

Dick Cavett: Oh! I was going to ask you what that was! I played it twice and wasn't sure what he said... is that what he said? Wonderful (laughs). Yes, oh, bless his heart.

Kliph Nesteroff: I enjoyed the special that you did with Mel Brooks for Turner Classic Movies.


Dick Cavett: Oh, yes, that was reviewed by [someone] at The New York Times. She doesn't appear in The Times anymore, but she was one of those sent-out-to-create-a-naysaying-image quite clearly. Somewhere in the first paragraph she indicated that I thought Jews should be dead.

Kliph Nesteroff: Good Lord.

Dick Cavett: She was talking about [my introduction] from a Ken Tynan piece on Mel, [a] Playboy interview. It listed the disadvantages Mel had in life as a kid. It ended with Tynan's nicely worded [statement] that it was a set of circumstances that could only lead to two things: a career in show business or suicide. And what's-her-name didn't catch that it was a quote from Tynan. She thought it was a sentiment that I expressed. Friends of mine angered at the time by her review wrote that 'We've been pissed off at her for years. She's always been the naysayer, the nasty one, the one who isn't impressed where other people are.' That was one of the worst journalistic goofs I've ever seen.

Kliph Nesteroff: You would think if you were reviewing a show that appeared on television you would have the foresight to record it, rather than watch it in real time and review it based on memory. I find it frustrating if I or someone else is interviewed and then are misquoted. Especially comedians. If they tell a joke and then some reviewer misquotes the joke.

Dick Cavett: Oh my God.

Kliph Nesteroff: It doesn't matter if they're saying how funny or how unfunny the person is, if they misquote the joke, the person reading the paper says, 'Well, this person's not funny. This joke that's been quoted isn’t funny.'


Dick Cavett: The misquote kills the joke. There were two practitioners of that, although I don't want to get another nasty letter from Jeffrey Lyons about his father. Leonard Lyons was a long-time columnist. Well liked, but a tin ear. I'll try to make this quick without name dropping. I'll have to tell you that it was one of The Marx Brothers that I was in Lindy's with, maybe you can guess which one. Leonard Lyons came up and Groucho said, "Oh, Jesus." [Lyons] said, "Say something funny, Groucho," holding his pad and pencil. Whatever [Groucho gave him] was a mild thing, and Lyon's thought 'That's the thing I need,' and walked away without a thank you or anything. And I said, "You know he'll fuck it up." Groucho said, "I know. The only way to get him to print a joke right is to tell it to him wrong." Wonderful line. Better than Lyons got. 


One time I really broke up my former boss, Johnny Carson, at the end of [an episode of The Tonight Show]. I was fairly new. Johnny would have me on whenever a [new] Cavett show [hit the airwaves]. Johnny would do a joke like, “It's gonna be Armed Forces Radio for Dick if this one doesn't go,” but we were great friends. At the end of the show he [went down the panel], “What're you doing next?” [The guest would answer] “I'm doing a movie.” “And what're you doing next?” “I have a musical opening on Broadway.” And I thought, “I hope they don't get to me because I don't have anything.” [Johnny] said, “Richard? What's up for you?” The God's gave me, “I'm working on a sitcom. It's a humorous version of Gilligan's Island.” Well, Johnny went off the chair with that laugh he would sometimes do. Earl Wilson quoted it as, “A comedy version of Gilligan's Island.” Now, it's the same joke but not as good as “humorous.” Flattens it completely.




Kliph Nesteroff: Doesn't work the same way. I find that to be a weird phenomena that doesn't exist anymore. The Earl Wilson idea of "such and such said" and then quoting a quip.

Dick Cavett: Oh, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know if you submitted things the way Woody did to columns like that, but that seems like such a strange practice to me. That doesn't happen anymore. “Such and such was at such and such restaurant and said...”

Dick Cavett: Yes, that's right.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it just that these columnists had no talent themselves and had to rely on...

Dick Cavett: Yes, it was that. (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Dick Cavett: Wilson wasn't a bad writer. He was very well liked. At a personal appearance somewhere on the West Coast I had the ill-luck to tell a [story about a] Lyons incident. During the question and answer afterward a woman got up and said, "I happen to be Leonard Lyons' sister," and I said, "That's nothing to be ashamed of." Got a laugh. She berated me and I got several laughs off her and somehow this got back to young Jeffrey Lyons, who wrote a note defending his dad. I wrote one back saying I liked him and so-and-so. This wasn't the worst sin in the world and that he must be aware he was occasionally a bender of people's humor into an unrecognizable shape. Never heard from him again (laughs). God, you're bringing up all sorts of trash out of my past (laughs).


Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) I had a question for you. After you worked for Carson, you went on to work for The Jerry Lewis Show…

Dick Cavett: Yessss. (sarcastic) Thank you for reminding me.

Kliph Nesteroff: Sorry. Back in January when the Leno - Conan debacle was happening I wrote a piece. I didn't have the foresight to contact you, but I wrote a piece about The Jerry Lewis Show.

Dick Cavett: Oh, can I get it?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, I'll send it to you. One question: Was Jerry Lewis raiding The Tonight Show staff for his staff? I know Perry Cross went over.

Dick Cavett: Oh, interesting. Yes, and Shirley Wood also. Long time Johnny regular. Perry Cross. Bob Howard, writer for Bob Hope and later for Jack [Paar].

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you think that was a conscious move on Lewis' part?


Dick Cavett: He met all of those people ... in the interim between Tonight Shows. Jerry hosted two weeks. So he met all of us.

Kliph Nesteroff: And those two weeks are really what spawned his getting the two-hour [Jerry Lewis Show].

Dick Cavett: Probably did, yes. He was better on those two weeks than he was on The Jerry Lewis Show, which he pissed away most nights. Then he was deeply depressed on at least two, maybe three, shows. His father appeared in the afternoon [before those two or three episodes] at rehearsal. You could watch Jerry go down, down, down. I think Perry Cross eventually hired somebody to be a look-out and if you saw Danny Lewis approaching the theater [you had to go take him to] a bar or kidnap him or something. One of the strangest things about Jerry, among many.


Kliph Nesteroff: What a bizarre series of neurosis that you had to deal with, from working with Paar to, shortly after that, working with Jerry Lewis. I can't think of two bigger stars that [showed] their neurosis right in front of the camera.


Dick Cavett: No. You almost can't compare Jack [to Jerry]. People [always say] "He was very unique." He was uniquely neurotic in a way that made him, to me and those who got addicted to watching him, and it continued even when I worked for him ... Again, Kenneth Tynan said about Jack's electric, dangerous on-camera personality that could scare you... “No matter who's on camera with Jack … if it was the President or Cary Grant, you find that you still can't take your eyes off Jack for fear of missing a live nervous breakdown.” Isn't that splendid? And it was true. It all but happened several times. Certainly off-camera.

Kliph Nesteroff: I wish somebody would put together DVDs [of The Jack Paar Show] the same way that your DVD collection was put together, with full episodes beginning to end.


Dick Cavett: Yeah, you know, I was surprised when they came out. They turned out well because a genius named Robert Bader made them. Shout Factory to this day has kept them vastly unknown, which is why we'll never do the next thing they want me to do with them. I can be at a table of twelve media people and one or fewer have heard of them - and public too. Anyway, that's my war with Shout Factory. Bader had the good taste to leave Shout Factory immediately and is now working with Cathy Crosby on Bing's career. I assumed they would be excerpts. I think Johnny's are excerpts, in fact, I'm sure they are.

Kliph Nesteroff: All the other [DVD collections] are excerpts. There's a Merv Griffin DVD, There's a Jack Paar, a Mike Douglas and there's the Carson collection - all of them are "Best Of" moments and it's very frustrating. Perhaps most people don't care but for me it's very frustrating to not be able to see the full episode if it exists.


Dick Cavett: Yes, you want to see their entrance, you want to see what was on the laugh that it starts with...

Kliph Nesteroff: And also the interaction between all the guests on the panel. As opposed to [today when] the person comes and then leaves after promoting their thing. Back then having the strange mix of people... I found an episode of The Mike Douglas Show and the panel was Moms Mabley with Ralph Nader.


Dick Cavett: Wow. They should have called that show "Together Again." (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Cavett: Moms Mabley... (starts speaking in Moms Mabley voice) Being married to that old man.... was like trying to push a car up a hill with a rope. (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: She was wonderful.


Dick Cavett: Where did I see Moms? I saw her... in Harlem! If you ever saw Moms Mabley in front of a Harlem audience... everybody was weak in the end from laughter. I saw Redd Foxx that way too, in front of an all-black audience except for oneself. Just a thrill.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever have Mabley on your show?

Dick Cavett: No, I never did. She was a Merv Griffin property, sort of. I don't know why I didn't. Now I have to say... I might have. Hard to believe I know, you can forget people you've had on that are remarkable.

Kliph Nesteroff: I would have loved to have seen her speaking analytically about her act.

Dick Cavett: Yeah, really talking about it. Of course, you didn't see that at the Apollo and I don't know if Merv ever...

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm sure Merv didn't. I'm sure it was all shtick.

