New Yorker Dick Cavett has returned to L.A. The former talk show host is now starring in “Hellman v. McCarthy” at Beverly Hills High’s Theatre 40 (the play ends its run with a one-night-only performance at the Saban Theatre on March 1). An alumna myself, I was especially thrilled to revisit the performance space where I spent several years studying and acting. Cavett’s performance in the play is both provocative and reminiscent of the days when he ruled TV—which aren’t over yet; Cavett hosted a segment on the CBS Late Show on Friday. (I believe CBS should offer him a full time gig.)
Back to the play: Cavett, looking ever youthful, plays himself in “Hellman v. McCarthy,” which is a about the bitter battle that began when novelist and critic Mary McCarthy appeared as a guest on a now infamous episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” on PBS in 1979. The interview, which began casually, turned ugly as McCarthy accused screenwriter Lillian Hellman of lying. Hellman promptly filed a lawsuit against everyone involved, including Cavett, and years of headlines and litigation followed.
Still, Cavett is perhaps best known for having in-depth on-air discussions with Bette Davis, Mel Brooks, Marlon Brando, and hundreds of other artists and is largely responsible for giving musicians the opportunity to perform live on TV. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both gave legendary performances shortly before their deaths at the age 27.
When we sat down to talk about “Hellman v. McCarthy,” Cavett opened up about much more, including fond memories of Katherine Hepburn and Groucho Marx, and his reunion with the City of Angels.
How would you describe the play for people who know nothing about the feud between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy?
It’s about a terrific battle that took place between two literary lionesses who detested each other. I triggered Mary McCarthy on my show by sheer accident while discussing overrated writers. It triggered Mary to say that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer. Her famous quote was, “She’s such a dishonest writer that everything she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Well, the old bat—I mean Miss Helman—was watching. So I received a call the next day: “Why the hell didn’t you defend me?” I told her that she could probably defend herself, never dreaming that she would commit the lunatic act of filing million dollar lawsuits to everyone in sight including Mary, the network, my production company, and me. It was a savage battle and it went on for years. Almost everybody sided with Mary because Lillan Hellman was known to be a great defender of free speech, so it didn’t make any sense that a writer would sue another writer. The play is full of humor and vitriol, and the audience watches it like a detective story playing out. It’s beautifully plotted with a superb cast.
Is it odd to play yourself?
I’ve never given it a thought because it would be too dangerous. I just go out and say the words and try not to think how I would say them. To have to memorize what you are supposed to say is automatically strange. But Brian Mori did such a good job with the script that it was no problem.
How was the play received when it first premiered in New York?
We did it for four weeks and it could have gone longer. The New York Times reviewed it and it was splattered all over the arts and leisure page. The next morning by 11 a.m. all the tickets were sold. The power of the press.
And the power of social media, too!
Yes! Can you imagine what it must have been like to live when the most modern invention to communicate with was the pen, the pencil and that fabulous invention called the typewriter? I had a kid recently ask me what a typewriter is. He also asked me who the Marx Brothers were and who Johnny Carson was.
Well thanks to YouTube, hopefully younger generations are discovering The Dick Cavett Show and because of you are being introduced to Hollywood legends. Are you sensing a resurgence in you career since those interviews now live online?
That’s absolutely true. Some people think I was never on anything other then YouTube. YouTube provides a great service. Younger people can now see who the Ritz Brother and W.C Fields were.
What clips from your show are your favorites?
Groucho Marx, Truman Capote and Muhammad Ali. I would also recommend the Katherine Hepburn clip where I remind her that we were in a play together and she doesn’t quite remember me. I told her I had one line and she asked me if I remembered it. And so, I said the exact line and she reacts by saying, “Is that the way you said it”? By the way, she had 40 sets of those slacks she wore. She said, “You spend half your life deciding what to wear. So I just wear the same thing everyday.”
Thankfully the DVDs that were released a few years back turned out beautifully. A man who is a resident here in Los Angeles named Robert Bader, a media archivist for Shout Factory, watched 350 Cavett shows and then decided that he better put them out on DVD. He did a great job.
Is there anyone you never got the chance to interview that you wish you had?
Yes, a couple. Frank Sinatra almost did the show and we would have had a wonderful time, but he was a little cagey about it. I kept trying. Once I was given a number in New Jersey to call and a voice that was right out of The Godfather answered the phone and said, “Frank doesn’t do shit like this. And I don’t know who the hell you are.” I said, “Thank you ma’am and hung up.” I also really wanted to get Cary Grant on the show, but I didn’t press hard enough on him. I think that was my fault. I saw him at a party at 30 Rock once and as I was entering I was told there was an A room and a B room. I was told to go to the B room. Well, of course I worked my way into the A room and there was Cary Grant. I guess the Rhodes Scholars at the front desk didn’t catch me sneak in. Anyway, I almost had him commit to doing the show, but then he said, “People will find out how dumb I am.”
Where did you meet Groucho Marx?
George S. Kaufman’s funeral. I realized I was sitting in the same room as my idol, Groucho Marx, just eight feet away. Afterwards, he and Art Carney parted, Groucho was alone and I went up to him and came up with one of my most brilliant lines: I’m a big fan of yours. He said, “Well if it get’s any hotter I could use a big fan.” And that was the beginning of a very long relationship. He used to call me up to go to the movies. I remember sneaking out of party with him because he was bored. The hostess said, “Slipping out Mr. Marx?” and he said, “I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t one of them.”
What’s your favorite place in Los Angeles?
I finally made it to La Brea Tar Pits. That is a must! I loved it. I don’t like all tar pits, but I do like the La Brea Tar Pits.
Tell me about hosting The Late Late Show last Friday.
I was really late, late! The car and my calendar had two totally different times for when I was supposed to be there. Because we were creeping through horrible traffic, they taped the last two segments first and when I got there I swapped hosting duties with Wayne Brady. By the way, he’s awfully good. I was really impressed by him.
Are you looking forward to performing at the Saban Theatre?
Well the Saban Theatre is home for me too because that’s where we filmed a great special I did with Mel Brooks for HBO. On the stage you can’t see anything, so I didn’t know how beautiful that theatre looked like inside until a couple of weeks ago. We are very excited to perform there.