In the excellent new HBO documentary “Ali: vs. Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes,” civil rights activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton observes that Dick Cavett “was the whitest of white guys in America. But he gave blacks that had been considered outside of the mainstream – like Ali – a chance to be heard, and a chance to say what they wanted to say unfiltered. Which was rare.”
Cavett did widen the conversation in North America on matters that went far beyond the usual talk show banter. He also, as the documentary shows, drew the playful, charismatic side out of many famous entertainers, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Orson Welles, Groucho Marx, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando and Jimi Hendrix.
His relationship with Ali extended well beyond the talk show episodes. The former heavyweight champion once stayed over at Cavett’s house and, as recounted in the documentary, ate both their breakfasts.
On Cavett’s talk show, one famous episode featured Ali with his arch ring rival, Joe Frazier. Tired of picking on each other, the two instead ganged up on Cavett, picking him up with one hand each and holding him high in the air. Quipped Cavett, “I look like a giant Oreo cookie!”
Cavett, like Ali, rarely pulled his punches. Towards the end of Ali’s boxing career, after he had lost the heavyweight title to relative unknown Leon Spinks, Cavett practically begged him to announce his retirement. Snapped back The Champ, “I know another interviewer who gets paid for being an idiot – what’s your excuse?”
I had my own moment with Ali, back in the early ’90s, at a TV Hall of Fame event in Florida. It was my single biggest thrill as a journalist, one I’ll never forget and one I’ve milked for all its worth; here’s a link if you want to read more.
I also had a memorable encounter with Cavett. Now 83, he was at a TCA event a decade or so ago as one of the “Pioneers of Television” being celebrated on PBS. There was a post-press conference reception, and, as somebody who grew up watching Cavett’s erudite talk shows in the late- ’60s and throughout the ’70s. I dutifully stood behind another reporter while waiting to ask Mr. Cavett some one-on-one questions.
The young woman ahead of me was taking her damn time, it seemed. Finally she wrapped thing up with some pleasantries and finally I stood before the talk show host.
Cavett leaned in with a smile and said, “I think I might have had a shot!”
That’s how I always feel whenever I get to talk to these champs. Read my full account of “Ali vs. Cavett” in the current issue of Movie Entertainment magazine, and watch the documentary now on HBO Canada or Crave.