“Oh my God, I’ve made a bad impression already,” Dick Cavett says apologetically after I ever-so-gently correct his pronunciation of my name. When I suggest that I should be the one worried about interviewing one of the all-time great interviewers, he’s quick to put me at ease.
“You’d better put that aside and out of your mind,” he tells me. “I can’t detect any faults in you so far.”
I’ve reached the 83-year-old talk show legend by phone at his home in Connecticut just a few days before the new documentary, Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, is set to air on HBO. Muhammad Ali made a total of 14 appearances on The Dick Cavett Show between 1968 and 1975, and over that time the the two men developed what Cavett describes as a “bro romance.”
The film, which first premiered at the SXSW film festival nearly two years ago, uses footage of those appearances to tell the story of Ali’s career, with Cavett’s knack for compelling storytelling present throughout. He still gets emotional when recalling the time the boxing icon came on his show after a rare loss and called the host his “main man.”
Over the course of our conversation, Cavett opens up about his relationship with Ali, compares Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate to Donald Trump’s impeachment acquittal, and weighs in on the late-night TV landscape more than 50 years after his show debuted.
What made you want to participate in this documentary?
I can’t take any credit for the fact that it now exists. The guy who put it together, Robert Bader, is very good at that art. I had worked with him before on [the PBS documentaries] Dick Cavett’s Vietnam and Dick Cavett’s Watergate, where I was reminded of my dear old friend, the great unindicted co-conspirator and crook Richard Nixon. He was in some ways in charge of my tapes and was going through them and he kept coming across Ali. And by the time it got up to 14 times on the show, he said, we’ve got to do something with them.
When did you first meet the man who was then known as Cassius Clay?
I first met him 25 steps from Hollywood and Vine at the theater that had its name changed from the El Capitan in Hollywood’s golden age to The Jerry Lewis Theater. I was a writer there. Jerry discovered me when he hosted The Tonight Show once [where Cavett served as talent coordinator and then writer] and hired me. You may remember the hullabaloo about that show. It was two hours live and the joke was, “What’s he going to do for two hours?” Some of it was quite good. Mostly it was not. He had various emotional problems. If his father showed up in the afternoon, it ruined him for the rest of the day. Strange things like that. Some of the shows he pissed away and some of them—he was a comic genius in his way. I always got along nicely with him. Not everybody did.
So then Jerry Lewis had Ali on his show? Or Cassius Clay rather?
Oh yeah. And everybody was excited. Because he was going to show up. Somebody came to my office and said, ‘He’s here, he’s on the sidewalk out front.’ And there were TV cameras out there and he was pretending to have a fight with somebody in the crowd. And after terrifying him, he laughed it off and the man was relieved. I wrote poetry for him for that show. And then years passed and suddenly I was doing a talk show and he was on the first one.
The very first episode?
Yeah. Never dreaming that there would be 13 more. We really became, maybe in a strange, odd, unpredictable way, very good friends.
Did you know from that first episode that he would become such a great guest for your show?
I didn’t really, no. But each time he came on he was better than the last time. Except there would be a couple where he’d be a bit depressed. The one I can’t forget, of course, is when he came out very solemnly and among the things he said were, “Dick, I’m just an old, broken down fighter with a jaw wired together. And Dick Cavett, you’re the only one who would have me on the show. Nobody else called.” It was after one of his few defeats [to Ken Norton in 1973]. And that’s when he uttered the immortal line, “Dick, you’re my main man.” And I knew that the phrase “main man” had an almost mystical intimacy about it. Wherever I went for a week, people of various colors would say, “You know what that meant to be Ali’s main man?” I could go anywhere after that.
I think it’s hard to understand now how significant it was to see two men of different races having such a bond and a friendship on television at that time.
The joke is, it’s obvious we’d be friends because of our similar backgrounds. But we were a kind of odd couple. I guess now it would be a bro romance.
