When Groucho Marx and Dick Cavett Became Great Friends

From a New York Times story by Chris Vognar headlined “The One About When Groucho Marx and Dick Cavett Became Great Friends”:

On a hot summer day in 1961, a young TV writer and aspiring comedian named Dick Cavett attended the funeral of George S. Kaufman, the renowned wit and man of letters. There he saw one of his heroes, Groucho Marx. Cavett approached Marx, and managed to tell him that he was a big fan.

Without missing a beat, Marx responded: “Well, if it gets any hotter, I could use a big fan.”

“That was the beginning of our friendship,” Cavett said last month. “I thought, well God, I’ve talked to him for actual minutes now. Nobody’s going to believe this. And suddenly he said: ‘Well, you seem like a nice young man. I’d like you to have lunch with me.’”

Now, 61 years later, their relationship is the subject of a new PBS documentary, “Groucho & Cavett,” which premieres on Tuesday as part of the “American Masters” series.

In a video interview from his home in Ridgefield, Conn., Cavett, 86, recalled with fondness his old friend, whose affection and mentorship changed the young Cavett’s life. As a writer for “The Tonight Show,” Cavett went on to write for Marx when Marx joined a brief rotation of hosts after Jack Paar left the show, in 1962. Starting in 1968, when Cavett got his own program on ABC, “The Dick Cavett Show,” Marx was a frequent guest.

“Groucho & Cavett,” directed by Robert S. Bader, captures the mutual affection between Marx, who was in the later stage of his career, and Cavett, a talk-show host on the rise during a tumultuous time in American history. It also gives occasion to consider Cavett’s role in TV culture as an erudite, risk-taking and durable presence whose guests came on to engage in thoroughgoing, often contentious discussion with a dash of witty repartee.

“There was nothing like it on television then, and there’s nothing like it on television now,” Bader said. “It was actually an intelligent conversation with people you care about, where in other settings, you just see them trying to be clever for eight minutes.”

Bader’s first passion was Groucho — “I was an adolescent Marx Brothers fanatic,” he said. As a child he would sit by the television and tape Marx’s Cavett appearances with a cassette recorder. In college, Bader got the chance to meet Cavett, and he asked him a barrage of questions about Marx, which Cavett was happy to answer.

By then, Bader was also a Cavett fan: “I realized he had got some pretty interesting people on,” he said. “It wasn’t just Groucho.” He went on to become friends with Cavett, producing a series of DVD compilations of the show and eventually making a documentary, “Ali & Cavett: Tale of the Tape,” about Cavett and his frequent guest Muhammad Ali. But the one he really wanted to make was “Groucho & Cavett.”

You never knew what you might get when Marx walked onto Cavett’s stage — he was a guest seven times — but then that was true of “The Dick Cavett Show” in general. Across four decades and in various iterations, the show was a future time capsule of the politics, letters, movies, art and music of its day. Indeed, if you were a cultural figure and you didn’t visit Cavett’s show at the height of its influence in the 1960s and ’70s, it was almost as if you didn’t exist.

The show’s ascendancy coincided with the popularization of rock ’n’ roll subculture, and Cavett took all comers, making them accessible to a wide viewership, in part, by keeping a foot planted firmly in the intellectual traditions of his mentors. Rock artists were among his most memorable guests, including Janis Joplin (who seemed to have a blast), Jimi Hendrix (exhausted, but engaged) and John Lennon and Yoko Ono (quite serious, as usual).

“It’s funny because I never gave a damn about rock ’n’ roll until they started appearing on my show,” said Cavett, who just turned 86. “I think Janis Joplin was partly responsible because she had such a good time and she told everybody about it. And then I began to get them one after the other.”

Marx remained friends with Cavett throughout the turbulent ’60s and gave him career advice. As explained in the film, Marx saw an appealing contradiction in Cavett, the Yale-educated Nebraskan, the erudite hayseed. Marx encouraged his young friend to pursue this idea through humor, and Cavett obliged.

When Cavett got his own show, he was quick to book his hero. Marx would sing songs (“Lydia the Tattooed Lady”), tell stories and engage with the adoring audience. But mostly he would riff with his young protégé, who always seemed as if he couldn’t believe he was sitting there with Groucho Marx.

“I think I was in a state of exalting disbelief and joy that I had Groucho sitting there and being Groucho Marx,” Cavett said. “I don’t remember being nervous, but I was just so damn grateful that I finally had him where I wanted him, so to speak. And that it was going well, and that it was wonderful.”

Much of the time, Cavett was in stitches — Marx was, in that sense, one of the few guests who could render him speechless. “Virtually everything he says, if he wants it to be and he usually does, can be funny,” Cavett said. He rattled off some of his favorites. Like: “I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat animals who are.” Or: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.” (This writer’s favorite, from “Animal Crackers”: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”)

Cavett wasn’t too shabby himself.

“It was like you were listening to someone in the ’60s from the Algonquin Round Table,” said Ron Simon, the head of the curatorial department and senior curator at the Paley Center for Media, who has done several events with Cavett. “He could always come up with the precise word. And certainly there is a little bit of Groucho in Dick Cavett and his humor. So Cavett was talking to one of his idols, and that made it special.”

It’s easy to see what Marx admired in his young friend. Cavett was soft-spoken but razor-sharp and unflappable, even when chaos was breaking out around him. (Listen to his voice barely change when in 1971 he offers a pugnacious Norman Mailer “two more chairs to contain your giant intellect.”) For a time, he grew his sandy hair long. He grew a beard. Richard Nixon wanted to destroy him.

But his temperament didn’t change: He was insatiably curious and quick, whether he was talking to Truman Capote, Lillian Gish, Ronald Reagan, Sly Stone or Orson Welles. Today, one can scarcely watch a documentary about a late-60s or ’70s subject without a vintage Cavett clip popping up — Zelig-like, he stamps his mark on the subject at hand.

Cavett knows he had the goods back then. “When I see myself on Decades, I’m often surprised at how good I am,” he said, referring to a network that carries reruns of his show. “That’s a terrible thing to say in public, but I’m completely entertained by myself.”

Marx was entertained, too. He saw in Cavett a kindred spirit, a fellow wit.

“Groucho was young in mind, although old in body at that point,” Bader said. He was still widely beloved, known for the television show “You Bet Your Life,” which he hosted from 1947 to 1961. The counterculture had embraced the anarchic spirit of movies like “The Cocoanuts” (1929), “Duck Soup” (1933) and “A Night at the Opera” (1935). He was a sort of éminence grise in American comedy, still revered by younger comics like Cavett. And Marx in turn never tired of the stage lights.

“Dick gave Groucho this wide open forum, which he didn’t necessarily have when he went on other shows,” Bader said. “He would just take over.”

Cavett tears up in the film as he recalls Marx’s death in 1977 at age 86. “We had lost Captain Spaulding,” he says in the film, referring to the name of the character Marx played in the 1930 movie “Animal Crackers.” For nine years, their friendship was a joyous on-air affair.

But he still has the memories and stories, which he loves to share. Like the time a couple recognized the two men on a New York sidewalk and the man asked Marx to say something insulting about his wife.

Marx paused, Cavett told me, then replied: “‘Well, with a wife like that, you should be able to think of your own insults.’

“Let’s put it his way,” Cavett added. “I’ve never enjoyed a guest more.”

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