When Dick Cavett allows you to hitch a ride on one of his conversational caravans, there’s really no telling where you’ll end up. In 50-plus years of professional conversationalism, the man has met and chatted up everyone from Aaron Sorkin to ZZ Top, so one anecdote can’t help but lead to another, and then another, and pretty soon the narrative includes more characters than Day of the Locust.
On this day, though, Dick Cavett is talking with me about Johnny Carson, and by golly he is determined to stay on point. Within reason, of course.
“If you’re asking about the actor Jack Carson, we should stop right now,” he jokes, beginning with a reference to one of Hollywood’s great, but largely forgotten, character actors.
“Like Johnny, however,” he adds, “a sad connection between Carsons: He was another smoking victim.”
Cavett is among the many acquaintances and family members who contribute comments about the longtime Tonight Show host in a new PBS American Masters program, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. Of course, Cavett is notable in that he came closest to giving Johnny a run for his money as a late night host. But the connection between Cavett and Carson extends all the way back to, as Johnny used to say, “the plains of Nebraska.”
“I met him in a church basement in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was doing a magic show for probably $35 and the gas bill to drive over from Omaha,” Cavett recalls. “I was in junior high. Two friends and I said, ‘Let’s go over and see Johnny Carson, the famous Johnny Carson from Omaha radio!’
“We watched him glide off into the night in his ’38 Chevrolet, probably, and felt we were watching royalty.”
The next digression in our conversation, I have to admit, was all my fault. I mused that in an age when cable makes even the most marginal TV personality a national figure, the age of regional celebrities-the kind Carson was when he was the Hottest Thing in Omaha-is just about over. This elicited from Cavett a more or less complete list of celebrities who arose from Nebraska (Brando, Fonda, “my high schoolmate Sandy Dennis”)-which inevitably led to the mention of Fred Astaire, and how when Fred broke into a dance on Cavett’s talk show, the host nearly fainted.
“I thought ‘I’m on a stage with Fred Astaire dancing, just like Ginger Rogers was! Or Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton!
“Anyway,” he says, “Back to Carson.”
Curiously, Cavett arrived at The Tonight Show before Johnny did, writing jokes for the mercurial Jack Paar.
“My Tonight Show reign was Jack Paar first and then Johnny, of course.” Then he added helpfully, “Because that’s chronological order.”
“We always got along great,” Cavett recalls. “We were wonderfully good friends.”
That stops me for a moment, because there are a couple of things we’ve always been told about Johnny Carson: He had very few friends, and he could rather ruthlessly cut off people he felt were disloyal to him (remember Joan Rivers?). Yet Cavett’s career involved multiple episodes of him leaving Johnny’s employ to either work for others or go into direct competition with him.
In 1963, Cavett headed west to write for Jerry Lewis’ infamous primetime Saturday Night talk show (“I think ABC is still paying the bills for that Jerry Lewis show,” Cavett says). After six episodes, Jerry was off the air and Cavett was back in New York.
“I remember the day walking in the corridor outside 6-B at NBC and before I could speak he said, ‘Do you wanna come back, Richard?’ And I said, ‘Yup.’”
Years later, when Carson and Cavett were battling for viewers at 11:30 each night, he says, “I know Johnny used to watch my show. He’s say, ‘I liked that thing you did with so-and-so.’ And I’d say, ‘But I watch you!’”
With particular fondness, Cavett recalls a time he received an unexpected call from Johnny.
“He said, ‘You wanna meet at a restaurant and chat, Richard?’ (and here, Cavett approximates nicely Carson’s clipped Midwestern delivery).
“I couldn’t believe it. His staff couldn’t believe it, either. Well, it turned out I was going to be an hour late. We’d had a tape breakdown, and they’d put all my clothes away, and I called him and said, ‘I’ve just got these jeans and a pair of really filthy white running shoes.’ But he said, ‘That’s alright, Richard, come ahead.’
“So I get there, fancy restaurant, low-lighted, dark, and there he is at the bar, this elegant man in a beautiful suit-wearing dirty white running shoes! He loved that joke, and so did I.”
Maybe it was professional admiration, perhaps it was their shared Nebraska roots, but the Johnny Carson who befriended Dick Cavett was very different from the off-camera Carson most colleagues got to know. Or more accurately, got to never know.
“He was the most socially uncomfortable man, I think, I ever met. Small talk was impossible for him off the air. It was such an interesting paradox that he could go out and be what made people envy him, thinking ‘I wish I could go to a party and be fun, like Johnny must be.’ He was awkward and he got drunk and he got hostile.
“But with me…well, we sat in the booth at that restaurant and swapped stories about everything from show business to early inept sexual experiences as teenagers.”
Cavett is quiet for a moment-and when you talk with Dick Cavett, you do notice those silences.
“I should have realized then what I found to be so profoundly true later: How much he liked me.”