Unlike today’s mostly promotional late-night talk shows, “The Dick Cavett Show,” which ran from 1968-74 on ABC and later on public television, had a history of controversial, even combustible, moments.
In one episode of the award-winning ABC show, actress Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”) was aghast that she was sharing a stage with Janis Joplin. Lily Tomlin walked off a taping because of actor Chad Everett’s sexist comments. So did Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who took a hike because he wanted Cavett to apologize for labeling everyone in Georgia a bigot.
But perhaps no Cavett episode garnered as much attention as his 1979 interview with author, critic and mid-century literary celebrity Mary McCarthy (“Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” “The Group”) on the PBS incarnation of “The Dick Cavett Show.”
During the interview, McCarthy expressed her disdain for novelists John Steinbeck and Pearl Buck before taking on a contemporary — Lillian Hellman, author of the hit Broadway plays “The Little Foxes” and “The Children’s Hour” and the memoir “Pentimento: A Book of Portraits.”
She told Cavett that Hellman was “‘tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and dishonest writer.” When Cavett pressed her as to what was dishonest about Hellman, she replied “Everything. But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
In fact, “Pentimento” (a chapter of which became the 1977 movie “Julia” with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave) and Hellman’s two other memoirs — “An Unfinished Woman” and “Scoundrel Time” — were cited for inaccuracies.
But Hellman saw the episode and sued McCarthy, Cavett and Educational Television Corp. for libel. She sought $2.5 million in damages.
The juicy tale of these literary titans inspired Brian Richard Mori’s “Hellman v. McCarthy,” which premiered last year at the Abingdon Theater Company off-Broadway starring Cavett as himself and Marcia Rodd as McCarthy.
The two are reprising their roles this month at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, with one performance March 1 at the Saban Theatre. Flora Plumb is playing Hellman.
Over an interview at the theater before an evening rehearsal, Cavett and Rodd were erudite and funny. Cavett did an impression of Capote and told tales from his talk show host days, such as the time “we gave Orson Welles $5,000 under the table [to do the show] because he wouldn’t otherwise. He never had any money.”
Cavett likes to joke that he “wasn’t the first choice for the role” as himself in “Hellman v. McCarthy.”
Mori had several early readings of the play with Jeff Woodman playing Cavett. “I did go to a reading,” Cavett said. “It never occurred to me that it would become a play and get on its feet.”
Abingdon Theater artistic director Jan Buttram “was the one who said, ‘Why don’t you see if we can get Cavett,’” said Rodd, 74. And with Cavett on board, Mori expanded his role in the play.
Before the lawsuit, Hellman had been a guest on Cavett’s series.
“She loved being on,” Cavett said. “I had dinner at her apartment three times. She was good company.”
Until the morning after the episode aired in early 1980.
“I picked up the phone and heard ‘Why the hell didn’t you defend me?’ I thought she could pretty much defend herself. I didn’t tell her that [writer] Jean Stafford referred to her as ‘old scaly bird.’”
Ironically, Rodd said, McCarthy wasn’t particularly venomous when she discussed Hellman on the show.
“She says it almost jokingly,” Rodd said. “She has this sort of rigid smile. It gives her a pleasantness. She isn’t histrionic. The thing that is not likable about her is that she has this air of superiority about her.”
Turning to Cavett, Rodd asked: “Did you like her?””
“I liked her,” Cavett said. “She liked me.”
“She was a little flirty,” Rodd said.
Though people have said that McCarthy might have been jealous of Hellman, said Rodd, she feels that “Hellman might have been a bit jealous of McCarthy.”
“She was better looking,” Cavett said. “She did have men flocking around her much more than Hellman did.”
Before her death in 1984 at 79, Hellman had won a preliminary round in the lawsuit when McCarthy’s motion to dismiss the suit was denied. Hellman’s executors later dropped the suit.
But McCarthy had the last word.
On learning the news, McCarthy, who died in 1989 at 77, said in a statement: “If someone had told me, don’t say anything about Lillian Hellman because she’ll sue you, it wouldn’t have stopped me. It might have spurred me on.”