Dick Cavett: Yeah, I had the goal once of getting Bob Hope to talk throughout a show without throwing gags in...


Kliph Nesteroff: I watched that. That was wonderful and it was wonderful how you reeled him in from gags. The first fifteen minutes he wouldn't give you anything but gags.

Dick Cavett: I remember right in the middle of it somewhere he said something on a serious level and then said, "Would you rather have a gag on that?" and I said "No, this is fine!"

Kliph Nesteroff: Something I noticed watching that interview... You stopped politely laughing after Hope’s gag answers. After you stopped laughing, he then seemed ready to play along and give serious answers.

Dick Cavett: A lot of people love that part. I got him to talk about how he got his scar on his lip. He got it protecting his dog from kids that were throwing rocks at it. Later he said, "Hey, y'know, Delores thinks that's the best show I ever did. I don't know what to say about that." (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Cavett: Bob Hope.

Kliph Nesteroff: I'm a big comedy nerd and to see the Bob Hope interview or the hour with Jerry Lewis you did - also on the DVD... there's a Bill Cosby one as well where you ask him what he thinks of Amos n' Andy…

Dick Cavett: Oh, what does he say? You've seen it more recently than I have.



Kliph Nesteroff: He takes a big draw from his cigar before answering, blows a big puff of smoke and says, "This would take a long time to answer... Amos n' Andy, growing up in Philadelphia, for a Black family, was the funniest show on the air. We all knew it was hilarious. But we could not let white people know that we thought it was the funniest show on the air."

Dick Cavett: Ohhhh, yes, yes, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: "It had to be taken off the air. It had to." His short form answer. But what a great question and what a great...

Dick Cavett: What a good answer that was. True, of course. To me, the biggest fact about The Amos n' Andy Show was that it was so popular. You probably know this as a student of comedy. They had to stop movies in the movie theaters and [broadcast the program] and then go on with the film. Otherwise no one would come [to the theater] when it was on.




Kliph Nesteroff: By the time it came to television it was pressure from the NAACP. It was a strange and tragic thing that there was all this pressure to have the TV show taken off, but at the same time it was the only show that was employing Black actors.

Dick Cavett: Yes, that put a lot of Black actors out of work. That was stupid and I've written against that somewhere ... those things get my guts in a knot.

Kliph Nesteroff: I could understand the pressure against the radio show, where it's white actors doing a Black dialect. There's even a horrible Gosden and Correll film from RKO called Check and Double Check (1931).

Dick Cavett: And they're in Blackface?

Kliph Nesteroff: For the whole movie. It's one thing to see a Blackface tapdance scene, y'know, five minutes out of a picture, but this was a ninety minute Blackface comedy - beginning to end. It's painful.

Dick Cavett: I must have seen it or seen a clip from it, because I do remember seeing them in Blackface. Every so often I run into a crank [who references] the night I was on the Dave Letterman show. Years ago I presented Eddie Murphy with a tube of "darkie toothpaste."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) Yes. Have you seen the sequence of Pat Paulsen in Blackface?

Dick Cavett: Never.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's from The Merv Griffin Show. It was cut. It never aired, but the master tape has surfaced. It's Pat Paulsen doing his Pat Paulsen thing, he goes up on stage and says "I'm here to speak tonight about ethnic humor. I am opposed to this form of humor." And he is in Blackface, wearing white gloves.

Dick Cavett: Oh my gosh. What a wonderful idea.

Kliph Nesteroff: It is hysterical.

Dick Cavett: Is this anywhere where it can be seen? Is this on YouTube or anything?

Kliph Nesteroff: If it still is, I'll definitely send you that.

Dick Cavett: Oh, great.


Kliph Nesteroff: He was just brilliant. I need to make a note - he's a guy I should be writing about.

Dick Cavett: Yeah, is he alive?

Kliph Nesteroff: No. He passed away, I think, around 1980 (Ed. Note: Way off the mark. Paulsen died in 1997).

Dick Cavett: Oh yeah, relatively long ago. What about [Mark Frechette] being killed in a weightlifting accident?

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, Mark Frechette. He had a strange five years after that. Daria was no longer part of the cult. She was really only part of it because she was the girlfriend of Frechette. She eventually got away from the cult in Boston...

Dick Cavett: Yes, I just checked something about her and it listed several things she has done. The dance therapy type thing, whatever it is.

Kliph Nesteroff: She married Dennis Hopper.

Dick Cavett: Dennis Hopper, my goodness.

Kliph Nesteroff: She doesn't talk about this period of her life, which I guess is understandable.

Dick Cavett: That was a cult that didn't kill anyone.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's right, but Mark Frechette and two other members of the cult, robbed a bank in Boston.


