JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people to describe their passions.
Tonight, we hear from legendary talk show host Dick Cavett, whose in-depth discussions kept American television audiences entertained and intellectually engaged for more than five decades.
His latest book is “Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks.”
DICK CAVETT, Author, “Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks”: Somebody said once, what’s the secret of doing a successful, what’s the Brits call a chat show?
If there is a secret, it was enunciated by the great Jack Paar. He said, “Kid, don’t do interviews.”
And I said, “Well, what do I do Jack, read to them?”
He said, “Make it a conversation.”
People ask me, what kind of show did you decide to do or how would you describe your show? And I have never been able to come up with an answer for that, because of the fact that I never had any plan. All I knew was I was being thrown into and responsible for 90 minutes of live television.
But I had the advantage of having seen great examples of what I would be doing by Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, all of whom I wrote for.
JOHNNY CARSON, “The Tonight Show”: Would you welcome, please, Mr. Dick Cavett?
DICK CAVETT: With Johnny, of course, you could turn him on in your head, how he will word it, how many syllables he will use. All of that comes together to make you able to write a line that they can come out and say and sound like themselves.
Will you welcome, please, Mr. Marlon Brando?
DICK CAVETT: I was just slap-happy delirious to have Marlon Brando on.
And my director admitted later that he said, when Brando threw that million-dollar grin in a close-up shot, I couldn’t cut away.
My wife’s favorite line from that show is when I said:
Were you happy with the way “The Godfather” came out?
MARLON BRANDO, Actor: I would rather not talk about movies. I don’t think they’re…
DICK CAVETT: I had the luck of meeting and sitting with Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Groucho Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Mitchum, oh, and the great John Huston.
Somebody semi-humorously warned me, “You’re becoming the poster boy for depression,” because I would — chose to talk about it, because I found that, when I did, it helped people.
I did shows with it, a thing that is an ungodly task, as you stand there sing merrily with Ethel Merman, and you feel like roadkill.
And people will say to Robin Williams, you have the thrill of going out on stage and getting an audience screaming with happiness in their life.
And, incidentally, I saw Robin come off one night after doing that and saying: “I could make those people happy. Why can’t I make myself that happy?”
That’s central to the problem. When people ask me, who’s doing what you did, or is there a show that is similar to what you were doing, I don’t think there’s anything exactly like it, partly because it’s just — the medium has changed a lot.
I might be more like parts of Jon Stewart and certainly parts of Stephen Colbert. But people tell me nothing is quite like it. And I wish somebody would tell me exactly what they mean.
My name is Dick Cavett, and this is my, how shall I say, Brief But Spectacular take on my life and conversation, I guess.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What a life and a walk down memory lane.