Author/actor/TV talk show host Dick Cavett will star at Theatre 40 and for one night at the Saban Theatre in the controversial play Hellman v. McCarthy beginning February 6. Cavett is best known for his TV talk shows from the 70s to present time on CBS, ABC, PBS, USA Network and currently on TCM hosting reruns of his classic 70s interviews. He is known for his laid-back conversational style with such celebrities as Groucho Marx, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Benny and Mel Brooks among many others. He is a three-time Emmy Award winner. He also currently writes a blog published by the New York Times.
In our chat he discusses – with inimitable wit – the play and its background, playing himself in it, and his new book, entitled Dick Cavett: Brief Encounters.
Just a bit of background: in January 1980 while Cavett was interviewing author Mary McCarthy on PBS, at the sound of Lillian Hellman’s name, she is quoted as responding: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.
Unfortunately, I never saw your original broadcast with guest Mary McCarthy in January of 1980. Was that your highest-rated interview at that time?
I doubt that it was the highest rated, because nobody had any idea what was going to happen, including me.
Did Lillian Hellman call in and request a rebuttal or did she just sue for libel?
The phone rang the next morning and I heard (in Hellman’s characteristic scratchy voice) “Why the hell didn’t you defend me?” from her mouth which was only exceeded in its dirtiness by Richard M. Nixon.
You had interviewed her before, correct?
A couple of times.
When did Brian Richard Mori write the play Hellman v. McCarthy?
I’m not sure when he worked on it; it suddenly just appeared in my life, out of the blue, and I remember thinking “How do you make a play out of this?” Well, he certainly did. You are riveted all the way through it. It’s like following a good, well-plotted drama or mystery. Nobody falls asleep during this play.
Why do you think it took over thirty years to dramatize?
Well, I don’t know, now that he’s done such an excellent play, you think ‘what a great idea, why didn’t ten people do it?’ And maybe people tried, but this one certainly is the successful version.
Explain the conflict with Hellman.
You mean that old bag who started this psychotic lawsuit with no justification whatsoever?! They had to prove that she was not a public figure, because you can say anything you want about public figures. At the same time she was appearing in that Blackglama fur ad, which did not mention the name of any of the women in them…Carol Burnett, Beverly Sills…so therefore she was hired because she was a public figure but in her vengeful nasty way she… and somehow her lawyer got away with denying that. But she’s half the drama; the two women are equally represented throughout the play.
Did you do the play on the road before New York last year?
No, it was done at a little theatre called the Abingdon off-Broadway; it has a good reputation as an off-Broadway theatre. It only played a limited run, so we ran for three weeks in New York. Splashed all over the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, I think after the second performance by Mr. Isherwood of the Times. Next day, it sold out.
And you got superlative reviews?
Yeah, yeah, nobody hated it.
Nora Ephron also wrote a play about Hellman and McCarthy called Imaginary Friends. Were you included in that?
It does include me and my show. They had 9 ft high, 4 ft wide television screens onstage. In a crucial scene Mary thinks she’s (Hellman) a dishonest writer, and says her infamous line with ‘and’ and ‘the’, and it was interesting to see myself not only that tall (we laugh) but then cutting to what was Mary only it wasn’t Mary it was Cherry Jones. And they shot it so it matched as if they were showing Mary on my show. And she (Jones) was so good, I really thought she was Mary.
Marcia Rodd played Mary in Hellman v. McCarthy in New York, right?
Yes, and she decided to give it another shot here, and I’m glad she did.
Who is playing Hellman here at Theatre 40?
Flora Plumb, as they used to say, is essaying the part and Marcia, Mary. A wonderful young actor from New York named Roan Myer plays the only sympathetic character in the whole play, the long-suffering male nurse to Lillian… the irascible, maddening, sick, chain-smoking, booze-drinking, foulmouth talking Lillian Hellman.
It sounds like you didn’t like her (intoning humor).
It’s hard to like someone who sues you for a million dollars. I liked her fine before. I had dinner at her apartment a couple of times. Other people at the table would be people like the New York Times book critic and Mike Nichols. Mike actually was going to come (to the play). He sent me an e-mail saying “Almost came down to see you, but the thought of seeing Lillian again in any form might be too much.”
(laughing) What other actors are in the play here?
Two actors familiar to you audiences here are Martin Thompson and John Combs who play the two lawyers.
You’ve been rehearsing at Theatre 40?
They’ve been rehearsing before I got here, and we’re still rehearsing. Howard Storm is excellently directing the play.
Do you expect LA audiences to be as intelligent as New York audiences?
As intelligent as New York audiences?
Well, you know how New Yorkers are always putting down LA for not being a theatre town?
You mean the people who refer to this as LaLa Land. (he laughs) I’ve never seen a major drop in intelligence in California. Maybe they’re only showing me the right people. I lived here, so to speak, for six months, working for Jerry Lewis, back in the days of the ABC two-hour Jerry Lewis Show with Mort Sahl and everybody. I had a little apartment out in Bel Air, almost to the freeway.
Did you write for him?
That had to be interesting, that whole gig.
It was. (he laughs) There’s a long book and play in that.
