Former television host Dick Cavett ’58 appeared regularly on nationally broadcast television from the 1960s through the early 2000s. Cavett is perhaps best known for his conversational style and the in-depth discussions that he held as the host of The Dick Cavett Show. He has been praised for the intellectual range of the conversations that he conducted as a talk-show host, an ability that he attributes, in significant part, to his Yale education. In addition to highly acclaimed interviews with actors and musicians, including Groucho Marx, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, and John Lennon, among others, Cavett is known for often focusing on controversial subjects with controversial people. Indeed, a debate about the Vietnam War so angered former President Richard M. Nixon that the then-President was heard discussing Cavett on the Watergate tapes, saying, “Well, is there any way we can screw him? That’s what I mean. There must be ways.”
Cavett sat down with the News to talk about his career, the formative role that Yale played in shaping his life, and his views on some of the issues facing Yale and the nation today.
Q: You came to Yale on a scholarship. Upon arriving at Yale, which was in many ways a bastion of old money at the time, to what extent did you, a Nebraska boy of modest means, feel that you fit in?
DC: The train left the Lincoln, Nebraska railway station at about midnight, on its way first to Chicago … and then to New York, city of my dreams. I’m told that I said to my parents, “What if I can’t do the work?” And they looked a little startled, but reassured me, on the basis of nothing, of course. And it turns out that I was able to do it. I even made the dean’s list freshman year, which stunned them. I think I was afraid I might have flunked out if I did anything but study during freshman year, but for the following three years, I did every play in sight. And I think my grades went down, not as far as George Bush’s probably, but down anyway. But I did fine — I came out okay. By the way, I had a roommate flunk out from an excess of poker and booze. A good formula if you want to flunk out, although people are skilled enough to do it without either of them.
You may know that I made the subject of Yale versus Nebraska a part of my night-club act. The biggest laugh was that I knew so little about Ivy League wear that I appeared on the campus in brown and white shoes, the problem being that the white one kept getting dirty. That was a big laugh.
I remember being dismayed freshman year when a snooty classmate, with that awful, nasal Connecticut twang, asked me, condescendingly, “Where did you prep?” I replied, “I didn’t prep. I highed.”
Q: To what extent did Yale teach you the art of critical thinking?
DC: Any critical thinking that I got from Yale was in my undergraduate courses, maybe in the true sense of the term, from the great Paul Weiss, Sterling professor of philosophy. Paul Weiss taught his class Socratically, asking to have questions fired at him, and he never failed to take down any five students simultaneously, if he needed to. I later put him on television, on the Jack Paar Tonight Show, and then I had Paul Weiss on my own show, as I did William F. Buckley, [whose] faculty advisor was Paul Weiss.
Q: When you attended Yale in the 1950s, the school was a feeder for certain jobs on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Why do you think that you ended up working in television if it wasn’t a career path that the school necessarily encouraged?
DC: Without perhaps realizing it fully, I went there knowing I wanted to be in “The Big Time” and “The Great White Way,” in the showbiz world, world of grease paint and crowds. That was always surging in me. I didn’t have any idea how you got there, but it was always fun.
The Shubert Theater was very significant. The fact that I might have, calamitously, spent those years in a town that didn’t have the Shubert Theater is unthinkable. I saw everything that came, going whichever way — toward Broadway or on tour — there for four years. I, in my brash way, bolted into famous stars’ dressing rooms and engaged them in chat, and years later I could remind Judy Garland or someone that, “You’ve met me before.” I did it on the air with Katharine Hepburn. I surprised her that I had been in “The Merchant of Venice” with her years before and had one line. She asked if I remembered it, and I said, “Gentlemen, my master Antonio is at his house and desires to speak with you both.” Her reply: “Is that the way you said it?” I thought the laugh would never end.
Q: When you were on the air, many regarded you as the most intellectual of the talk-show hosts of your day. To what do you attribute your ability to make a connection with a mainstream audience, given your more intellectual approach to interviews?
DC: It would take thumbscrews to cause me to admit that I was an intellectual, because, well let’s say thanks to Yale, I know what a really one looks like, and sounds like, and is like. I got hung with that uncommercial label early on because, as I’ve said, I made the mistake of thinking that you were supposed to read the guest’s books, and so I did and ended up having nine minutes to discuss a 400-page book.
How did you manage to capture an audience’s attention for a 90-minute-long show, especially with only one or two people being interviewed?
DC: It all came from the great Jack Paar’s advice to me that I’ve repeated more than once. He called and said, “Kid, when you start doing these shows, don’t do interviews.” I said, “What do I do, read to the audience, or sing?” He said, “No, no, no. Interviews: that’s Q&A, what’s your favorite this, David Frost and his clipboard while he’s falling asleep from jetlag.” He said, “Make it a conversation.” The next time you see my John Lennon shows, if you do see them again or if you haven’t seen them, there’s a moment that puzzled some people when suddenly John contemptuously said, “Dick, what’s your definition of love?” That was one of David Frost’s patented, ask-every-guest, stupid questions. I think that John would’ve enjoyed another Frost moment in my life. When David Frost died, I was told about it on a live show and said, “Why is it never Dick Cheney?’’ I’ll stand by that as part of my legacy.
What are your feelings about the upcoming presidential election?
DC: My feelings about the current election cannot be contained in mere words. When this bad dream began, I posted somewhere, “Why not Trump? We’ve tried qualified people.” Stronger and nastier postings on Facebook and a column for my New York Times online blog “Trumpo: The Unfunny Marx Brother” have gotten the predictable “Hoorays” and many a “Good-bye forever, Mr Cavit [sic].” My Times piece contained a line I kind of hoped Hillary would adopt for her personal use. I imagined the horror of Trump as president when the Arab World erupts violently. It was, “Wouldn’t you want a president who knows Shiite from Shinola?”
Do you have any other comments to add about your time at Yale?
DC: On my way to lunch from a lecture by the great Vincent Scully, who taught an architecture course in which jaded students were lifted to their feet applauding feverishly, and with that still ringing in my ears and mind, I passed Harkness Tower and the bells rang, and I thought, “Oh God, I’ve only got two more years of this!” And as for the stuff on campus and all that, and the ludicrous nature about which they’re protesting and the intolerance of it, I once said to somebody, “Remember the good old days when the intolerance for the free exchange of ideas came from the Right?” I find shrieking at a professor a bit of a waste of time and energy. Think about what you’re doing and saying. The First Amendment used to be very welcome on campus. Someone should give you a swift kick in the ass. Did I say that?
I heard myself say this once: Somebody said, “Do you miss Yale? Did you like it there? Was it wonderful?” And I said, “Those were the best four years of my life, and I knew it at the time.”