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Dick Cavett Still Feels Like Muhammad Ali’s ‘Main Man’

Dick Cavett. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

When considering the classic talk-show hosts who still walk the Earth, it’s easy to see David Letterman’s Methuselah-like beard and think, “Surely Dave’s the last of his kind left among us,” but to do so would be to do a disservice to one of the most interesting and intellectual interviewers in the history of the genre.

That’s right: Dick Cavett is alive and well, and he’s still got plenty to say.

During the course of his various talk shows (all of which were titled The Dick Cavett Show), Cavett had many repeat guests, but few popped up as often — and delivered such consistently entertaining appearances — as Muhammad Ali. Director Robert S. Bader made note of the number of times Ali turned up to chat with Cavett, took the footage, and built a documentary around it: Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, in which a number of notable individuals look back on Ali’s life and career, as well as how his appearances with Cavett served to humanize Ali and show people just how funny the fighter could be.

Cavett spoke with Vulture in conjunction with tonight’s HBO debut of Ali & Cavett: The Tale of the Tapes, discussing his friendship with Ali, reflecting on how much more there was to the man than the profession that brought him fame, and recalling the time Ali stayed the night at his house and then prank-called him afterward.

Your 2014 PBS special, Dick Cavett’s Watergate, looked at Watergate through the prism of your show, and now this film is looking at the life of Muhammad Ali through his relationship with you both on the show and off-camera.
Yeah, my producer suddenly noticed that we had one Muhammad Ali show after another in the stack of tapes. Truth be told, we probably had enough stuff to do another film of the same length! Whenever Ali’s there, it’s all good. I don’t know if there are still people who haven’t cooled down from hating him when he didn’t go into the draft. At least he didn’t use heel spurs as an excuse. [Laughs.] But he was endangered with that hectic life of his when he became literally — a word used wrong every day, but this was provable — the most famous person in the world.

Where did you first meet Ali?
The first time I saw him was in front of the Jerry Lewis Theater, where I was working in Hollywood at the time. On that two-hour Jerry Lewis talk show. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember it.

No, but I’ve read plenty about it. So was your friendship with Ali the only good thing that came out of that show?
[Laughs.] It may have been! [Pauses.] I wish I’d thought of that … But, yeah, I think poor ABC is still paying for it. Anyway, he’s out front of the theater on Vine Street, they’re filming, and there was kind of a mock fight going on between Ali and another guy — maybe a member of the crew? — and people were standing around and watching and looking shocked. And then Ali threw his arms up and said, “I don’t need to put up with this!” and walked just two feet and four inches, which took him out of the picture. I mean, his instincts were like Henry Fonda, who was famous for never missing his mark on the floor but without looking at it. But then Ali burst into laughter. And I thought, “This guy is a really good actor and has all the showbiz instincts.” He knew when he was off-screen even by an inch or two.

The joke, I guess, is the oddness of our friendship. But it doesn’t seem odd to me. Because our backgrounds are so similar. [Hesitates.] Oh, good, I got a laugh.

You did, because it made me think of one of the moments in the documentary that I found the funniest: when Al Sharpton referred to you as “the whitest of the white guys.” 
Yes, I know. If I add that to Mel Brooks calling me “spectacularly gentile,” I’ll have a great combination!

Ali could obviously be an intimidating figure, but there were a few times when you looked legitimately disconcerted, like one time when you made a joke, and he lunged at you. 
Yeah, it was fun sort of being in the ring with him for a few moments. [Laughs.] I hope I get praised for my fall!

His appearances on your show seem to be some of the rare occasions when he got to verbally spar with someone. 
Oh, yeah. And he was at least as good at that as he was everything else. He was so good and so wonderful in that way. It was just an inborn, perfect instinct: he never made a false move comedically. He could always get a laugh wherever he was. He loved to put people on, and I’m sure he enjoyed the fact that when someone recognized him in public, if they were walking, they often missed a step and nearly fell down. But it was just startling to see him in person. He probably had as many good showbiz instincts as any comic I know.

You know, there’s so much humor and laughter in the documentary, but there’s an awful lot of stuff that is, to use that dangerous word, serious, in that you see that he escaped a lot of possible trouble in those days of the Reverend Farrakhan. He was hated by many, he was threatened. In person, he could always disarm anybody, I think, just by his wit and charm and, uh, the fact that he was bigger than they were.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the documentary was that it remained entertaining all the way through to the end of the closing credits. In fact, the single funniest moment for me was during the credits. It was your callback to when he’d said earlier that you were his “main man,” when you said, “I thought I was your main man,” and he said, “Not no more you ain’t. Brothers? Get him!”
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] Because, you know, when he came on with his jaw wired and half-broken, his face swelled up, he said, “You know, Dick, I’m just an old, broke-down fighter. Nobody wants me anymore. Nobody calls. You’re the only show that wanted me on. Dick, you’re my main man.” And for days afterward, people of several colors came up and said, “Do you realize what a compliment ‘main man’ is coming from Muhammad Ali?” So that’s how I see myself now, every day. [Laughs.]