Dick Cavett: Isn't that amazing? I just learned that twenty minutes ago, just before you called.

Kliph Nesteroff: And the quote I have... when he was asked why he robbed the bank... "We just reached the point where all that three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. Because banks are federally insured, robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon. And besides, standing there with a gun, cleaning out a teller's cage, that's about as fucking honest as you can get, man." So... that was his reason for robbing a bank.

Dick Cavett: Oh, go fuck yourself. (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Cavett: That is about as... isn't that... ah, that is priceless. Can you send me that too? (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, that'll be in the article when it's done. So I'll forward that to you.


Dick Cavett: Oh my God. It reminds me of sitting on a dais. There's another word. Most people say die-us and they're wrong. A Friar's Club Roast...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. Well, that's the only time the word "dais" is ever used it seems is in reference to the Friar's Club.

Dick Cavett: I'm sure it is ... So, I'm sitting on one - I don't even remember who's being roasted - but Bea Arthur is to my right... and after several drinks... it took several because of her... large... body...

Nesteroff: (laughs)

Cavett: She had had enough. And she said into my ear, her version of sotto voce, (loud Bea Arthur impersonation) "Is that Patty Hearst sitting next to you!?"

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Cavett: I said, "Yeah, Bea." She goes, "Why the hell isn't she in jail?"

Nesteroff: (laughs)

Cavett: Ms. Hearst was quite charming. I had had the chance to speak to her earlier and somehow got Bea down to less than broadcast level. Funny moment. Ms. Heart pretended not to hear.

Kliph Nesteroff: (still laughing) Ah, that's hysterical.


Dick Cavett: Oh, by the way, I owe both of the featured people we're talking about here a slight apology. I still haven't seen Zabriskie Point.

Kliph Nesteroff: Ah, it's not really...

Dick Cavett: Nothing about them made me want to see it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Exactly. The first twenty minutes of that film are actually quite excellent. I remember watching it for the first time and wondering why it had been so panned. And then you watch the next seventy minutes and you figure it out. The first twenty minutes are great.

Dick Cavett: Is [Frechette] a great looking guy on the screen?

Kliph Nesteroff: Nah. No. He looks exactly the same. They have that same vacant look on their face through the whole thing. There really is nothing to redeem it ... He was arrested for that bank robbery and went to prison where he actually mounted a play based on Watergate that he performed for the prison population...

Dick Cavett: God, I hope this is all in the article...

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, it will be, unless it gets cut. I am at the mercy of an editor.

Dick Cavett: I'm just putting back some things that were cut from the book that will come out, I think in November, of all my [New York] Times blog [articles].

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh! Excellent!


Dick Cavett: I had a fight with them once because they said, "We can't [print] “faggoty.” To my dismay, I [conceded]. In going back through these now for the book I noticed that the same person approved it about thirty-five blogs previously (laughs). Must have been embarrassing for the editor. And I was even quoting Richard Burton. He was talking about Paul Scolfield, about his deformed toes. He said “Poor Scofield with the walk he's had to develop, he looks a bit faggoty.” Certainly harmless.

Kliph Nesteroff: And a quote, nonetheless.

Dick Cavett: And a quote, yeah. My editor had an off-day that day, I guess.

Kliph Nesteroff: I guess. Well, this feature that I'm writing right now was six thousand words and now I have been told that it has to be two thousand words.

Dick Cavett: Oh, NO!

Kliph Nesteroff: So that's two-thirds. We've compromised. It's going to be three thousand.

Dick Cavett: Holy. Where's the writer's guild? Oh, God. Who does that? Those who can't write... edit? Or something.

Kliph Nesteroff: So I have to rework it. Now I feel bad for a couple people I interviewed. They're going to feel like I misrepresented what I was interviewing them about.

Dick Cavett: Yes, What was wrong with what they said that didn't get in, and stuff like that.


Kliph Nesteroff: I was going to ask you something, again not related to this article. Turner Classic Movies just had a film festival in Los Angeles...

Dick Cavett: Yes...

Kliph Nesteroff: Did they ask you at all to be involved in that in anyway?

Dick Cavett: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: Cause they had several introductions to films where they would have a half-hour or hour-long interview with a person that was involved with the film. They had Buck Henry introduce [The Graduate], Mel Brooks before The Producers and Tony Curtis for The Sweet Smell of Success. The person that they had moderating it was actually a contemporary of mine, a writer, but a lot of the interviews kind of fizzled. He is a writer that has never really been on stage. He was not really able to... interview.

Dick Cavett: Who was that?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know if I should say.

