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Dick Cavett is an Emmy Award-winning former television host, known for embracing a style of conversation and controversial topics.
Who is Dick Cavett?
Born in Nebraska in 1936, Dick Cavett studied English at Yale before switching his specialty to drama. He became a writer for The Tonight Show and also worked as a comedian before launching his own morning talk show in 1968. Moved late into the night in 1969, The Dick Cavett Show was The Tonight Show’s smartest and most controversial counterpart with its wide range of guests and themes. After its cancellation in 1974, Cavett reappeared with similarly formatted programs on PBS, USA. And CNBC. He has also worked as an actor on stage and on screen and is the author of numerous books and articles.
Photo by Dick Cavett via Getty Images
Dick Cavett attends the WNET Gala Salute 2016 in New York. (Photo: Matthew Eisman / Getty Images)
After the death of his first wife, actress Carrie Nye, in 2006, Cavett married his second wife, author and duke assistant teacher Martha Rogers, in 2010. Cavett divides his time between New York City and Montauk.
Early life and aspirations
Dick Cavett was born on November 19, 1936, in Gibbon, Nebraska. His parents were schoolteachers and passed on his academic inclination to his son, who was also a state gymnastics champion in high school. In addition, Cavett developed an interest in magic and began honing his skills through performances.
In 1954, Cavett left Nebraska to attend Yale University, where he majored in English and made the dean’s list in his first year. Around this time, he also began making trips to New York to watch recordings of television shows, an experience that stirred something within him and changed the course of his ambitions. He changed his specialty to drama in his senior year and graduated in 1958, with the intention of pursuing an acting career.
Writer of ‘Tonight Show’
Living in New York and struggling to find acting work, Cavett found himself in a variety of jobs, including store detective and typist. But it was while working as a copyist for Time magazine that a moment of inspiration propelled Cavett’s career forward. After learning that Jack Paar, the host of The Tonight Show, sometimes struggled with his opening monologues, Cavett quickly wrote one and took it to NBC headquarters, where he handed it over without asking Paar. Impressed by the young man’s brazenness and humor, Paar tried his jokes on the show that night, and after the audience responded favorably, hired Cavett.
Cavett became a major writer on the Tonight Show staff, writing jokes not only for Paar, but also for his successor, Johnny Carson, and interim presenter Groucho Marx. It was Marx, as well as Cavett’s new friend Woody Allen, who encouraged the young writer to come to the fore as a comedian. In 1964 Cavett did just that, performing in clubs in New York City and across the country.
Marriage to Carrie Nye
That year, he also married actress Carrie Nye, whom he knew from Yale and would remain with her until his death in 2006.
‘The Dick Cavett Show’
After several years and a variety of writing and acting jobs, including appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and the popular quiz and quiz What’s My Line?, Cavett in 1968 received an offer to host his own show on ABC. Beginning as a talk show titled This Morning, it was soon renamed The Dick Cavett Show and moved on to prime time, before landing in a night space in December 1969, where it competed directly with Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show.
Despite the seemingly similar formats of the two programs, Cavett soon distinguished himself from his NBC counterpart. Although The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show often featured many of the same renowned guests, Cavett avoided the gag-laden style of its forerunners for a more relaxed conversational tone. He also proved willing to go further with his subject, sometimes provoking controversial guests and addressing more difficult problems.
While the list of names and themes Cavett participated with is too long to list in its entirety, during the show’s presentation on ABC, it received guests as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and F. Lee Bailey, Hugh Hefner and Mickey Mantle, and Laurence Olivier and Timothy Leary Cavett also revealed a more intellectual streak, interviewing great literary players such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Anthony Burgess, to name a few. Cavett distinguished himself even more by addressing such hot topics as racism, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
Post-‘Dick Cavett Show’
Despite his obvious depth and critical success, including multiple Emmy Award nominations, an eventual pause in his ratings, along with the feeling that he was too smart for the average viewer, led ABC to cancel The Dick Cavett Show in 1974. However, Cavett went far from finished, resurfacing in 1975 on CBS and in 1977 as host of another series of interviews for PBS, followed by
similar concerts with the U.S. and CNBC in the mid-1990s. During that span, Cavett continued to demonstrate his ability to attract his guests and engage them in a wide variety of topics, from the personal to the political.
Never “only” a presenter of a talk show, in the course of his career, Cavett has lent his wit, intellect and image to a wide range of projects. As an actor, sometimes playing himself, he has appeared in films such as Annie Hall, Beetlejuice and Forrest Gump, and most recently appeared in the 2014 off-Broadway play Hellman v. McCarthy.
The year 2014 also saw the release of the PBS special Dick Cavett’s Watergate, as well as the most recent of several books of which he is an author, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magical Moments and Varied Hijinks, a collection of his columns for the New York Times. .