Here’s a fairly amusing aspect of our relationship. Some years back he was doing a documentary out in Montauk, and it was only a couple of hundred yards from my own house out there. So I went over to where they were shooting, and I said to the director, “How’s it going?” And he said, “Terrible! He won’t talk. He’s depressed. He’s over there.” And I looked, and there he is, standing on this high cliff, looking at the sea. And I went over and just said, “Are you trespassing?” And he turned around, sort of startled, but then he said [happily] “Dick Cavett!” I had that effect on him, and he on me. Just seeing him brightened the day.

This all sounds kind of fan-magazine-y, but I said, “Why don’t you stay at my house tonight? Unless you love your motel.” And he said, “My mother will never believe it if I stay at Dick Cavett’s house!” So I took him to the house, and he went straight to the big bedroom and got in bed. It was about 10 p.m. While he was there and alone in the house — because I was getting his wife from the motel — the phone rang, and it was my wife in New York. And when he picked up and slightly muttered the word, “Hello,” she said, “Darling?” And he said, “This ain’t ‘darling.’ This is the Heavyweight Champion of the World, and I’m lying in your bed, and I’m watching your TV!” [Laughs.] And she was savvy enough to say, “Well, Mr. Ali, I will have a plaque placed on that bed.” Which was more than she ever offered to do for me!

After he stayed at my house, I told everybody I could, and somebody said, “Well, surely you’re going to auction the sheets.” I probably should have. Maybe for charity. I’d have to make up an authenticity certificate of some kind. “Yes, Muhammad Ali was between these sheets … ”

I read somewhere that he prank-called you after he stayed there.
Oh you know about that, do you? [Laughs.] As I recall, it was about two days afterward, and it had been in the press about how Cavett had Ali stay at his house. I pick up the phone and … I don’t get crank calls very often, but this one was nasty. [Growling.] “Hey, Dick, I hear you got n*****s in your bed.” And I said, “Well, do you have anything wittier that you want to say than that?” And the person on the other end of the line broke into laughter. And, of course, it was Ali. As you can see, he was playful.

When you had both Ali and Joe Frazier on the show, was there any point where you really weren’t sure if they might go after each other for real?
Well, they of course horsed around a bit. Ali was more serious about being funny. Frazier was a fairly bitter man. And a great fighter, of course. There was always the possibility that he would’ve been the Heavyweight Champion of the World three times in a row if it hadn’t been for Ali. I’m afraid he died bitter. But there were moments with the two of them there … There’s a wonderful shot where they both come down opposite aisles of the theater and up on the stage, and there was just a touch of “something might break out here,” which is a kind of energy that you don’t necessarily want. And when Ali called Frazier “boy,” everybody kind of took a quick breath. But then, of course, Ali said, “I said ‘Roy’! ‘Roy’! I didn’t say ‘boy’!”

The big thing on that appearance was when they picked me up! When Ali said, “Let’s pretend we’re friends, and both of us get him!” [Laughs.] When I was about two feet off the floor, my legs dangling, it came me my line, as they say. I said, “When I was up there, squeezed between the two of you, it was like a giant Oreo cookie.” And a few people took offense to that, but a few people always do. Oh, well …

When was the last time you actually saw Ali? There’s a photo in the documentary of you with him, and you can just tell from his physical condition that it was clearly late in the game for him. 
The last time I saw him was at a banquet, a literary event, in the ballroom of this hotel in New York. They had various people from various parts of the entertainment world, and somebody said, “Do you know that Ali is here?” And I said, “No!” And they took me into a little room, and there he was, sitting around with some people but not talking. He was just looking straight ahead, and … God, he looked like a statue. In a tuxedo and beautifully groomed, but no speech. And people had tried to talk to him. In fact, they were about ready to bring him out and mingle with the crowd. In fact, he was discovered when the curtain was pulled back, and there he was on the throne. The audience — which, I recall, included Norman Mailer — went crazy. But I sat next to him, and I said my name a couple of times, and I thought he reacted, but I may have been pushing that myself. It was so hard to see him that way.

You know, I still think not selling the sheets was a missed opportunity. [Laughs.] But if they paid several thousand dollars for them, I suppose they would’ve insisted on a DNA check of some kind, to make sure they were legit. So it’s probably best that we didn’t!

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