Dick Cavett: Oh. (laughs) Just give me initials and I'll work it out.

Kliph Nesteroff: He's a very excellent writer his name is [deleted]. He has written about film extensively.


Dick Cavett: That's the commission of the fallacy in another form... that writers who write well can talk well. And that's one of the first punishing lessons you learn doing a talk show. You can't believe that the stuttering clod sitting with you there wrote that lovely prose.

Kliph Nesteroff: Same with stand-up comics that get into acting. Films. How could they be so brilliant at one thing and so painful in another medium?

Dick Cavett: With exceptions - like Alan King, who could act.

Kliph Nesteroff: ... or yourself?

Dick Cavett: (laughs)

Kliph Nesteroff: You do a wonderful Bea Arthur, I must say.

Dick Cavett: (laughs) She was really something. She was married to Gene Saks.

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, really? Bob Hope's writer?

Dick Cavett: No, no. Gene Saks the director...

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, oh. The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and what not...

Dick Cavett: Immortalized as Chuckles...

Kliph Nesteroff: Oh, I'm getting him confused with Sol Saks.


Dick Cavett: His Chuckles the Clown scene [in the Broadway play A Thousand Clowns] ...I was talking to somebody about that the other day with Stuart Hample. He said that it was so funny on the stage that it was almost impossible to go on with the play. [Saks] played this revolting TV personality. He said, 'I don't think it could possibly be as funny on film,' even though it is funny on film. But that often happens. Saks was just as good, but it flattened and deflated a little on film. It's still a brilliant thing. I’m glad it's preserved there. Do you remember the actress Nancy Kelly?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Dick Cavett: Her big film was The Bad Seed … a thrilling performance in the theater. She made it into the movie, it was her first one, and the stupid director did not tell her to take it down for the camera. She gave a theater performance... and was sick when she saw it ... Walter Matthau once said, 'I learned the most important lesson I ever learned about movie acting was my first movie. Doing a scene with Kim Novak ... he said, 'We shot the first scene,' and they paused for lights or something, 'and she whispered to me. She said, 'Walter, the boom man and the people standing near the camera don't need to hear you.' And he said, 'Oh my God. I realized I was playing to the second balcony as I always do on the stage.' It's the lesson. I've got to get off [the phone] but I'll tell you a thrilling story. Please stop me if you've heard it, although I don't know how you could have, unless Merryl Streep told it to you. When I told it to her, she rubbed both of her forearms and [shuddered]. Does that make you want to hear it? Young actor in Hollywood doing his first movie scene and he came in and he learned that they changed his script a little bit. They had made one change. Instead of his playing it with just anybody, it was going to be with Spencer Tracy. He nearly shat, of course. It was a short scene. As they were setting it up, Tracy was nice to the young kid. Tracy had the first line and then the kid just stood there. And I'm sure the sensitive director thought, "What the fuck's the matter!? Don't you know your line!?" And he said, "I'm so sorry. I thought Mr. Tracy was still talking."

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.


Dick Cavett: That's what it's all about. Very few could [captivate] like that. Tracy and a handful of others.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had a tragic end to his life, didn't he? Didn't he drink himself into oblivion?

Dick Cavett: I believe so. A prominent retired doctor told me once, one night at 3 am he got a call here in Manhattan. The voice was sort of familiar and said in a bit of controlled panic, "You must come immediately to 244 East 49th Street." And he went over there … and Ms. Katharine Hepburn opened the door. The doctor [told me] "There I saw the drunkest man I have ever seen, in or out of the army." Railing, yelling, throwing things and falling. He had to give him an injection. How did he [drink so much]? John Ford used to sit in a bathtub after a film. Empty tub with a sheet over it and take a case of Irish whiskey and start through it, until he was in the emergency room. Dig that.


Kliph Nesteroff: I'm just finishing a piece about Errol Flynn. Not that he needs to be written about anymore. As I've been doing my research, I've noticed there are no less than fifty books about Errol Flynn.

Dick Cavett: Really, it never hurts. I like everything about Errol Flynn.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's amazing the amount written about him. There's been a book written by, pretty much, every lover he ever had. There was his own autobiography then a book by his ghost writer about the writing of the autobiography. Then there was a controversial, fabricated book that accused Flynn of being a Nazi.

Dick Cavett: Oh, God. Is there anything to [the Nazi accusation]?

Kliph Nesteroff: No.

Dick Cavett: Of course not.


Kliph Nesteroff: Then a book came out debunking that book. Right now I’m reading a book about his house. Every facet has been written about...

Dick Cavett: Who was that beautiful, elegant former wife of his that appears once a week on Turner Classic Movies ... describing being married to him?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know.

