In his new book, "Brief Encounters," a collection of his New York Times columns, professional raconteur Dick Cavett shares stories about his brushes with showbiz greats, including a surprise phone call from Marlene Dietrich and meeting with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during one of their bed-ins for peace. Rubbing elbows with luminaries is but one of the perks of the job for the erudite talk-show host, perhaps best known for "The Dick Cavett Show" which ran for five years. Cavett, who spends most of his time in Montauk, Long Island, recently spoke over a bowl of gazpacho on the Upper West Side.
The recent PBS documentary "Dick Cavett's Watergate" looked back at how your talk show covered the scandal. At the time, did you feel like you were influencing the issue?
I never thought of that at the time, but now I'm beginning to wonder, especially when somebody told me that I am now on 26 of the Nixon tapes. Nice to know that someone loved me. I'm sure Johnny Carson wasn't mentioned 26 times. I watched [the documentary] with a 19-year-old who was just knocked out by it. This is the only time in American history when we had two criminals in the White House at the same time, Nixon and Agnew, both of whom deserved to wear striped pajamas.
You think Nixon should have gone to jail?
Yes, he was a disgraceful criminal, among other things.... Then Gore Vidal pointed out that he's probably the most honest politician that we ever had in the sense that he always told you what the truth was. By saying "I'm not a crook" or "I didn't know about the cover-up," he told you the opposite was true. Do you want to know the worst thing he did?
[Nixon's daughter] Julie was his biggest advocate — loyal to her dad, tried to cheer him up, apparently thought he was wonderful. Went around this country defending him against charges that he knew were true and he let her go and unwittingly lie for him. That's about the worst thing. [Comedian] Mort Sahl once said: "Nixon is the kind of man who if you're drowning 30 feet from shore would throw you a 25-foot rope and Kissinger would go on TV and say he met you more than halfway."
"The Dick Cavett Show" on ABC was known for attracting a lot of counterculture guests, people who wouldn't go on other talk shows. Why do you think that is?
I'm not absolutely sure why. I never gave a damn about rock music, but I had everybody in the rock world on. It wasn't long before I had at least three dead rock stars on tape while I was still doing the show. Janis Joplin was on five times and Jimi [Hendrix] and Jim Morrison. I was always surprised until I heard it so many times I wasn't anymore that I was obligatory watching on every campus. I never had any target audience, it was just get whoever we can and do the best show. That sounds kind of Boy Scout-ish.
Late night is not the cash cow it used to be and because of [the number of options] now. "The Dick Cavett Show" when it went off had more viewers than Letterman or Leno ever had. But it wasn't enough for ABC, so they put on "Wide World of Entertainment," which proved to be quite a bit narrower than they thought.
Were there any guests you wish you could have gotten?
Sinatra and Cary Grant. We would have had so much fun. I think I blew it with both of them. I called Cary Grant. [Katharine] Hepburn gave me his number. [In Cary Grant voice] "But they'll find out how dumb I am." For God's sake, Mr. Grant, you can only be so dumb. I think he might have wanted to be pressed a little more.
Sinatra I got along with nicely, we met quite a few times. I got a number in New Jersey for Sinatra. "This is Dick Cavett." [In thick New Jersey accent.] "What do you want? I don't know who the ... you are, Frank doesn't do … like this." Boom. He hung up before I could say, "Thank you, ma'am."
You got these legendary figures like Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Hitchcock on your show speaking freely, something you rarely see anymore on TV. Why do you think they were so at ease with you?
I try never to think about what I do and analyze it, it's just not in me. But I knew what it was to be a guest because I had been one with Johnny and Merv [Griffin], and I knew what you don't want to happen.
What made you so comfortable with Carson?
Knowing him, having met him when I was a kid in Nebraska and he was an adult. We just got along well. [Longtime "Tonight" producer] Freddie de Cordova once said, "Johnny leans back in his chair when you're on, he never does that." His staff couldn't believe I'd had dinner at his house.
In one of the essays you rail against political correctness.
PC is the worst thing you can say about anything. PC means there's something wrong with what you are so we're going to call it something else. You're visually challenged, we noticed as you walked into the wall. You're not a secretary now, you're an assistant. My latest New York Times piece was about a Sioux Yuwipi ceremony. I didn't include the paragraph I wrote about why no one must say Native American, my Indian friends detest it. It's idiotic.
You seem to have a facility with languages and accents.
It's always one of those things where I can't understand why anybody who hears something can't repeat it the way they heard it. Gifts are strange. I also have the anagram curse. They pop right in my head. It came from playing the game Perquackey one summer. The scariest was the marquee at a movie theater in East Hampton: "'Lawrence of Arabia' with Alec Guinness." A voice said, "Genuine class." I thought, "It can't be!" Three weeks after I had Spiro Agnew on the show I thought of "grow a penis." It's also "grow a spine."
Do you watch much late-night TV?
I don't stay up that late. Now you don't have to watch anything when it's on. I check out Stewart and Colbert, I've always liked Fallon, and Kimmel was fun to be on with. But I'm not addicted to anything on television whereas [when I was a child] I could probably tell you CBS', NBC's and ABC's prime-time schedule for the full week.