Okay, So He's Not Johnny Carson—but Cavett's on Broadway and Back for More Talk on TV

Silence. Lights dim. A boyishly neat Dick Cavett walks Sophia Loren and Mar cello Mastroianni onto a low platform in a New York public television studio. The Italian stars take chairs on either side of Cavett. Gently, he begins questioning them about their new film, A Special Day, and about themselves…

Cavett: Would you characterize Mar-cello as a Latin lover?

Sophia: Yes. He is a Latin lover.

Marcello: Come on—I’m a Latin lover?

Sophia: You are handsome, you are beautiful. You can be a wonderful husband and companion for a woman.

Cavett: This sounds like a classified ad. Marcello: So that is a Latin lover. I don’t understand that.

Cavett: What do you see as a Latin lover?

Marcello: I think first he must be a——er, a tremendous—-er.

Cavett: A what?

Marcello: A worker at sex.

Cavett (relieved): Ah, yes, a worker at sex.

Sophia: He is wonderful. He doesn’t speak the language very well and anything he hears he thinks he can say it. Marcello (innocently): I hear this kind of expression.

Cavett: Yes. Worker.

Sophia: A love machine.

Marcello: Yes, a love machine, and my machine doesn’t work this way. It is not tat-tat-tat. It is tat, and then tomorrow it is again. I am nice with women…

Cavett: But not infallible?

Marcello: Very fallible.

Cavett: There are specialists to treat those sorts of things.

Marcello (to Sophia): Why do you say that to me? Why you give me such responsibility?

Sophia (teasing): To me you are. Marcello (whispering): Okay, baby…

Cavett: Er, do either of you have any hobbies?

Over the years countless celebrities have brought unexpected drama into American living rooms on Dick Cavett’s interview shows. Norman Mailer menaced Gore Vidal, feminist Kate Millett tongue-lashed Raquel Welch, an offended former Georgia governor, Lester Maddox, stalked off the set, and ’60s LSD guru Timothy Leary was told by the host himself, “I really think you’re full of crap.” (Another guest, J. I. Rodale, celebrated advocate of organic foods, died of a heart attack while taping the show. An earlier program was substituted.) For star-gazing audiences, Cavett deftly unpeeled such difficult subjects as Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum.

Yet despite three Emmys, a dazzling verbal virtuosity and a reputation as “the thinking man’s Johnny Carson,” Cavett was yanked off the air by ABC in 1974 because of marginal ratings. (Carson outdrew Cavett two to one.)

“It should have bothered me more at the time,” says Cavett with an impish grin, pretending to stick a pencil into his ear and through his head. (Like many performers, Cavett is constantly “on”—juggling, doing sleight of hand, tapping a quick dance routine. It is a childish trait, but endearing.) Because of his skill at on-camera conversation—in both German and French if necessary—Cavett was considered a media intellectual, over the heads of the mass audience. It was a commercial kiss of death that he understandably—and justifiably—protests. “I just read the books,” he explains, “of the people who were going to be on the show. My IQ is somewhere between Spiro Agnew’s and Albert Einstein’s.”

The only son of schoolteachers, Richard Alva Cavett grew up in Gibbon, Grand Island and Lincoln, Nebr. Painfully short—five inches below anyone else in grade school, edging up to 5’6¾” in high school—with a deep voice and precocious vocabulary, Dick was different from other kids. “They sounded their age; I sounded like the print in an insurance policy.” He was shy and too small for team sports, but he won two state championships in side-horse gymnastics. He also developed solitary interests: movies, stamps, magic and Japanese.

Awarded a scholarship to Yale, he majored in English and drama and made the dean’s list. Then he settled in New York in 1958 and started the rounds of casting offices while working as an office temp (“I type 60 wds/min with 40 errors”). He lived in a dingy West Side walk-up (it furnished him with roach humor for later skits) and often “gazed over at the East Side skyline, resolving that someday I would live there.” His search for work in the theater was fruitless. Severely depressed, he slept 15 hours a day. He claims he always felt that “they will come and get me and make me famous, whether I work at it or not.” For years they did not come.

He and his wife, Carrie Nye, met while students at Yale. When asked how it happened, she deadpans, “Sheer bad luck.” A successful actress with “masses of beaux,” she imagined marriage would be “awful.” Yet, after a courtship that lasted from 1956 to 1964, she succumbed. “He pursued me over the years. It was like being chased by the hounds of hell,” she shudders. “Dick was a cube, definitely not a swinger. I was racy, given to convertibles and dopey kid stuff. We have since dwindled together.”

After their marriage Carrie continued working steadily; Cavett was in danger of becoming Mr. Nye. “I remember getting a queasy feeling one day when she had to cancel lunch with me for one with her agent at the Plaza.” Needing money, he took a job as a TIME copyboy. One night he put some jokes in an envelope, was mistaken for a TIME reporter and delivered them to Jack Paar, then NBC’s Tonight Show host. Paar used the jokes and hired Cavett as a gag writer. (His justly famous contribution to TV lore was Paar’s introduction: “And here they are…Jayne Mansfield!”)