Dick Cavett: They run it at least twice a month. This lovely aged beauty. Each time I see it I think, I have to remember her name. She talks about how he wishes he could have been recognized as a serious actor. I think you may need to get that. Call "Hi, I'm Robert Osborne.”

Kliph Nesteroff: I have a modest relationship with the channel. That was why I was asking you if they had asked you about the film festival...


Dick Cavett: Oh, yes. Let's go back to that a moment.

Kliph Nesterorff: During the [TCM Classic Film Festival] I saw all these potentially great interviews [with] Mel Brooks, Buck Henry and Tony Curtis - each time the interview fizzled. The man conducting it, just didn't know how to do it. He was obviously crippled with nerves. The whole time I was thinking, "Where's Cavett?" You had already done that special for TCM where you interviewed Mel Brooks.

Dick Cavett: And I did a night with "Hi, I'm Robert Osborne" with my four movies.

Kliph Nesteroff: And they were re-running episodes of [The Dick Cavett Show]. Your interviews with Hitchcock and Heprburn and...

Dick Cavett: Yes, they bought nine of them.


Kliph Nesteroff: So, I was wondering if they approached you [to moderate at the festival] and you just didn't have the time or that you weren't interested in doing it.

Dick Cavett: No, I probably would have done it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I think they are doing one next year and with your permission I will goad them into asking you...

Dick Cavett: I know it sounds terrible, but I often see people that are worse than I am blow an interview and it pisses me off. I know what I could have gotten out of that person.

Kliph Nesteroff: It also upsets everyone that has to watch it. These were big theaters like Grauman's, seating over a thousand people. They were full. So you have a thousand people suffering through this interview that could have been great. Actually, the Buck Henry [interview]... Buck had to cut it off. He had to end it himself. 


Dick Cavett: Really? Wow. Did the guy realize he was no good?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't know. I wrote a [review], that hopefully won't come back to bite me, taking that to task.

Dick Cavett: If not me, they surely could have got somebody better. Tell me a little more about what Buck did.

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, the fella wasn't asking questions, he was just making statements, was scattered and disorganized. He said The Graduate had two or three different versions of its script before Buck was hired. He stopped and everyone was waiting for the question. It never came. So Buck said, "Yes.... .... .... Correct." He was hoping for the interviewer to elaborate, but it never happened. Eventually Buck did take the bull by the horn and told his own anecdotes without being prompted, so the audience had something. Also, the interviewer didn't know when to stop and introduce the movie. He just kept humming and hawing and eventually Buck just said, "Okay, I think we're done. We can start the movie."


Dick Cavett: Good for him. It all goes back to something ... Jack [Paar] told me. He called me and said, "Kid, don't do interviews when you do the show. That's David Frost and clipboards, 'What's your favorite color and pet peeve.' Make it a conversation." That's what Jack did. He didn't say, "The next thing I want to ask you is..."

Kliph Nesteroff: That was the beauty of it. Watching talk shows today, inevitably the interview veers into, "Let's talk about this new movie you've got coming out," right at the point where they may have been in the middle of something interesting. Instead, they spew these regurgitated phrases about this film that nobody really cares about.


Dick Cavett: I remember being a little bit shocked when I was at my first production meeting at The Tonight Show and the producer would get everybody in there and go through the rundown of the show: Six minutes for her, seven minutes for him. Now what's she plugging? What's so-and-so plugging? We can't have them on if they're not plugging something. I really covered myself with shame at a meeting where I said, “You've got Peter Ustinov on for two six minute segments,” the best talk show guest there ever was, perhaps, “followed by singer Jaye P. Morgan for two six minute segments. What [difference would it make] if you gave Peter Ustinov three segments and her one? If I were [in charge] I would have him on for the whole show.” They [laughed], “Shut up, Dick, we're trying to have a meeting here.” That was considered the most outrageous, revolutionary idea.


Kliph Nesteroff: There's also the thing about not having a guest back for a certain period time. Six months or whatever. I don't get that. I read an anecdote about Jack E. Leonard, the great insult comic.

Dick Cavett: Fat Jack.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had appeared on either the Steve Allen Tonight Show or The Steve Allen Show and just killed on the Monday night show. They got such an [incredible] response, they decided to have him back the next night - and the next night after that. They had him on five nights in a row. I guess that would never happen now - or even in the last forty years that rarely happens, even if it makes for good TV. 


