Before talk shows disintegrated into the abrasive carnival side shows they have become in recent years, The Dick Cavett Show was on the air to demonstrate the power of the form. Inherently likable and equal parts enthusiastic and charming, Cavett persuaded some of the true legends of cinema to sit down opposite him for lengthy, spontaneous, and very often hilarious chats. There is no “pure shock value” tactic used on this talk show, so you will not see any paternity tests or kids being shipped off to boot camp for insolence that has become the hallmark of contemporary series that misuse their title of “talk show”; the dramatic sparks are provided courtesy of the legends that best represented Hollywood (at the time the show was filmed between ‘70 and 1972), and lived to tell the tale.
Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, and Groucho Marx are but a mere sampling of some of the mythological figures of Hollywood’s Golden Age that are collected in The Dick Cavett Show: Hollywood Greats, the fifth in a nicely put together collection from this series (also culled from Cavett’s show are Rock Icons, The Ray Charles Collection, John & Yoko Ono Collection, and Comic Legends). In our time, the only other hosts who can get their hands on such talent of equal importance, (think Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, David Letterman, and Jay Leno) are rank, star-struck amateurs compared with Nebraska native (and Yale grad) Cavett. His special brand of easy-going, engaging banter and his clear love of his subjects represents the host all others should aspire to. His questions are never banal, and the guests appear to respond well to Cavett’s magnetism. Many of these are stars that, despite a lifetime of film work, remained relentlessly private; here they make their emergence into a new era of filmmaking and engage a new audience of fans. It’s a seamless mix of old and new school.
Cavett is able to really connect to even the toughest subjects (Robert Mitchum, who is frank and humbly sweet here, was notoriously prickly off-screen and to most press). There are never any demeaning or dumbed down questions (Cavett actually asks a chain-smoking, bawdy Bette Davis if she would prefer to be out sniffing cocaine; she wouldn’t), the presence of the mega-stars is never for the purpose of hawking a picture’s premiere, and informality of the chats lends humanity to its subjects that may be missing in their larger-than-life public personas. He gets them to open up to the masses in an age where information about their personal lives wasn’t as readily available and splashed all over the tabloids or the internet.
One of the prime examples of a star being brought down to “our level”, featured on this colorful, skillfully-packaged set, is Cavett’s infamous 180-minute interview with the actress who has won more Oscars (four) than any other performer: Katharine Hepburn. She appears in her television debut, wearing her signature slacks and sandals. Cavett sets up this once-in-a-lifetime event by explaining that he met “Kate the Great” through a mutual friend, who persuaded the actress somehow to travel to Cavett’s set to check the place out (the host even returns to provide brand new introductions for each episode in the set, where he also reveals some behind-the-scenes footage of Hepburn’s grand entrance). Hepburn, on the spot, decided that they should do the interview right then and there. The actress talks candidly about her youth spent in Connecticut, her admiration of Spencer Tracy, her passion for the theater, and about how ugly the orange carpet on Cavett’s set is. She comes across as commanding, funny, and relevant, and Cavett does his best to just let her talk: a classy maneuver that today’s talk show hosts, most whom are in love with their own voices, should consider.
Cavett doesn’t just live to chat with marquee idols; his show also gives face time to some of the world’s most celebrated directors: Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, and Frank Capra constitute one brilliant panel featured on the program, a cross-section that provides for a most insightful look into filmmaking at the time. The guys dish on the past and the future of the medium. Capra, the most seasoned veteran as of the date of filming, boldly states that in his expert opinion, Hollywood is a non-entity in the world of filmmaking. “That’s been said many times before—‘Hollywood’s a dying business’, over and over every ten years or so it gets said. Hollywood is down at the moment. Films are not going to die, I’ll tell you that. They’ll be made somewhere, if not in Hollywood, somewhere else.” And “Good pictures are yet to be made”, a caveat straight from the mouth of young rabble rouser Altman.
Giving equal play to the men who were true pioneers of the directorial profession (Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and Orson Welles were among his other guests who were known both for their behind-the-camera contributions to the world of cinema as well as their huge off-screen personalities), Cavett’s forum affords these men a prime opportunity to showcase their dynamic skill flawlessly: the men can go from talking about their personal lives one minute to being rapturously sentimental about the work of other great directors the next. It’s this sort of unpredictability that may seem antiquated today that makes Cavett’s show and his polite, reverent style of interviewing, even more enjoyable.
Clearly, the extras featured on this set were made with meticulous attention to detail. Cavett filmed new introductions for each episode on this set and his commentary is always gracious, humorous, and telling. Film historian Robert Osborne is on hand for a comprehensive chat on the fourth disc, Seeing Stars with Dick Cavett and Robert Osborne. The men wax nostalgic over the featured episodes, covering every possible angle, from Cavett’s background to his requisite (and captivating) anecdotes about carousing with his interview subjects: particularly intriguing is his recollection of a wild night out with Brando that ends with a photographer being assaulted by the famously tempestuous performer.
In addition to the newly-filmed introductions and the great interview, the collection also features some of the original television promos, and rare behind the scenes, never-released footage of Hepburn before her triumphant interview. It is an exceptional look into what makes a legend a legend: Kate the Great holds court over the set like a regal queen, cracking jokes, making outrageous demands (like asking for different carpet—she didn’t like the color), and she makes it perfectly clear that she is always in control, even when she thinks the cameras are not rolling.
This is not only an entertaining, funny, and smart guide to the glory days of Hollywood; it is an essential and useful tool for film historians. The Dick Cavett Show lacks the pretension and buffoonery of a contemporary clone like Inside the Actors Studio, and celebrates the people who made history in a unique, charming way that is missing from the form today.