Times Staff Writer

Eleven years after the demise of Dick Cavett's ABC late-night show, people still walk up to him on the street and offer the presumed compliment, "You're the only intellectual on television."

His response is always the same. "First of all," he said from his New York home one recent morning, "I'm not a genuine intellectual. Second, if you look at my list of guests, there's not a low comic or movie star I didn't have on."

Cavett has good reason to shun the high-brow image that has stuck like glue through subsequent hosting chores at PBS and, currently, the USA cable network--and not only because he doesn't believe it fits. His brainy brand of chitchat was believed to be a liability to ABC's ratings in the early '70s, his critical acclaim notwithstanding.

But Cavett is getting another shot at commercial broadcast TV, and this time the niche seems to have been carved with his particular style in mind.

As earlier reported, Cavett will return to ABC this fall, where he will serve as one of the main ingredients in a nightly recipe tentatively titled "Latenight America," which will follow "Nightline" with Ted Koppel from midnight to 1 a.m. The new Cavett show will air at least twice a week as part of the mix.

(Author and columnist Jimmy Breslin is expected to join the post-"Nightline" lineup on two other nights. Linda Ellerbee is a likely choice for the fifth spoke in ABC's talk-show wheel, with a show that would begin early next year, once the "Monday Night Football" season ends.)

"When we thought about compatibility with Ted Koppel, the name Dick Cavett just sprang into our heads," network Vice President Ted Harbert said. Both shows appeal to an age "35-plus, upscale audience," Harbert added.

This time around, Cavett and ABC will be squaring off against bigger and more diverse competition. Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" is no longer the only late-night game in town.

On NBC alone, David Letterman, who made his living as a weatherman in Cavett's heyday, now will be facing him from 12:30 to 1 a.m. CBS has carved out its own strong alternative with a lineup of late-night action shows, which this season will include a lighthearted secret agent series, "Adderly," along with the current "Night Heat."

Then there's David Brenner, who, with musician Billy Preston at his side, will be cranking up his half-hour syndicated show, "Night Life," this fall. (Times and stations are still to be announced.)

Beginning Oct. 1 at 11 p.m., there also will be "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" from the new Fox Broadcasting Co., which could give a strong lead-in to independent stations' midnight shows competing with Cavett.

Cavett sounds unconcerned about the competition. "I can only say, I do what I do," he says.

Viewers can certainly expect to see the flip sides of Cavett: There's the onetime actor and standup comic who began his TV career penning jokes for Jack Paar; then there's the glib, current affairs-minded host who once brought then-governor of Georgia Lester Maddox, football player Jim Brown and author Truman Capote on his show at the same time.

Though Cavett downplays the intellectual side of that package, his conversation betrays the true nature of the goods ABC has bought.

He rails against the notion that he is on some higher intellectual plane than Carson, going so far as to suggest that had they switched places while still unkowns, "we could have done each other's show."

But that being said, he revels in the significant moments of his talk-show career, dropping names like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Katharine Hepburn. "There's nothing more enthralling," he says, "than Richard Burton's head on the screen"--his screen--talking about the evils of alcohol.

Later in the conversation, Cavett refers to a show he did on New York street gangs.

ABC, for its part, prizes the side of Cavett that provides compatiblity with Koppel, late-night TV's resident news moderator cum ringmaster. But the term intellectual is still taboo.

"We're glad that he (Cavett) bristles when he's thought of as an intellectual, because we are looking at him simply to do an entertaining show," Harbert said. "It doesn't have to be just conversations with people. Dick is going to find a way to bring on pop variety acts."

Such as?

"I'm not sure we're going to see Kool and the Gang," Harbert said. "Dick Cavett is second to none in being able to get people on his show who don't normally do Carson or anything else. He could get a Barbra Streisand on, and who knows what he'll be able to get her to do?"

Cavett suggests that the new show will be very much like his old ABC show, or the PBS interview series he hosted from 1977 to 1982 or his USA cable show, which he'll continue to host through September.

"Am I going to reform in a way to appeal to the same audience that likes 'Jackpot Bowling' "? Cavett asks. "The answer is 'no.' "

Nor is he upset about being off the major networks all these years. "That may sound surprising, but when you're doing a show, it feels the same. I only feel that, when I get off a particularly good show (on USA) and somebody says, 'We read about that and couldn't get it,' that they might have (seen it) if it were on ABC.

"I always resent the assumption that everything that comes around in television is going to be new and different. In this case, I think the talk show is one of the few things that television does well."

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