We were just really, really good friends and laughed and hung out at various places. It was always fun to be with him, in public where he was recognized and in private where he wasn’t. What began to grow on me was what great showbiz instincts he had. He might not have ever become as great as he was but for his own instincts, probably for self-preservation and knowing himself—knowing much as a comedian knows when to stop a line, how to edge your way through a conversation and notice danger before it gets all the way to you. He had all those instincts. If his life hadn’t ended so sadly, and if [his doctor] Ferdie Pacheco and all of his circle had managed to succeed in getting him to quit fighting about eight fights before he did, which took the rest of the toll on him that was already beginning to be taken, he might be here today.
There’s a moment from one of his appearances on your show that’s in the documentary that was really resonant for me where Ali expresses his concern about going on a late-night comedy show and joking through dark times. And it really reminded me of some of the criticism current late-night hosts have received for making silly jokes about the Trump administration. I’m curious what you make of it.
Well, first of all, I wish he’d been around for it all. I think the draft thing was probably the most dangerous point of his career, where there was vehement hatred at him for not loving the Vietnam War. And he didn’t go, as everybody knows. That was a huge controversy. But you’ve got to give him credit. He never used bone spurs as an excuse.
You were hosting your show during the Watergate scandal. How would you have approached covering Trump’s impeachment?
I suppose the same way I did with Watergate. I think the record shows that I had almost every Watergate villain there was on the show at some point. A lot of people give me credit for having helped oust Richard Nixon from the White House. I don’t know what specifically they were talking about. I was glad to see him go. Although I had the range of experience with Richard Nixon, from friendship and persona grata at the White House, being invited to black-tie evenings there, to what eventually became this famous moment when Nixon says to his—as I put it, his lickspittle—H. R. Haldeman, “What about Cavett? There must be some way we can screw him.” That’s a funny feeling to have the most powerful man in the world wanting to screw you. But he did manage to punish members of my staff by his hobby of illegally using the IRS to punish people. He had them audited and it was hard for the people with the lowest incomes. He was able to hurt them.
There are obviously a lot of similarities between Nixon and Trump, but this has worked out so differently in the sense that Nixon didn’t even get to an impeachment trial because he had the shame to step down first. Why do you think this has played out so differently?
Well, we know why Nixon didn’t get to impeachment, because he saw it coming and he was told how much evidence they had. And that delegation that included Barry Goldwater went to his office and said, “You’re through.” He ducked impeachment, which is not a very manly thing considering his obsession with manhood. He was always saying, “Oh, you should have known him, he was a real man.” Psychiatrists knew what to make of it.
So why do you think it’s been such a different story for Trump?
Totally different. Such a different drama. Who knows where it will ultimately go? When it’s gotten so painful as it has the last three years, is it a Chinese proverb? “May you not have the ill luck to be born in interesting times.” We live in interesting times.
Going back to late-night television, how do you think the current hosts have risen to this challenge of covering Trump?
You know, I don’t see much of it. I know them all, so it’s not that easy. Colbert and I are good friends and Jimmy Fallon I’ve known for a long time. I have a good time with Seth Meyers, we’ve had some nice times together. Other than that, it’s not really a vacation for me to watch a talk show.
That was astonishing to me. Did Trump agree to that beforehand?
Apparently he was in on it.
He would have to have been.
Do you think the criticism of Fallon was warranted?
There’s so much to say about Trump that the mind almost jams shut when the subject comes up.
If you were still hosting your show, do you think you’d have Trump on as a guest?
I don’t know if he would come on with me or not, I never really thought seriously about it. I met him years ago when he was still in the playboy vogue. And we were at some kind of dinner where there was a buffet. And his fork and my fork went for the same shrimp and we looked at each other. Neither of us spoke. He looked troubled somehow about me and maybe couldn’t think of my name or I don’t know what. I had no desire to speak to him. And that has lasted.
Who got the shrimp?
I don’t know if either of us did. I think like not manly men we both withdrew and went for something else. So Nixon couldn’t say about either of us, “He was a real man.”
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