He’s done stints on film, television, and Broadway. But Yale-educated Nebraskan Dick Cavett built his career on the art of conversation with such diverse personalities as Janis Joplin, Woody Allen, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Muhammad Ali, Timothy Leary, Katherine Hepburn, Jimi Hendrix, and the list goes on. With its au courant roster of edgy musicians, celebrities, politicians, and authors, The Dick Cavett Show was must-see TV when it ran on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and then on public television from 1977 to 1982. Still in the public eye, Cavett, 78, is a New York Times online contributor. He wrote Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, co-authored Cavett and Eye on Cavett, and, in late 2014, published Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks — a book described by the Chicago Tribune as “erudite and witty.” That would be an apt description of the man himself.
The Saturday Evening Post: What are a few highlights in Brief Encounters, which is a compilation of your columns?
Dick Cavett: The book Brief Encounters is indeed a collection of my New York Times online blogs. It has all of the columns since my previous collection, Talk Show. I found that including them all cuts out the need to make selections. They cover about as many topics as there are columns. People have loved my befriending Stan Laurel (Do the ignorant-of-anything-before-their-birth young need an asterisk for that name?); the deaths of James Gandolfini, Jonathan Winters, and Sid Caesar; the very sad Christmas story; and the one about being compulsorily photographed “mother nekkid” (three provocative poses) along with my entire freshman class at Yale. My criminal past is included in two pieces. There is mild sex, if that is not a contradiction.
SEP: You’re known as a conversation guru of sorts. So if I were at a cocktail party and wanted to draw someone out, what would you recommend that I do?
DC: Assuming you don’t mean draw someone out into the yard or the bushes, try to be interesting and original in what you say to them, eschewing the usual, klutzy, “So what are your interests?” Or, “Do you have any hobbies?” Avoid all that sort of thing. Recently, in Hollywood, predictably a lady asked “What is your sign?” “Budweiser,” I said. I added the fact that astrology is nonsense. She turned on her heel. Groucho, at this point, would ask, “Did she turn it back off?”
SEP: You’re one of a very few public personalities to have come forward about your struggle with depression. What prompted you to open up about it?
DC: The only good part of having suffered depression and spoken and written about it is the reward of the people who come up to you and say, “You saved my dad’s life. He always liked you, and when he heard you had it, he relented and got treatment.” Or, “You convinced our suicidal daughter to ‘turn herself in’ because she is such a big fan of yours.” One of the few values of celebrity, perhaps?