How is it to play yourself onstage?
I try not to think about it.
Did playwright Mori take your actual words from the broadcast?
Some of the stuff is right from it. Some of it is approximate from things that we know happened. And there’s a brilliant scene by him on the two ladies meeting one last time after the whole thing is blown up. This never happened. They didn’t see each other again. What he has imaginatively… and I point out, we don’t know that the ladies ever met really like this, but wasn’t that a swell scene and it probably would have been. So, we don’t fool the audience into thinking that…
Sounds like fun. I saw you do Otherwise Engaged on Broadway many years ago. I was very delighted with what you did with that. Did you enjoy doing that play?
I couldn’t wait for the sun to start going down so I could get to the theatre.
Was it because you were a perfect fit for the character, do you think?
I’ve never tried to figure out why; it was just so satisfying to do a well-written play. Strangely enough, I had every other line; virtually, I never was off-stage. I guess that’s good for the ego, but sort of tough if you want to have a drink, as Richard Burton did after every scene. I never tried that. And I took over for Tom Courtenay. That was intimidating. I had to assume that most people hadn’t seen both of us.
Well, I did see both of you, and I thought you did a wonderful job.
I hated leaving it. And I had to, because the PBS show started. I’ve tried to imagine that maybe I could have done both a little longer, but I don’t know. It never pays to look back.
I just got your book over the weekend and I really enjoyed certain chapters like Bittersweet Christmas Story. That one struck a chord. When you’re a kid, and your relatives suddenly get into a spat over something that should please them, you wonder if some deep unhappiness has been festering in them for a long time. Are there other personal encounters like this one?
Not like that one. What you singled out others have called grim reading. A little bitter drama that took place around a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.
My mother put my father’s dinner down in front of him one night – it was spaghetti and it wasn’t Christmas Eve, but…my father looked at it and suddenly picked up the plate and threw it against the wall. It came out of nowhere, and they started to argue.
Those things happen. In what movie is spaghetti thrown against the wall?
(We both answer simultaneously) The Odd Couple.
Those blowups in long term marriages are painful. You don’t know mummy and daddy and all they’ve done.
Anyway, you wrote it very well and it truly moved me. I also loved the chapters about Mel Brooks and Jack Benny.
Did you read the one about Stan Laurel?
Actually I wrote a second one for the Times. Hundreds of people loved that. I still find it easier to believe by far that I have met Brando and Orson Welles and Katharine Hepburn, Robert Mitchum and all those people than the man that I met who helped the fat man struggle with the crated piano up a hundred and thirty-three steps in the Oscar-winning short The Music Box, which I can watch once a year easily. Somebody out here drove me to the steps – Stan told me where the steps were – and I visited them the last time I was here. They don’t look anything like in the movie, because there were virtually no houses. Now they’ve filled in. There’s a plaque there.
I can’t wait to read about that. The other chapter that I loved was about comedy and you talked about setting up a joke for Benny.
I don’t know if that clip is on youtube or not. It’s great. I know there was a joke; Benny knows there was a joke on the subject of insurance. You can see him edging toward it. Then he says something like “Oh, I could do a whole routine on that.” I give him another hint and you see it dawn. And he says, “I’ll tell you the insurance I have. When I go, they go.” Later, he shook my hand and said “Thanks for the cue.”(he laughs)
You were such a great interviewer. You were tuned into him and were able to feed him.
When that works, it’s nice.
You not only did a terrific interview with the one and only Katharine Hepburn, you did one on PBS with the comedian in a dress, female illusionist Charles Pierce. Do you remember him?
What do you remember about both of those shows?
I had never really seen his work, and heard about him from everybody it seems in the theatre.
My wife (Carrie Nye) was a great fan of his, but I hadn’t seen his work. I was just dazzled right there. It was as if a man came in and walked up the wall or something. That’s how good he was. I have to get that out and look at it again.
What about Miss Hepburn?
Of course, the Hepburn one was so unexpectedly long, that we got two 90-minute shows out of it. And there are twenty-five left over that have never been seen.
I remember at one point, she got up and stormed out, saying something like “Are we through?
That was a faux exit, not foe. And she came back and we did more.
It was great.
How do you get rid of her? (we laugh)
Any final comments about the play Hellman v. McCarthy before we rap?
You can safely advise people that they will watch it with rapt attention. It has drama, semi verbal violence, not physical…well, there’s a moment, you could call that when Lillian belts her faithful male nurse. It’s got everything but nudity and onstage sex. But we’re trying to figure out how to get that in.
Dick, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and I look forward to seeing the play in as couple of weeks.
Thank you for making this painless. My wife reminds me that it goes from February 6 – 28 at Theatre 40 and one glorious night March 1 at the Saban Theatre, which is home for me because I did that spectacular special with Mel Brooks there a few years ago.
Well, best of luck and break a leg!
Thank you about the leg. You know the Germans say Hals und Beinbruch, meaning break neck and leg, Germans being a little more violent.
What a treat to talk to this icon! I haven’t laughed so hard in quite a while. See him live onstage in Hellman v. McCarthy at Theatre 40 February 6-28 and then for one night March 1 at the Saban.