Dick Cavett: I did a week on PBS with Jed Harris. On the way to the taping I ran into Lee Marvin in the parking lot who assured me [Harris] had been dead for twenty-five years - and most people thought so. I did my semi-famous four with [Richard] Burton. Should've been five. It's amazing, I did four columns on Burton and each one had a [YouTube video embedded]. The reaction to him was greater now than it was then. People say, "Jesus, he was great." It was fine before, but seems more so now. But yeah, God, Jack E. Leonard was funny. You know how Fat Jack [on talk shows] would throw a line and then [the host] would say something and then he throws one back. Paar [decided] "I'm just going to sit there quietly." And Jack [E. Leonard] came out and started in [mumbles Jack E. Leonard impression]. And with each joke he did, [Paar] just went "Mmmm." [Leonard] got desperate and he panicked. Blanked. Desperately reached out for a fact about his life and said that. He said, "Y'know my wife is an acrobat," and [Paar] said, "She'd have to be."


Kliph Nesteroff: That must have just brought down the house.

Dick Cavett: Oh, God, yes. I reminded Jack [Paar] of that when I did a few shows with him later and he didn't remember that or others ... his ad-lib wit.

Kliph Nesteroff: I've been re-listening to his radio show, which lasted less than a year.

Dick Cavett: Never heard it.

Kliph Nesteroff: It was a summer replacement for Jack Benny.

Dick Cavett: For Jack Benny, yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: Same sponsor and at the time it was panned. They called him a low-rent version of Henry Morgan, but actually it holds up pretty good compared to most of those radio shows.


Dick Cavett: I wonder, is it out on anything?

Kliph Nesteroff: You can listen to them on the internet.

Dick Cavett: There used to be what was called The Museum of Broadcasting and they idiotically changed it to the Paley Institute. People ask where the museum is now and nobody knows. They might have it. I remember hearing Johnny [Carson] on radio from Omaha, in Lincoln [Nebraska]. I remember thinking this guy is good. I knew who he was, I had met him backstage as a kid watching him do his magic show. He was almost ahead of his time. Some of his ad-libs were so wonderful. I think I was twelve [appearing] on a children's radio show and a local radio announcer said [to me], "You're gonna get up and out of here the way Johnny did." It was an older announcer and he had gone as far as he was going to go because he stayed [in Nebraska] ... My editor is shitting a fritter now because all the time I've spent with you I was supposed to spend with him. Is that too flattering?

Kliph Nesteroff: Certainly not.

Dick Cavett: This was fun. I wish they were all like you (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: Now that we’re in contact, I will have to keep you in mind for future pieces. [The Mel Lyman article] is a diversion from what I usually do. Usually I write showbiz history.

Dick Cavett: Yes, and if you need any more on this or if I think of anything more on this... when is your deadline?

Kliph Nesteroff: Tomorrow (laughs).


Dick Cavett: Jesus, we better both get off the phone and back to work.

13 comments:

Johnnyuma said...

Outstanding interview.Thanks for sharing.

ajm said...

You hit another one out of the park!

david simmons said...

great interview.

Anonymous said...

I own the Johnny Carson DVD set and that thing is indeed heavily edited. Apart from the Tonight Show 'highlights' there's an inexplicable cut toward the end of the "Johnny Goes Home" NBC prime time special. I clearly recall a crucial moment where the crew surprised Johnny with the vintage automobile he'd been borrowing during the show (it was the same car he'd driven as a teenager, and had long since been sold to someone else, who'd restored it) as a gift. Carson was genuinely surprised and not a little moved and it made for a satisfying denouement to that whole weird program. For some reason, on the DVD the show ends without that ever happening. Such omissions are dishonest, cheat the audience and lessen the impact of the archival material. Mr. Cavett did it properly on the DVD format by leaving his programs whole.

Doc Cowboy said...

What a really make a great match. I could have read you guys go on for hours. Find any excuse you can to do this again.

Kevin K. said...

I saw that Merv Griffin show with Abbie Hoffman in the flag shirt when it originally aired. The president of the company that syndicated the series(Metromedia? Westinghouse?) appeared before the segment and, quite solemnly, explained that the shirt was so offensive that they decided to black out the screen every time the camera cut to him. Sure enough, Merv introduces Abbie and the screen goes black. Then when the camera cuts to Merv or another guest, the image comes back. You hear everything going on, but never see him. One of the other guests, I'm pretty sure it was Virginia Graham, was practically throwing up she was so upset about the shirt. Even at my age -- 11 or 12 -- I thought blacking out the the image was stupid. Especially when a photo appeared in the newspaper the next day.

NBC destroyed most of Jack Paar's shows. From my understanding, they offered him copies of all the episodes, but told him he'd have to keep them in properly stored in a special unit to keep from disintergrating. Paar passed on the offer, not wanting to spend the money on the upkeep.