Talent scouting for Paar, Cavett spotted Woody Allen, and later, with Allen’s encouragement, polished his own stand-up comedy routine. Performing at clubs like the hungry i in San Francisco (sample: “I eat at this German-Chinese restaurant and the food is delicious. The only problem is that an hour later you’re hungry for power”), Cavett moved on to TV guest appearances—23 times with Carson alone. Finally in 1968 he got his own morning talk show on ABC.

Since 1974, except for intermittent specials and game shows, Cavett had been idling. His mood was despondent. Then last spring, a season in which he became 40, Cavett’s life accelerated. He signed for his PBS show, began cramming on guests for future tapings, and in July took over the lead in the Broadway comedy Otherwise Engaged. He plays Simon Hench, a publisher whose solitude is invaded by a stream of untidy visitors. He says of the role, “Simon uses language as a barrier, and that’s very familiar to me.” He adds, “Along with Simon I’ve suffered an awful lot of bores willingly.”

Box office is healthy, but Cavett’s performance in Otherwise Engaged was harshly reviewed. The Village Voice sniped, “A few more months in the role, a few hundred more roles, and he will be ready to start his acting career.” Cavett’s reaction is a tight jaw. “I decided I was going to do it no matter what. I guess if I were a true actor, like my wife and many of our friends, and I saw somebody get the job partly because he’s in TV and is likely to bring in business, I’d resent it.” He adds defensively, “But it isn’t as though I’d never acted onstage.”

Carrie Nye, also 40, is a striking, reed-thin blonde who is a quarter-inch shorter than her husband. The only child of a Greenwood, Miss, banker, she is not only a busy actress but a sometime journalist, currently doing a story for Playboy on New Orleans, her favorite city. Last summer she starred in Design for Living in Chicago and next month will play the lead in The Little Foxes in Hartford. She is both successful and enigmatic. She claims to be unambitious, “beyond women’s liberation,” and totally unlike her husband who, she says, “has always been fascinated by fame. He has the drive stars have. That’s why they are different.”

In many ways Cavett and his wife live separate lives. When Cavett asks, “Darling, are you going to watch the show?” Carrie answers, “There’s nobody on that I want to see.” “I’m on,” he glows. “That’s what I mean,” she cracks. Despite the put-downs, they seem devoted. When they talk, they listen to each other as if they had just met. Both admit to being a little flaky—and are proud of it. They remain childless because “we each have a child,” says Carrie.

The Cavetts avoid conventional socializing. “Every time someone says, ‘You know, we really ought to get together,’ ” Cavett says, “if I were really honest, I would ask ‘Why?’ ” He rarely drinks and smokes pot maybe twice a year. (Carrie enjoys drinking socially.) At parties he sits in a corner “watching the avocado dip turn black. Nothing happens. You go from person to person. You strain your voice. You usually can’t hear. The room is overcrowded. You inhale other people’s cigarette smoke. I think cigarettes should be used for magic tricks.” Cavett and Woody Allen take classes from a Manhattan magician named Slydini. The Robert Redfords, Bibi Andersson and Louise Lasser are also friends. That has not helped recruit them as guests for his show. “It is a disadvantage because they say, ‘I know you so well, how can I sit there and pretend to be talking for public consumption?’ ”

Groupies afflict almost anyone with box office appeal. Cavett’s problem is a little different, his wife says. “Dick attracts the arthritic oldies. I say, ‘Hi, girls, don’t you have anything better to do?’ ” Cavett recalls that Brando once said, “You don’t seem to have anything chasing you.” He does, however, get fan mail with pictures of nude women, and sometimes nude men. He knows that he attracts homosexuals. “It started early,” Cavett recalls. “I was getting my fanny caressed in the men’s rooms of bus depots or libraries as far back as I can remember.”

Although Cavett has an office at Daphne Productions (his film company, named after their dog), he works out of his East Side duplex. Darkly furnished, it houses a collection of American Indian artifacts (“He’s a closet Indian,” says his wife) and a menagerie of pets. They keep a maid and cook on the premises and use a network or theater limo.

On weekends he and Carrie travel 100 miles to Montauk, on the tip of Long Island, to a Victorian house designed by architect Stanford White. “Getting out there is like taking your brain out and laundering it,” says Carrie. Cavett rides Twilight Time, his quarter horse, and they visit with neighbors Jean Stafford, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Lee Radziwill.

When not moonlighting these days at the Plymouth Theater, Cavett concentrates on lining up guests for his five-day-a-week show. Whatever the thrill of seeing his name on marquees, Cavett remains a star-struck boy from small-town Nebraska, autograph book in hand. “How old do you think Sophia Loren really is?” he muses.

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