Christmas came early for me this year as I got to talk to Dick Cavett about Groucho Marx. The occasion was the American Masters‘ special “Groucho & Cavett,” premiering December 27 on PBS.
Dubbed, “the thinking man’s talk show host,” Cavett emerged as a clear alternative to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show while on ABC from 1969 through 1975. (Other networks, including PBS, kept him busy into the ’90s). His series set the bar for conversation and inquiry and featured such 20th century icons as Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, Woody Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Norman Mailer, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison, Orson Welles, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Truman Capote and too many other names to drop.
One was Groucho Marx. As he tells it on this podcast, Cavett met the most famous Marx brother by “sheer accident.” It happened in 1961 as they were coming out of a funeral service for famed playwright George S. Kaufman. Before you could say the secret word, the two became fast friends.
Cavett was 25 at the time, Groucho 70. Later, as he was closing in on 80, the comedian appeared many times on The Dick Cavett Show, often wearing a ridiculous golf hat with three balls on it. He killed, especially on the early episodes, singing and cracking wise and owning every inch of Cavett’s stage.
I was 12 or 13 at the time and saw much of it live. It was great, historic television and such fun to re-visit on the American Masters episode.
The story has a Canadian angle, though not a happy one. In his last few years, the aging comedian fell under the spell of a young woman from northern Ontario named Erin Fleming. Cavett, who had them both on his show, shares his thoughts.
Cavett, a three time Emmy award winner, remains witty and robust at 86. He talks about his early gigs writing jokes for Tonight Show hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. He confirms getting to know another one of the comedy gods, Stan Laurel. He professes his admiration for Jackie Gleason. We even touch on one of the Yale grad’s proudest achievements: getting on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.
American Masters: “Groucho & Cavett” was written, produced and directed by Cavett’s frequent collaborator, Robert S. Bader. The show premieres Tuesday, Dec. 27 on PBS. Look for more from me on Dick Cavett and Groucho Marx in the Boxing Day edition of The Toronto Star.
In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, my guests on this brioux.tv: the podcast episode in alphabetical order: Dick Cavett.