And to repeat what came before my comment -- great interview. Or, rather, conversation. You've gotta get your own show.

Michael Powers said...

I think the Kevin K. who wrote the previous post is one of my closest friends. In any case, I've encountered Cavett at least three times this past year or so in New York and met him backstage in Richmond, Virginia, when introduced by Hungry i impresario Enrico Banducci back in the 90s, where I memorably stood there with my face hanging out as he waited for me to say something; I should have told him how much he means to my generation--this was long before the DVDs or the Times online column and his career was momentarily in comparative abeyance at the time despite being there to interview Carl Reiner onstage (Reiner could just as well have been interviewing Cavett, of course). Cavett has always been a national treasure and has gradually morphed into an even better version of Fred Allen, infinitely better if such a thing is possible. No one is more entertaining to listen to or read than Dick Cavett and I hope he keeps working as long as I'm alive so I can continue to enjoy his wondrous wit. God, I wish he was on television again.

Michael Powers said...

Cavett was very wrong about one thing in this interview. "The Bad Seed" wasn't Nancy Kelly's first movie, it was her 34th, although it did garner her only Oscar nomination. She'd been a major movie leading lady in movies during the 30s and 40s, opposite actors like Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in "Jesse James" and Spencer Tracy in "Stanley and Livingstone," both in 1939. She was leading lady to Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan in "Tarzan's Desert Mystery" and profiled the supposed plight of Nazi German women at the height of WW2 in "Women in Bondage" (943) with equally beautiful Gail Patrick. Her kid brother, who strongly resembled her, was Jack Kelly, who played Bart Maverick on television in "Maverick" with James Garner and Roger Moore (1957 to 1962).

Dave Meile said...

Kliph, have read several of your interviews now and they are excellent. I think I got hip to you originally from Drew Friedman on Facebook. Especially liked the Cavett since Im from nebraska and a family Im close to here have been friends with Dick for years. I got to speak with Dick once on the phone for just five minutes and it was a blast. Best of all, he gave us a copy of Groucho on his show from 69' complete w/ commericals. Dick is obviously a never ending fountain of anecdotes and funny stories. More Cavett please.
Dave Meile
Lincoln,NE

Bobby Wall said...

Wow! Imagine Kliph and Dick Cavett sitting in one or the other's living room one evening and having a great discussion about show biz, people in show biz, about The Dick Cavett Show, Zabriskie Point, Mark Frechette, etc. etc. and you get to be the proverbial fly on the wall. Well, Kliph, that's exactly how I felt. Are there two better people, who are both fonts of wisdom about all things show biz to listen to? What a great discussion you two have in this "interview". This was not an "interview". It was simply a great discussion and I wish it went on for hours and hours. Which means that another discussion between the two of you needs to be recorded. Just great! And Dick was rightfully impressed with the homework you've done, Kliph, and with the amount of knowledge you have at your fingertips. You've never failed to impress whomever you interview, and that's just great! Dick does not suffer fools gladly, and he was just thrilled talking to you. I do so look forward to reading your blog, Kliph. It's really a highlight of my day. I hope you never stop. One thing: What a shame that Paar passed on the opportunity to have his tapes. Damn! What a horrible loss. Terrible! And I don't think Johnny would have passed if he had been given the opportunity. And keep in mind that when Johnny started on The Tonight Show, The Tonight Show was 90 minutes long, too. So much was lost. Too much!

Anonymous said...

Excellent conversation with Cavett. I'd love to see a part two.

I remember seeing him at my college in 1977. The audience wrote questions on index cards, and he answered them with funny one liners. I remember being awed at how spontaneously witty he could be with these questions, but I noticed he didn't answer my question.

The next night I saw him on tv, doing the same question and answer thing, and it was the exact same questions and his "ad-libbed" answers. I learned a powerful lesson about show business, that you gotta be prepared, and what looks spontaneous is usually carefully worked out in advance.

Was it he or Woody Allen that wrote the joke "I went to a combination Chinese-German restaurant, and an hour later I was hungry for power."
?

Legs Lambert said...

To answer a question asked but unanswered in the interview: The name of Errol Flynn's last wife, frequently seen on Turner Classic Movies, is Patrice Wymore.

Radio Fan said...

Kliph:

More great stuff.

Carson was a superb monologist, but not a particularly good interviewer.

Cavett always blew Carson away when it came to meaningful conversation with a guest.

Looking at old Cavett shows, it is amazing that he survived in that Carson/Griffin/Mike Douglas world of big time TV talk shows since his approach was so bright and smart.

His current New York Times blog is great.

I hope that he hangs around for more than just a few more years.